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Drawing of a panda with headphones holding onto a book

Improving Literacy One Story at a Time

May 11, 2020

Nothing compares to sitting down with a good book. From a very young age, many children are read to by parents or older siblings. Like riding a bike with training wheels, children build skills with support – first following the reader’s finger, recognizing and reading out loud some words, then reading out loud longer pieces. Eventually, they develop reading skills that allow them to access a book on their own. Positioning reading as a fun experience from the beginning, together with the reading instruction in school, can help to cement the reader’s skill and interest in reading.

The ability to read, or literacy, underpins everything from educational attainment and employment opportunities to health outcomes. However, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (PDF), one-third of U.S. 4th graders read below the basic level. For ETS Senior Research Scientist, Beata Beigman Klebanov, these findings suggested that perhaps many of these children have not experienced the joy of being able to use their budding reading skill to share in reading a great story. She firmly believes that her and her son’s shared memories of taking turns reading out loud helped build a solid foundation for both his reading skill and his positive attitude towards reading. This was the inspiration for ETS’s research for the development of the Relay Reader digital reading app recently launched into the App Store and on the web.

“To read for learning and pleasure, one must be a fluent reader who understands what they read,” said Beigman Klebanov. “We hope that our app can help readers develop reading fluency by delivering an immersive, engaging and extended reading experience.”

The Relay Reader app was recently launched for public use after three years of research and development by scientists in the organization’s R&D division, with the project led by Beigman Klebanov. The app’s unique approach to learning to read lies in its engagement of readers in a full-length book. Similar tools only reinforce the reading of short passages for practice rather than entertainment. Instead of giving the reader a simplistic story adjusted to assumed skill, the Relay Reader app challenges the reader with literature that is worth reading for its own sake — and helps inexperienced readers meet the challenge. The readers are helped by having half the story – every other page – read out loud to them by a skilled narrator. During the narrator’s turns, the readers will be exposed to many of the words that they will have to read when it is their turn and will use the listening time as a “break” to build stamina.

“Our goal is to help developing readers improve their reading skill, as well as their motivation to read,” said Beigman Klebanov. “The critical transition from word-by-word reading to fluency, or from learning how to read to reading for learning or enjoyment, requires extended and sustained reading practice. Ideally, the reader would be getting such practice while also learning that reading fluently opens up to them a whole world of stories worth reading.”

The app records students’ reading and measures their reading fluency unobtrusively, without interrupting the flow of reading. Multiple-choice questions focused on the plot, relationships between characters or important descriptive details are asked periodically and are designed to help improve focus and monitor comprehension. Readers also can listen to their own readings, compare those to the narrator’s, and re-record themselves as often as they like.

Before its release, the app underwent significant testing with children in elementary classrooms and summer camps as well as some early encouraging testing with low-literacy adults.  In the summers of 2018 and 2019, the app was used as a part of the 6-week summer camp program at Camden Dream Center in Camden, N.J., by approximately 50 third-grade through fifth-grade students. According to Dr. Tunde Onitiri, director of STEM Practice, CTE Consulting and Perkins Funding at Camden Dream Center, he found the Relay Reader app to be “the perfect app for self-paced reading and literacy improvement. It is also one of the fastest ways we’ve seen to get students interested in reading.”

Researchers will continue to work on refining the technology for use in later versions. For example, future iterations will aim to provide formative feedback that’s personalized to individual readers. Also coming is a library of additional books for both children and adults, giving readers more choices to extend their practice.

“Giving children and adults who are developing their English-language literacy, a chance to improve their skills while also enjoying a good story without stress or frustration is an opportunity that we hope many will make use of,” said Beigman Klebanov.