Apps Promote Literacy

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COLUMBIA - For those who struggle with literacy and other communication skills, speech recognition apps like Siri and Alexa can help to improve the reading skills of young students. According to Betsy Baker, a professor of literacy studies at MU, the 71 million children and adults in the U.S. who are functionally illiterate can be empowered through the voice capturing capabilities of the average smart phone or tablet. 

"I got to be one of the teachers aides in the classroom and I oversaw the writing center," Cathey said. "So students circulated around the classroom and one of the places they circulated around was the writing center. The school I was in had iPads and they had school-wide Wi-Fi which is required for speech recognition to work."

In the study, Baker observed a classroom of first grade students who were learning to read via speech recognition apps.

"Speech recognition can write down what you say, but it isn't always accurate. So I wanted to know if it isn't always accurate is it going to be supportive? Are children going to read words that they've never said? So how useful is that?"

What Baker found was that students averaged 97.4 percent accuracy rate on post-study reading tests.

"What it actually caused was opportunities to ask questions about why that wasn't what they said. So students were real good about being able to say 'hey, that's not what I said' and then we can have conversations about well how do you know that?"

Despite many of the students coming from different backgrounds and homes, Baker says the apps can help empower students in their own learning.

"Students can learn to read the words they dictate. There's evidence the students developed a sense of self-efficacy. Instead of being discouraged that they couldn't read or write, they got fired up. 'Hey, this is cool! I wish I could do write everyday!' So they developed of sense of 'yes I am a writer. Yes I can read these texts.' Those are really important."

According to Baker, not only is digital technology a useful asset in helping differently-abled students, it's also the future of learning itself. 

For Corey Cathey, a childhood speech therapist at Therapy Unlimited who works with different forms of technology in her own work, technology is extremely important in helping children learn and grow. 

"I think that as technology grows, and even just in the last ten years beyond what I ever thought it would be, Cathey said. "I think as we continue to progress in our society and our ability to create things and develop technology that make our teaching and learning more effective and efficient, I think that we're going to see that it will help to create success overall."

Although Cathey doesn't consider herself a "technology person", she does she the benefits of its use and continued development.

"I don't always like to be on my phone or using the internet and things like that. I enjoy it, but I don't want that to consume," Cathey said. "But I think sometimes when we're presented with families that are like 'oh we don't want the technology part, sometime we have to break through that barrier of yes, it is a technology, but it's really sometime that can help promote growth in your child."

Baker believes that despite her own concerns on the accuracy of speech recognition apps, the change it can promote in children is even more important. 

"The essence of being able to read and write is to communicate and so I value social media and email and YouTube," Baker said.  "To me, all of these digital forms of communication support literacy; engage people in literacy. So while there are lots of stories out there about warning about the psychological impact of technology, my study doesn't look at that. What I've found is that they learn the words that they dictate even speech recognition can be inaccurate. They develop a sense of self-efficacy. They say 'yes, I'm a reader!. I can do this!' They get to maintain their background and culture and learn the words that are important to them. This is a powerful way to read and write."

After Baker is finished analyzing her research, she hopes to create a speech recognition app of her own that includes safeguards. She wants the technology to be secure and safe enough for kids to use without there parents worry.