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Talking Storybook Programs for Students with Learning Disabilities

Rena B. Lewis, Ph.D.
Project Director
Project LITT: Literacy Instruction Through Technology
San Diego State University
5500 Campanile Drive
San Diego, CA 92182-1170
Voice/Message: (619) 5948591
FAX: (619) 5948592
Email: rlewis@mail.sdsu.edu 
Internet: http://edweb.sdsu.edu/SPED/ProjectLitt/LITT

Project LITT (Literacy Instruction Through Technology) is a federally funded research project whose purpose is study of the effectiveness of one type of reading software for students with learning disabilities. Project LITT staff have spent the last three years investigating the useful of talking storybook programs such as those found in the Living Books and Disney's Animated Storybook series. These programs support students in the reading process by providing speech-enhanced text and colorful illustrations that are often interactive.

After an extensive search for all published talking storybook programs, evaluation of these programs, and several field-based studies, Project LITT is ready to share its findings with parents, teachers, and other professionals interested in the development of literacy skills of students with learning disabilities. This article describes the six major activities of Project LITT:

(a) A nationwide search for all published storybook programs, evaluation of those programs, and review of selected programs by students with learning disabilities and their teachers;

(b) Construction of the Project LITT website featuring Software Profiles of more than 300 talking storybook programs;

(c) An observational study of students with learning disabilities interacting with talking storybook programs under unstructured conditions;

(d) A second observational study of students' interactions with this software under structured conditions;

(e) A large-scale study of special education teachers' use of talking storybook programs with students with learning disabilities; and

(f) A small-scale study of bilingual special educators' use of Spanish-language programs with Spanish-speaking students with learning disabilities.

NATIONWIDE SOFTWARE SEARCH

In the first year of the project, we conducted a national search to identify all published talking storybook programs. Although we had anticipated that we would find 50 to 75 programs, our initial search uncovered more than 200 programs. At the end of 1999, we had located more than 300 interactive stories on CDROM.

Programs were included in the Project LITT database if they contained children's stories with text capable of being read aloud. Programs with no text were excluded as were those with no speech, nonfiction programs, and those above grade 8 readability levels.

Each program was then evaluated by Project LITT staff. Evaluation procedures included determining the estimated reading level of each story and counting the number of "hot spots" that students could activate as they interact with graphics in the book.

Two major conclusions were reached about the software identified in the software search. First, there is a large number of talking storybook programs on the market. Second, these programs represent a very heterogeneous body of software. Other conclusions were:

* Most programs allow students to hear all of the text on the screen read aloud and to hear individual words pronounced.

* Programs vary widely in the interactivity level of graphics. Some provide no graphics interaction opportunities; others offer dozens of opportunities per page.

* Some programs are available in languages other than English; Spanish is the most common alternative.

* Stories that are age-appropriate for students with learning disabilities may not be skill-appropriate. There are often discrepancies between the estimated readability levels of stories and story content and appeal.

* Some stories offer features and activities that support reading (e.g., definitions and glossaries, writing activities); others offer games and other noninstructional activities.

PROJECT LITT WEBSITE

One result of the evaluation of the talking storybook programs was preparation of Software Profiles for each story. Those Profiles can be found on the Project LITT website:

http://edweb.sdsu.edu/SPED/ProjectLitt/LITT

This site provides information about the project as well more than 300 Software Profiles. Each Profile contains a summary of the story, information about its publisher and price, an estimate of its readability level, descriptions of text and graphics interactivity, and information about program features.

Profiles can be accessed in several ways. Lists are available by titles of the story, software series, readability levels, languages other than English, and instructional features such as definitions and glossaries, writing activities, and reading activities. Visitors to the site can also do a customized search to locate specific programs by choosing readability level, language, degree of text interactivity, and degree of interactivity with graphics.

OBSERVATIONAL STUDY: UNSTRUCTURED

In the second year of Project LITT, we conducted two observational studies of students with learning disabilities interacting with talking storybook software. In the first study, that interaction was unstructured. We demonstrated the program to each student, then simply observed as he or she interacted with that program for one-half hour per day for four days. We also videotaped students as they worked with each program.

