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Rena B. Lewis
Project Director Project LITT: Literacy Instruction Through Technology
San Diego State University
6505 Alvarado Road, Suite 204
San Diego, CA 92120-1878
Voice/Message: (619) 594-8591
FAX: (619) 594-8592
Tamarah M. Ashton
Project LITT: Literacy Instruction Through Technology
Have you used interactive books on CD-ROM to help improve the reading skills of students with learning disabilities? If you have, please visit the Project LITT website and share your experiences:
Project LITT, Literacy Instruction Through Technology, is a research project funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs. Its purpose is study of the effectiveness of hypermedia-based children's literature programs (sometimes called "talking storybooks") in enhancing the reading abilities of students with learning disabilities and others with severe problems in the area of literacy. These programs provide students with speech-enhanced text and colorful illustrations that are often interactive. Popular program series exemplifying this type of software are Living Books (e.g., Stellaluna, Arthur's Reading Race, The Cat in the Hat) and Disney's Animated Storybooks (e.g., Hercules, Mulan, Toy Story).
The Project LITT website contains information about the project and, more important, descriptions of more than 300 talking storybook programs. Each Software Profile includes a summary of the story, an estimate of its readability level, descriptions of the ways in which students are able to interact with text and graphics, and information about any available features.
For example, the Software Profile for Arthur's Computer Adventure, a new title in the Living Books series from Brøderbund, indicates that this story contains 401 words of interactive text estimated to be at grade 3 readability level. The story is about the popular character Arthur. He loves to play the game Deep Dark Sea on his mother's computer. The trouble starts when Arthur and his friend Buster are playing the game even though Arthur's mother has told him not to use the computer. The text interactivity of this program is high; learners can direct the program to read a whole "page" aloud or individual words. The graphics interactivity is also high. On average, there are 23 "hot spots" per screen, i.e., portions of the graphics that can be activated to produce animation, sound effects, speech, and music. Five activities are included within the program. One, Deep Dark Sea, is the computer game Arthur loves to play. Another, the Treasure Hunt Game, is a reading activity in which players match words and pictures.
Visitors to the Project LITT website can access the Software Profiles by consulting one of several lists or by doing a customized search. Lists are available by titles of stories, software series, readability levels, languages other than English, and instructional features such as definitions and glossaries, word processing activities, and reading skill activities. Customized searches allow users to locate specific programs by choosing readability level, language, degree of text interactivity, and degree of interactivity with graphics.
A new feature of the Project LITT website (available February 1999) is the Voice of Experience section. This section will contain a survey asking parents, teachers, and others who have used talking storybook programs to comment on their experiences.
As part of Project LITT, we have begun to gather information from teachers about their views of this type of software. In year one of the project, we conducted a series of focus groups with special education teachers in San Diego County. We demonstrated several programs and asked teachers to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the programs for students with learning disabilities and their perceived value in reading instruction. However, because of the large number of programs of this type (as of September 1998, more than 300 have been identified), we were able to show teachers only examples of different types of programs. Also, persons who have used the software in reading instruction are likely to have valuable information to share. Thus, the Voice of Experience section is being added to the Project LITT website.
Special education teachers participating in the focus groups voiced several opinions about the value of talking storybook programs and the types of programs best suited for teaching reading to students with learning disabilities. Their recommendations are summarized below.
Talking storybooks are typically rich and engaging programs that appeal to students, keep their attention, and motivate them. However, beware of programs with more entertainment than educational value.
Select programs that are enhanced versions of excellent storybooks for children. Don't settle for poor or mediocre children's literature because it is found on a CD-ROM disc.
Give preference to programs where the focus is on the story (rather than on dazzling graphics, superfluous hot spots, or unrelated activities).
Choose programs that are appropriate for students' ages in content, text, graphics, and narration. Avoid programs where one element (e.g., the content of the story) is clearly discrepant from another element (e.g., the graphics).
Consider the readability level of the story and other characteristics of the text (e.g., appearance, interactivity).
Carefully evaluate the graphical components of the program and whether they enhance or diminish the reading experience.
Whenever possible, select programs that are both age-appropriate and skill-appropriate for students.
Select programs with useful instructional features such as writing activities; avoid programs where game-like activities interfere with the story.
Look for programs where teachers can control important instructional parameters such as the size of the text and the speed at which text is read aloud. (Lewis, 1998)
In year two of Project LITT (1997-98), we conducted two observational studies of the interactions of students with learning disabilities with talking storybook programs.
In the first study, we introduced students to the programs, then simply observed as they interacted with the software for 30 minutes a day over four days. Our goal was to determine the types of strategies students with learning disabilities employed when interacting with hypermedia-based programs. Six students participated in this study and each interacted with three different talking storybooks. We varied the types of programs carefully. We included programs with high text interactivity but no capability for interactions with graphics as well as those with many potentially distracting elements. For example, some of the programs were high in graphics interactivity, with many hot spots per page. Others contained several activities in addition to the interactive storybook; in some programs, these activities were games.
Students were observed and videotaped as they worked with the talking storybook programs. Analyses of the data indicate that students did not choose to spend much time interacting with the text aspects of the programs. Instead, students on average spent approximately 65% of their time engaged in nonreading activities. They interacted with hot spots in the graphics, played games whenever these were available, and pursued other activities such as drawing, matching, concentration-type games, and so on.
Before and after interacting with each CD-ROM-based book, students were tested on their ability to read 50 words selected randomly from the story. In the first study, when students' interactions with software were unstructured, students gained on average 2.4 words per program.
The purpose of the second study was to investigate how best to maximize the reading gains experienced by students using talking storybook programs. First, we limited the number of hot spots that students could activate to two per page. Then, we introduced increasing levels of instructional support as students interacted with four books. With the first book, students were asked to read the entire page aloud after the program had read it aloud. With the second, students read the entire page after reading three individual words. This sequence was repeated with the third and fourth books, except that students were required to read to a 90% accuracy level. With all books, students were given five minutes of free time at the end of the instructional session to explore whatever aspects of the program they chose. We felt it was important to allow students these interactions because we wanted to maintain the motivational value of the software.
Analyses of the data indicate that, as the level of instructional support increases, students' reading gains increase. In the first study with unstructured interactions, students gained an average of 2.4 words. In the second study, with moderate support (whole page only), students gained an average of 4.8 words. With moderate support and reading not only the whole page but also individual words, students gained an average of 6.8 words. In the two high support conditions (reading to a 90% criterion level), students gained an average of 8.8 words when reading the whole page only and an average of 9.6 words when reading not only the whole page but also individual words.
Two studies will be conducted during the 1998-99 school year. The first, begun in Fall 1998, is a year-long investigation of the effectiveness of talking storybook programs in classroom reading interventions for students with learning disabilities. Teachers in the North Coastal Consortium for Special Education in San Diego County will deliver the intervention using a high support instructional protocol (the intervention found most effective in the previous study). Plans call for two types of software to be studied: talking storybook programs with high text interactivity and minimal extraneous games and activities (e.g., programs from the Living Books series), and programs with medium text interactivity and embedded games and activities (e.g., programs from Disney's Animated Storybook series).
The second study scheduled for this year focuses on a somewhat different population: Spanish-speaking students with learning disabilities. In this observational study, we will be looking at the effectiveness of bilingual talking storybook programs for this group of learners. At present, we are evaluating the 30 programs that provide storybook versions in both English and Spanish to compare the readability levels across languages.
Lewis, R. B. (1998). Reading software for students with learning disabilities: Hypermedia-based children's literature. LD Online. Available: http://www.ldonline.org
NOTE. The contents of this report were developed under a grant from the U. S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.
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