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By Marshall Raskind, Ph.D.
Perhaps the strongest support for the idea that OCR combined with speech synthesis can help compensate for reading problems comes from those studies that directly investigated the technology. (It is important to emphasize that these studies were not remedial interventions designed to investigate whether the use of the technology alleviated reading deficits. Rather, these studies were compensatory, aimed at determining whether reading performance was enhanced when using the technology, as compared to unaided reading performance.) For example, in a study of middle school students with dyslexia, Elkind, Cohen & Murray (15) found that most of the children enhanced their reading comprehension scores while using an OCR system. In a subsequent study of adults with reading disabilities, Elkind, Black & Murray (16) showed enhanced performance in reading speed and endurance when using OCR as compared to reading unaided.
Similarly, Higgins & Raskind (17), in a study of postsecondary students with LD, found that severely disabled readers improved reading comprehension scores when using OCR. In addition, they found an inverse correlation between silent reading without assistance and reading with an OCR system, such that, the greater the severity of the reading disability, the more the technology elevated reading comprehension scores. However, there is a flip side to this finding. The technology actually appeared to interfere with the reading comprehension of some individuals with a less severe reading disability. The researchers speculated that the reading of every word aloud by means of the speech synthesizer may actually have interfered with comprehension by overly taxing working memory in those readers whose deficits were not as severe. A similar finding was reported by Elkind, Cohen & Murray (15). This is a very important finding as it emphasizes that a technology that may be very helpful to one person, may be of little benefit or, in fact, impede performance in another.
The most recent research in this area comes from a recently published study conducted by my colleague, Eleanor Higgins, and me (18). We researched a handheld OCR device for persons with reading difficulties which was introduced into the marketplace a few years ago. This device (Quicktionary Reading Pen II®) combines miniaturized OCR with synthetic speech and a liquid crystal display (LCD) in a battery-operated, handheld unit. The device allows the user to scan printed text either a word or line at a time. Scanned words appear on the screen within one to three seconds and are read aloud by a built-in speech synthesizer. Similar to the larger desktop systems, speech rate, volume, and speed may be adjusted.
We were interested in whether reading comprehension scores of children with LD would improve when using the technology as compared to reading without the technology. As previously suggested, OCR and speech synthesis may enable students with reading disabilities to bypass their phonological difficulties by hearing the printed word, and which may in turn enhance text comprehension. In the event that comprehension scores improved, we were also interested in determining whether the interference effect found in the previous studies would be present, since this handheld unit would be used to read aloud only single words rather than connected text.
Results of the study indicated that students with reading disabilities ages 10 to 18 performed significantly better in reading comprehension tasks when using the device as compared to reading without it. Furthermore, unlike previous studies, this research did not indicate an interference effect for the readers with less severe deficits. This result is probably due to the fact that the reading pen user only scanned difficult words on an as-needed basis, unlike the desktop unit user, to whom entire passages of text were read aloud, whether or not the user needed help with every word.
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