Six students participated in this study and each worked with three different storybook programs. We varied the programs carefully so that all types were included: those with high and medium text interactivity, those with many "hot spots" per page and those with no opportunities for interactions with graphics, and programs with games and other types of leisure activities as well as programs with instructional activities.

Our analyses revealed that, no matter what type of storybook, students did NOT chose to spend their time interacting with text. Instead, they spent 65% of their time engaged in nonreading activities. This resulted in a minimal gain in reading skill. On average, students learned 2.4 new words per program.

OBSERVATIONAL STUDY: INSTRUCTIONAL SUPPORT

In the second observational study, we provided instructional support to students as they interacted with talking storybook programs. Each of the six students worked with four new programs. Interaction with nonreading aspects of the program was discouraged by limiting students' interactions with hot spots to two per page. Interaction with text was encouraged by requiring students to read aloud.

Four levels of instructional support were employed. In the first, students read the page aloud after hearing the page read by the program. In the second, students read three words on the page aloud as well as the entire page. In the third and fourth interventions, the same procedures were used except that students were required to continue reading until they had reached a criterion of 90% accuracy.

As would be expected, the amount of time that students spent on nonreading activities decreased from 65% in the unstructured condition to 28% of time spent in the structured condition. More important, however, was the growth students showed in reading skill. As the amount of instructional support increased, the number of new words learned per program increased. For example, while students learned only 2.4 words per program in the unstructured condition, they were able to acquire 8.8 words when required to read the whole screen aloud to criterion and 9.6 words when required to read individual words as well as the entire screen aloud to criterion.

LARGE-SCALE STUDY

In the third year of Project LITT, two additional studies were conducted. The first was a large-scale investigation of the effectiveness of talking storybook programs for students with learning disabilities. Eighty-three elementary grade students participated. All had been identified as having a learning disability and all were receiving special education services in the area of reading. All were English speakers. As a group, students had average ability (mean IQ 98.5) and poor reading skills (mean SS 77).

Four groups were formed, two technology groups and two comparison groups. The first technology group used Living Books programs which allow students to hear the entire page and individual words read aloud. The second group used Disney's Animated Storybook programs which allow students to hear only the entire page read aloud. Each technology student worked with six programs, spending approximately two hours per program. A high instructional support condition was used. Teachers controlled students' access to graphics and required them to read aloud to criterion.

On average, technology students showed a gain of 18.3 words over the six programs or 3.1 words per program. Comprehension was high (on average, 85%); however, the Living Books programs appeared more comprehensible to students than the Disney programs.

At the start and end of the study, we assessed students' attitudes toward reading and administered the Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests-Revised (updated norms) to determine growth across reading skills. Attitude did not change over time. All students showed improvement from pretest to posttest in Word Identification and Passage Comprehension (but not in Word Attack). No differences were found between the technology groups and their comparisons.

Thus, talking storybook programs appear to be just as useful as traditional approaches to reading instruction. Teachers said that students made gains in fluency and self confidence. All of the teachers and almost all students said they would like to use similar programs in the future. Teachers did caution, however, that talking storybook programs should be used as one part of a comprehensive reading program and that, for students to be successful, teachers must provide high instructional support.

SMALL-SCALE STUDY WITH SPANISH-SPEAKING STUDENTS

Also in year 3, a smaller study was conducted with Spanish-speaking students with learning disabilities who are English language learners. Fourteen students participated. Of these, 11 used talking storybooks and 3 served as comparison students.

Each student worked with four programs in Spanish: three Living Books program and one from the series called C.D.'s Story Time. Instructional procedures were the same as those used in the large-scale study with fluent English speakers.

On average, technology students gained 3.4 words per book. Comprehension was high (on average, 84%). All students showed gains in attitude toward reading and in Word Identification. Comprehension and word attack skills did not appear to improve.

Thus, results are similar to those found with English speakers. Talking storybook programs in Spanish appear to be useful tools for Spanish-speaking students with learning disabilities, although they appear no more effective than traditional approaches to reading instruction.

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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