In our knowledge-based society, literacy is very important. To be successful in school, learning to read is essential, but it requires a lot of practice. Guided reading aloud is a useful way to practise, but it is difficult to give enough attention to every student, especially with increasing numbers of students from foreign backgrounds in Dutch and Flemish schools. For years researchers have been looking for alternative solutions to support this process to make it better and more efficient.
In 2020, researchers from the Centre for Language and Speech Technology (CLST) at Radboud University started the first experiments for reading software that provides automatic feedback on reading aloud. For this, they collaborated with Hogeschool Rotterdam, Publishing House Zwijsen, and NovoLanguage. The research project 'Dutch ASR-based Reading Tutor' (DART) was funded by the National Education Research Organisation (NRO). The content of the programme is based on the reading method Veilig leren lezen (Safely learning to read) of Zwijsen Publishers. In the method, children practise correct and fluent reading by reading words, word lists, sentences and short stories aloud. Pupils working with the computer programme have to read words and stories aloud. The speech recogniser assesses how well they read and also how fast they read.
First Dutch tutor
The programme is the very first Reading Tutor with automatic speech recognition (ASR) developed for Dutch that provides instant feedback while practising decoding skills. “For learning to read in English, these kinds of systems have been researched for years and in the meantime several commercial products have already been launched on the market,” says project coordinator and language and speech technologist Helmer Strik. “Generally, these are systems that follow learners while they are reading a story or a book and that can intervene if the child hesitates. These systems assume that a child is already able to read a story or even a book. However, DART can be used at earlier stages of learning to read, when pupils have yet to master decoding skills. At this stage, it is also important to practise reading words and sentences aloud a lot, while there is generally little time for this in the classroom.”
Implementation and further development
The results show that the DART Reading Tutor can be a useful tool when learning to read. The positive results of the study were the reason for Zwijsen to develop a new version of the Reading Tutor together with NovoLanguage during the DART research project. A pilot using this new version was first carried out in about a hundred schools in the Netherlands and Flanders. Enthusiastic teachers and pupils were the result. Zwijsen therefore decided to make the new version of Veilig leren lezen with speech recognition available from 1 March 2023. “The tests we carried out in the research project covered a relatively short period,” says Strik. “It will be interesting to see what kind of results more intensive and long-term use could lead to.”