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Reading machines for students with LD

How can reading machines help kids with learning disabilities? An expert on assistive technology looks at peer-reviewed research for answers.

By Marshall Raskind, Ph.D.

What's new in the world of research related to children with learning and attention difficulties? In this summary of current peer-reviewed research, Marshall Raskind, Ph.D., shares his expert perspective in practical terms for parents like you.

The use of optical character recognition (OCR) systems combined with speech synthesis (computer-generated speech) has become increasingly accepted as a means of compensating for reading disabilities. These OCR systems, or reading machines, convert printed text to spoken language so the user can hear and see written words. These technologies are now marketed internationally (for example, WYNN®, Kurzweil 3000®), commonly found in assistive technology centers serving individuals with learning disabilities, frequently exhibited at LD conferences, generally considered in assistive technology evaluations for students with LD, and regularly discussed in publications on LD and assistive technology.

As OCR systems continue to gain popularity as a compensatory tool for children with reading difficulties, it is important for parents to know whether scientific studies support their use. Furthermore, parents need to be aware that selecting specific technologies for their children is dependent on the individual child, the task to be performed, and the setting in which it is to be used. Hopefully, this article will shed light on these issues by reviewing research on the use OCR combined with synthetic speech for persons with reading disabilities.

OCR systems are generally desktop computers combined with full-page scanners. Users scan in printed documents (e.g., pages from books) in much the same way a copier is used. The printed text is automatically changed to electronic text that is then read aloud by a built-in speech synthesizer. The text is displayed on the computer monitor while the system reads the words aloud. OCR systems often include features that allow the user to "customize" the system for individual preferences including speech rate, pitch, volume, simultaneous highlighting of spoken text, font size/style, as well as background and text color. These systems may also include additional features such as study, writing, and Internet tools.

Fortunately, the acceptance of OCR as a viable assistive technology for LD is based on both a strong theoretical framework, as well as several studies directly investigating the technology's efficacy in compensating for the reading difficulties experienced by individuals with LD. The idea that converting text to speech may help reading comprehension is suggested from research in reading disabilities. Numerous studies have shown that students with reading disabilities have a particularly difficult time with word recognition, especially phonological processing (associating the sounds of language with letters or letter combinations) (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).

Difficulties with phonological processing may, in turn, affect reading comprehension. So much effort may be spent on decoding individual words that there may be little mental energy left for comprehension (9, 10, 11, 12). Although phonological awareness may be poor, there is also evidence that individuals with reading disabilities often exhibit no apparent difficulties in understanding spoken language (13, 14). Considering that persons with LD have difficulty with decoding print, yet may not have difficulty with oral language, it is not difficult to see how OCR systems that convert printed text to the spoken word might enhance reading comprehension.

Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D., is a learning disability researcher. He is a frequent presenter at international LD conferences and is the author of numerous professional publications on learning disabilities. He is well-known for his research on assistive technology and longitudinal studies tracing LD across the life span.

Comments from readers

"Back in the 70's the Federal government provided 'controlled reading machines' through TITLE ??? funds. It was an actual piece of equipment with a view finder that a student looked into. It was a progressive program starting with identifying one letter at a time then two-letter words, three-letter words. The student progressed to phrases, short sentences, longer sentences, paragraphs, etc. Somehow the student was able to increase the speed of reading as their comprehension improved. Audio was also included. I remember a 5th grade boy in my son's class was so excited that he was able to read and understand what he was reading for the first time in his life. Does anyone know if such a device still exists and if so where could I get it? The computer programs sound good. But, I know someone who is easily distracted. The viewer on the reading machine blocks out distractions. "
"Dear Great Schools, In addition to Bookshare and the other resources you list there is also Recording for The Blind & Dyslexic. RFB&D is a 61 year old non-profit specializing in human-read (no synthesized voices here!) textbooks. Two of my children are dyslexic and simply could not listen to the automated voices. Once we found RFB&D their world changed. RFB&D has textbooks and literature in all subjuects from k-post grad. Plus, unlike bookshare, your child does not need to be on an IEP or ILP to qualify, just documentation from a professional that they qualify for the services. Another thing I like about RFB&D is they provide customer service and training. And, for individual students they are offering a free membership to their downloadable library. I am sure I am just scratching the surface with what they have to offer but I wanted to make sure other parents knew about this great service!"