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'Listening' computer revs up reading skills

The interactive Soliloquy Reading Assistant boosts confidence and test scores.

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Jorge peers through his glasses at a story about a mouse – a story unfolding not on the pages of a book but on a computer screen. Crowned with a sophisticated headset, he isn't distracted by his surroundings as he reads aloud into a microphone.

When the computer hears him say "squinted" instead of "squeaked," it highlights the word, waits a few seconds for him to try again, and then gives the right pronunciation. Jorge is taking summer classes in Chelsea, Mass., before starting third grade. Twice a week he comes to the computer lab for half an hour to work on his oral reading. With a few clicks, he can listen to a professional voice tell the tale, listen to his own recording, pull up explanations of words he doesn't know, and answer quiz questions.

The colorful program, Soliloquy Reading Assistant, also shows him his progress on accuracy, understanding, and speed. "I feel happy," Jorge says about achieving a red star when he's mastered a story. "I already got five stars."

Soliloquy's program is helping teachers track and improve reading fluency in more than 5,000 schools. For Marilyn Jager Adams, chief research scientist at Soliloquy Learning Inc. in Waltham, Mass., it's just a matter of using technology to carry on a time-honored tradition. "I decided ... basically, to make an electronic lap," she says in a phone interview. "Children learn incredibly quickly if you can get them to pay attention, but [for many] there's not somebody at home [to help] ... and if you look at the classroom, it's not set up for one-on-one time."

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