In the News
This document summarizes two types of published research
underlying Project LISTEN’s automated Reading Tutor. Intervention studies measured the Reading
Tutor’s effectiveness. Other research,
others’ as well as our own, served to guide its development. The cited Project LISTEN publications can
be downloaded from www.cs.cmu.edu/~listen
except where precluded by copyright or not yet in print.
work described here was supported in part by NSF
under ITR/IERI Grant
REC-0326153, by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of
Education through Grant R305A080628 to Carnegie Mellon University, and
by the Heinz Endowments. Any opinions,
findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are
those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the
National Science Foundation or the Heinz Endowments.
Special thanks to the co-principal investigators who helped formulate the
IERI proposals from which portions of this document are excerpted, especially
reading expert Professor Rollanda O’Connor.
Summary of intervention
computer-guided oral reading has demonstrated usability, user acceptance,
assistive effectiveness, and even pre- to post-test gains [Cole et
al., 1999; Mostow et
al., 1994; Nix et al.,
1998; Russell et
al., 1996; Williams,
2002; Williams et
– but the proof of the pudding is whether it significantly increases
learning gains over gains that children make otherwise. Even with barely 20 minutes of use per day,
successive versions of the Reading Tutor have produced substantially higher
comprehension gains than current practices in controlled studies lasting
several months. To ensure that results were due to the Reading Tutor
intervention, we compared different treatments within the same classrooms and
randomized treatment assignment, stratifying by pretest scores within class. We used valid and reliable measures [Woodcock,
to measure gains from pre- to post-test.
We computed effect size as the difference in gains between the
Reading Tutor and current practice, divided by the average standard deviation
in gains of the two groups. Effect
sizes for passage comprehension were substantial compared to other studies [NRP, 2000]: 0.60 for 63 students in grades 2, 4, and 5
at a low-income urban school [Mostow and Aist, 2001; Mostow et al., 2003b]; 0.48 for 66 third graders at a
lower-middle class urban school [Aist et al., 2001; Mostow et al., 2001; Mostow et al., 2003a]; and 0.66 for 52 first graders at
two suburban Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence [Mostow et al., 2002b; Mostow and Beck, under
1.1. Pilot study (1996-97)
The Reading Tutor achieved
dramatic results in the first pilot study of extended use long enough to
demonstrate significant learning.
During the 1996-97 school year, a pilot group of low-reading third
graders used the Reading Tutor one at a time in a small office under the
individual supervision of a school aide.
According to school-administered pre- and post-tests, six third
graders who started almost three years below grade level averaged two years
of progress in under eight months use [Aist and
1.2. Within-classroom comparison (1998)
In spring 1998, we did our first controlled study of
the Reading Tutor in classroom settings at Fort Pitt Elementary [Mostow et al., 2003b]. All 72 students
in 3 classrooms (grades 2, 4, and 5) that had not previously used the Reading
Tutor were independently pre-tested on the Word Attack, Word Identification, and Passage
Comprehension subtests of the Woodcock Reading Mastery
1987]. We split each class into 3 matched treatment groups
– Reading Tutor, commercial reading software, or
regular classroom activities, including other software use. We assigned students to treatments randomly,
matched within classroom by pretest scores.
though the study lasted only 4 months, and actual usage was a fraction of the
planned daily 20-25 minutes, students who used the 1998 version of the
Reading Tutor significantly outgained their matched classmates in
comprehension (effect size .60, p = .002), progressing
faster than their national cohort. (No
other differences were significant, and commercial software fell in
between.) As the principal said,
“these children were closing the gap.”
1999-2000, we evaluated the new, mixed story choice version of the Reading
Tutor at a second school in a lower-middle class community near Pittsburgh. This year-long study of 131 second and third
graders in 12 classrooms compared three daily 20-minute treatments. (a) 58
students in 6 classrooms used the 1999-2000 version of the Reading
Tutor. Students took daily turns using
one shared Reading Tutor in their classroom while the rest of their class
received regular instruction. (b) 34
students in the other 6 classrooms were pulled out daily for one-on-one
tutoring by certified teachers. To
control for materials, the human tutors used the same set of stories as the
Reading Tutor. (c) 39 students served
as in-classroom controls, receiving regular instruction without
tutoring. We pre- and post-tested
students in word identification, word attack, word comprehension, passage
comprehension, and fluency.
surprise, human tutors beat the Reading Tutor only in Word Attack (effect
size .55). Third graders in both the
computer- and human-tutored conditions outgained the control group in Word
Comprehension (effect sizes of .56 and .72, respectively) and Passage
Comprehension (effect sizes of .48 and .55, respectively) [Aist et
al., 2001; Mostow et
al., 2001]. No other differences in gains were
1.4. Equal-time comparison to Sustained
to the National Reading Panel, “the amount of gain attributable to reading
alone should be the baseline comparison against which the efficacy of
instructional procedures is tested. If an instructional method does better
than reading alone, it would be safe to conclude that method works” [NRP, 2000,
Ch. 3, p. 27]. A 7-month
study of 178 students in grades 1-4 at two Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence
compared two treatments, each provided in daily 20-minute sessions. 88 students did Sustained Silent Reading
(SSR) as already implemented in their classrooms (including teacher
read-aloud in grade 1 until students were ready for independent reading
practice). 90 students in 10-computer
labs used the 2000-2001 version of Project LISTEN’s Reading Tutor. The Reading Tutor group significantly
outgained their statistically matched SSR classmates in phonemic awareness,
rapid letter naming, word identification, word comprehension, passage
comprehension, fluency, and spelling – especially in grade 1, where effect
sizes for between-treatment differences in gains ranged from .20 to .72 [Mostow et
1.5. Effectiveness for English language
learners [this section added 6/6/05 and updated 8/11/11]
the first independent, third-party, controlled evaluation of the Reading
2004]. This two-month pilot study included 34
second through fourth grade Hispanic students from four bilingual education
classrooms. The study compared the efficacy of the 2004 version of the
Project LISTEN Reading Tutor against the standard practice of Sustained
Silent Reading (SSR). This study was undertaken to obtain some initial
indication as to whether the tutor would also be effective within a
population of English language learners.
employed a crossover design where each participant spent one month in each of
the treatment conditions. The experimental treatment consisted of 25
minutes per day using the Reading Tutor within a small pullout lab
setting. Students in the control treatment remained in the classroom
where they participated in established reading instruction activities.
Dependent variables consisted of the school district’s curriculum based
measures for fluency, sight word recognition, and comprehension.
Tutor group outgained the control group in every measure during both halves
of the crossover experiment. Within-subject results from a paired
T-Test indicate that these gains were significant for one sight word measure
(p = .056) and both fluency measures (p < .001). Effect sizes were
0.55 for timed sight words, a robust 1.16 for total fluency and an even
larger 1.27 for fluency controlled for word accuracy. These dramatic
results observed during a one-month treatment indicate that this technology
may have much to offer English language learners.
additional groups of Canadian researchers conducted independent evaluations of
the Reading Tutor with English language learners and as of June 2005 are
analyzing the data.
study by Kenneth Reeder, Margaret Early, Maureen Kendrick, Jon Shapiro, and
Jane Wakefield at the University of British Columbia [CTV, 2006;
D’Silva et al., 2005; Reeder et al., 2004; Reeder et al., 2005; Reeder et al., 2007; Reeder et al., 2009]
involved 77 students from five Vancouver elementary schools, grades 2-6 (ages
7-12 years). Their home languages were
Hindi (14), Mandarin (21), Spanish (21), and English (21: 11 using the
Reading Tutor, and 10 in a human tutoring program). Gains by the Reading Tutor group matched
gains by the human tutoring group on most reading measures, and interviews
showed favorable affect impact by the Reading Tutor.
study by Esther Geva and Todd Cunningham at the University of Toronto [Cunningham,
and Geva, 2005] involved 104 ESL students
in grades 4-6 at eight schools. The
study compared three treatments: the
Reading Tutor; Kurzweil 3000, which reads aloud to the student and provides
vocabulary support; and regular ESL classroom instruction. Analysis of data from 77 students in Grades
4-6 found pre- to posttest gains on some measures of language and literacy skill,
with no significant differences among conditions, but did not measure oral
crossover study in Accra, Ghana, [Korsah et
al., 2010] provided the Reading Tutor as a supplemental
intervention for 89 children in 3 schools varying in affluence. It found treatment effect sizes of over 1
standard deviation (considered large) for fluency gains at the two poorer
schools and for spelling gains at one of them, but no significant differences
between treatments at the most affluent school.
crossover study in Bangalore, India, [Weber and
Bali, 2010] focused on 62 low-income elementary school
students at 3 schools. This population
had little or no exposure to English outside of school. Overall, they averaged significantly higher
gains in oral reading fluency (but not in spelling) over the 5 weeks during
which they used the Reading Tutor than over the other 5 weeks.
Summary of underlying
Why does the
Reading Tutor improve comprehension?
Theoretically, students who recognize words effortlessly can devote
more attention to comprehension [LaBerge and
Samuels, 1974], and the relationship
between rate of oral reading and reading comprehension is strong through the
elementary years [Pinnel et
al., 1995]. The
cognitive load imposed by word identification before it has become a mentally
automatic process consumes limited mental resources, such as attention and
short term memory, needed to comprehend the sentence and its relationship to
the surrounding context [Perfetti,
decoding practice by itself does not necessarily improve fluency or
comprehension. Some studies found that
teaching children to recognize isolated words quickly gave no advantage in
reading comprehension [Fleischer
et al., 1979], or that comprehension did not improve unless
readers recognized the words nearly as fast in context as in lists [Levy et
al., 1997]. Thus
fluency makes a unique contribution to comprehension over that made by word
identification [Ehri and
McCormick, 1998; O'Connor et
al., 2002; Shankweiler
et al., 1999].
reading provides opportunities to practice word identification and
comprehension in context. There is
ample evidence that one of the major differences between good and poor
readers is the amount of time they spend reading. Poor readers are unlikely to practice on
their own. Students who need the most
practice spend the least amount of time actually reading [Allington,
1977]. How time is spent reading matters
too [Mostow et
al., 2002a]. Poor
readers tend to reread the same easy stories over and over [Aist, 2002a]. Modifying the Reading Tutor to take turns
picking stories exposed students to more new vocabulary than they saw when
they chose the stories [Aist, 2002a;
Aist, 2002b; Aist and Mostow, 2003; Mostow et al., 2003b].
Tutor aims for the zone of proximal development [Doolittle,
by dynamically updating its estimate of the student’s reading level, and
picking stories accordingly – which are somewhat harder than students choose
when it is their turn [Mostow et
The Reading Tutor scaffolds
key processes in reading – and tests its own scaffolding. