Assisted Reading Software – Teachers Tell It Like It Is

from Educators' eZine

Assisted Reading Software

Students with special needs, particularly those who struggle to read and write, can benefit significantly from recent advancements in assisted reading software (Fasting & Lyster, 2005; Hasselbring & Bausch, 2005). With features like text-to-speech, word prediction, integrated dictionaries, and text-highlighting, assisted reading software provides instant support to students as they read and write, much as a teacher would if he or she could sit beside each student, reading and defining unknown words, prompting when writer's block strikes, and pointing out main ideas to study. The software, with its text-reading capabilities, also supports the goal of No Child Left Behind by facilitating access to the general education curriculum.

Because assisted reading software has only recently found its way into schools, the research on its use and impact has just begun. Specific features such as text-to-speech and word prediction have been linked to improvements in students' reading and writing skills. For instance, in studies of students with learning disabilities, text-to-speech usage is associated with improved reading fluency (Dawson, Venn & Gunter, 2000), comprehension (Elbro, Rasmussen & Spelling, 1996; Elkind, 1998a and 1998b; Higgins & Raskind, 1997; Higgins & Raskind 2005; Montali & Lewandowski, 1996), speed (Elkind, Black & Murray, 1996), and vocabulary (Herbert & Murdock, 1994). Borgh and Dickson (1992) and Williams (2002) found that writing skills improve when students use text-to-speech functions; in particular, papers are longer, students edit more, and they report a more enjoyable writing experience. Similarly, MacArthur (1998 and 1999) reports that the use of word prediction and speech synthesis by students with learning disabilities leads to improvements in spelling and legibility. Specifically, post-secondary students with learning disabilities detect more errors in their papers when using a text-to-speech program as compared to reading the papers through on their own.

Given these promising findings, schools are beginning to make a commitment to using assisted reading software with their students with disabilities, and software producers have responded to this interest. Over the past few years, they have developed several new assisted reading programs, each containing a suite of features designed to assist the struggling reader. Each offers word processing, spell checking, text-to-speech capabilities, word prediction, and many other useful features. Texts and tests can be scanned into the computer and read aloud, students can highlight key words and concepts onscreen to make study guides, and word processing is enhanced via text-to-speech and word prediction.

Here are three examples:

Although there is some research on specific features, to date there is a lack of independent research on these "total solution" programs; little is known about their ultimate effect on student performance and access to the general curriculum. One study of Kurzweil 3000 reported that post-secondary students with attention disorders who used the software saw improved attention to reading, reduced distractibility and an increase in reading speed (Hecker, Burns, Elkind & Katz, 2002), findings that could arguably be linked to improved access to curriculum. Certainly, more research must be done on the software's effect on student achievement.

Similarly, little is known about teachers' and students' perceptions of and attitudes towards these programs. Their complexity begs to be studied from many angles. Is a full-featured assisted reading program too overwhelming for teachers and students to use, or does its many capabilities make it the best choice for supporting diverse needs? How much training do students and teachers need? How often and in what ways should the software be used in order to make the biggest impact on student achievement? Do certain types of students benefit more than others? To date, there are far more questions than answers.

The Project

Excited by the potential of assisted reading software, a large, mid-western, suburban school district (17,780 students) has begun a project to "seed" its schools with Kurzweil 3000. Within the past several years, the district has purchased and installed Kurzweil 3000 on the computers in its special education classrooms. Teachers have received at least one training session on how to use the software; many have attended two or more sessions of training. The district is planning the purchase of additional Kurzweil 3000 licenses to increase the software's availability in the general education classrooms and in the common areas of the schools. This is in keeping with the district's move toward full inclusion of its special education population.

The district is also planning to work with support agencies and a local university to carry out a large scale evaluation of their project. In preparation for this bigger endeavor, we conducted a formative assessment of teachers' attitudes and perceptions regarding Kurzweil 3000 usage. Realizing that teacher commitment, or "buy-in" to the project is essential for its success, we, along with district administrators, were interested in what teachers were thinking and experiencing.

A Formative Assessment of Teachers' Perceptions

In conjunction with the Assistive Technology Coordinator of the school district, we developed a 19-item survey consisting of both open-ended and multiple choice questions. In addition to demographic items such as grade level and subjects taught, the questions asked teachers to provide feedback on how often their students used Kurzweil 3000, the software's ease of use, and their perceptions of its impact on student performance. Surveys and informed consent agreements were distributed to the district's 86 K-12 special education teachers. Thirty-six were returned, which is a 42% response rate.

Twenty-eight percent of the survey respondents were elementary teachers (n=10), 30% were middle school teachers (n=11), and 42% were high school teachers (n=15). Teaching positions varied; 53% of the respondents were resource room teachers (n=19), 39% were "categorical" teachers (in self-contained classrooms (n=14), two were teacher consultants, and one was a speech-language therapist.

These 36 teachers had a total of 141 students currently using Kurzweil 3000, with frequency of use ranging from daily to occasional. When asked what type of student Kurzweil 3000 was likely to benefit, teachers listed students with learning disabilities most frequently, although all major disability areas were mentioned.

A majority of teachers (63%) felt that the software's usage led to improvement in student skills. Frequency of use may be a key factor; of the ten teachers whose students used Kurzweil 3000 daily or at least several times per week, nine believed that the software's usage led to improvement in student skills. Those teachers reporting a positive impact on reading skills saw improvement primarily in reading informational and narrative text, and in general comprehension. Figure 1 shows numbers of teachers reporting various skill improvements.

Figure 1

The following are direct quotes from teachers' responses on the open-ended portions of the survey. All pertain to improvements in specific reading skills.

"I love having the program in the resource room. It helps students to focusby seeing and hearing the words simultaneously."
(high school resource room teacher with eleven students using Kurzweil several times each week)

"(I see) increased performance in vocabulary and in identifying main ideas in passages."
(middle school speech and language therapist with ten students using Kurzweil once a week)

"I believe that Kurzweil allows students who do not read well to concentrate on the content of the material. They are able to get more information this way."
(middle school resource room teacher with five students using Kurzweil once a week)

Eleven teachers reported seeing an improved attitude toward reading in students using Kurzweil 3000, and ten teachers felt that students could attend for longer periods of time when using the software. Comments were also made about increased self-esteem and motivation.

"I notice students' motivation increases, attitudes towards task completion improve,and there's an increase in comprehension especially for those students who have high oral receptive language but cannot read text at grade level."
(K-5 resource room teacher/teacher consultant with five students using Kurzweil several times each week)

"Attention span and motivation increase, allowing the student to apply decoding and comprehension techniques."
(High school categorical teacher with two students using Kurzweilseveral times per week)

Many teachers' comments indicated that students using Kurzweil had improved access to the curriculum.

"I used it with an E.I. student. He had a vocational training interest but the high school auto text was too difficult for him to read. Kurzweil helped him read the material and his attention span seemed to increase."
(High school categorical teacher with one student using Kurzweil daily)

"I have enjoyed using Kurzweil and have seen it be beneficial for severe LD students who have high oral receptive language. They enjoy working with the technology and often can go back into general education with more knowledge by using Kurzweil."
(K-5 resource room teacher/teacher consultant with five students using Kurzweil several times each week.)

Twelve teachers also reported that students who used Kurzweil 3000 made gains in the area of writing. Specifically, two teachers saw improvements to the overall writing process, three reported gains in spelling, three reported improvements in grammar and four reported increased production of writing.

Twenty-five teachers responded to a question on whether or not they believed students using Kurzweil were making gains in test scores. Eight of these 25 respondents reported seeing test score improvement, ten said they saw no improvement, and seven were undecided.

"Students who have the tests read (aloud) more clearly understand directions. The length of time necessary for students with reading disabilities to complete their tests has decreased."
(High school teacher consultant with five students using Kurzweil once a week)

"I have found Kurzweil particularly helpful during exams when numerous students need to have tests read simultaneously. Getting one or more onto Kurzweil is like having a para-pro—maybe better."
(High school teacher consultant with five students using Kurzweil once a week)

"....confidence (increases) and test anxiety is reduced and thus students' scores are more reflective of their true knowledge and ability"
(Middle school resource room teacher with six to eight studentsusing Kurzweil several times each week)

"Those students who utilize Kurzweil are definitely improving comprehensionskills. ...As a result of being able to understand what is being read, students are performing better on tests and quizzes."
(High school categorical teacher with four students using Kurzweil several times a week)

Several teachers who saw no improvement in test scores felt that the software hadn't been used enough to result in higher scores. Two teachers felt that their students (elementary-aged) did not have the maturity or keyboarding skills to appropriately use Kurzweil 3000. Another teacher mentioned that her students with ADHD were too distractible to benefit from the software.

Teachers credited several of Kurzweil 3000's features as having a greater effect on student performance than other, less utilized features. The text-to-speech functions, in particular, were thought to have the most impact upon student achievement. Figure 2 illustrates the teachers' perceptions of the impact of various Kurzweil 3000 features on performance and achievement.

Figure 2

Of the 29 teachers who responded to our question, "Do you think Kurzweil 3000 is easy to use?", 15 reported that they found the software to be user-friendly. Seven teachers marked the "No" box, and seven more were indecisive on this question, saying that some features of the product were easy to use, while other portions were not. Teachers who responded favorably mentioned that the training had helped and that being able to customize toolbars and preferences was useful. They also appreciated that students could be taught to use the program themselves. Teachers who felt that Kurzweil 3000 was difficult to use indicated that they needed more training to fully utilize the software's many components, or simply more time to learn to use them.

"Initially, I had a bit of trouble getting the files loaded and up for use..... Once there, it is pretty easy to use."
(Middle school resource room teacher with four students using Kurzweil less than once a week)

"Once I learned how to use the various features, it was easy. The training is absolutely essential."
(Middle school resource room with three students using Kurzweil once a week).

Perhaps the most frequent complaint regarding Kurzweil 3000 had to do with the robotic or mechanical sounding voices that the software offered. This was a "turn-off" to both teachers and students, resulting in some students refusing to use the software. A number of teachers called for more access to Kurzweil, in both the special education classrooms and in the general education areas as well.

"I had a student who was enrolled in a gen-ed language arts class and every time the teacher provided class time for student reading, the student would have to locate one of the three Kurzweil stations that were not being used in the building—resulting in the loss of class time. It would be nice to place Kurzweil software in some of the gen-ed classrooms—especially those that serve many special ed students."
(High school categorical teacher with four students using Kurzweil several times a week)

Teachers were quick to offer suggestions to better integrate Kurzweil 3000 into classrooms and curricula. In addition to asking for more Kurzweil 3000-equipped computers in all classrooms and common areas, teachers recommended that both paraprofessionals and volunteers be taught how to use the software. They also recommended that Kurzweil 3000 be introduced to students at an early age so that everyone would "grow up" knowing how to use the software. Other interesting suggestions included one-on-one training sessions for technology-reluctant teachers, as well as in-service for using Kurzweil 3000 with students with multiple or severe impairments.


Although data from 36 teachers on 141 students is meaningful, and the district is committed to assisted reading software, it appears that only a fraction of its 1,955 students with disabilities are using Kurzweil 3000. Given that not all students with disabilities are potential candidates for assisted reading software, one would still expect more students to be using and benefiting from this technology.

Similar to the findings of Lee & Vega's 2005 investigation into the challenges of assistive technology usage, this inquiry points to two primary barriers to Kurzweil 3000 use: 1) the limited number of Kurzweil stations, especially in central locations, and 2) lack of time for teachers to train with, and become comfortable using, the software.

Regarding the first issue, the district has reviewed the teacher feedback gathered in this report and is committed to increasing student access to the software. To that end, additional Kurzweil licenses will be purchased and the software placed on computers in general education setting such as the library and general education classrooms.

To address the second issue, the district must also commit strong support to professional development. Of particular importance will be the training of the general education teaching staff in Kurzweil 3000 use. The afore-mentioned suggestion of one-on-one training sessions is interesting, but very inefficient in terms of personnel resources. A better model may be to utilize a peer tutoring method whereby those teachers in each building who are experienced Kurzweil 3000 users can train novices privately or in small groups. Adams (2005), for example, outlined a peer-tutoring model that resulted in substantial increases in teachers' technology usage and integration. Another effective way to provide enhanced professional development is to use Becker's (1994) strategy of first "seeding" a critical mass of technology-adept teachers within a school, and then they, in turn, train their colleagues.

Keeping in mind that this inquiry was an informal assessment of teacher perceptions and not an attempt to gather hard data, the survey responses do help steer the direction of future research. As indicated by the comments related here, many teachers in this district have provided testament to the software's potential impact on student skills, test scores and attitudes toward reading.

As the district proceeds with the plan to expand its assisted reading software infrastructure, it must go beyond the limitations of teacher report to closely examine the software's true impact on student performance. The logical next step for further research is, of course, to objectively measure Kurzweil 3000 usage and its effect on student achievement and behavior. This research should be longitudinal in design, and will help answer questions regarding best practices for best results.

A within-subject, mixed-method study design is suggested, to avoid ethical concerns surrounding a treatment/no-treatment design and to capture the nuances of potential benefits. Baseline measures of student test scores, attitudes towards reading, etc., must be taken prior to Kurzweil 3000 usage. Software usage itself must be carefully tracked; for instance, how often (and for how long) is each student using particular functions? For what tasks is Kurzweil best utilized, and to what extent does it support students with disabilities engaged in the general education curriculum? Is there a particular skill set required of students before they can benefit from the software, or is this a product helpful to all students regardless of ability or disability? Formative and summative measures of student performance, mirroring the baseline measures, must be taken to track associated changes in student test scores, motivation and behavior. Teacher perceptions and experiences, including those of the general education teachers, should be followed as these insights can help formulate best practices.

Once an impact on achievement and attitude has been well-documented, questions will center upon issues of timing and training, for instance, when to introduce students to assisted reading software, and how to best train teachers in its effective use.

In this era of "No Child Left Behind" high stakes testing, it is imperative that we break down barriers between students with disabilities and curriculum. Rigorous study of products such as Kurzweil 3000 will allow us to make better choices for intervention, thereby enabling more students to fully access curricular content and make appropriate gains in knowledge and understanding.

Email:Ann Orr


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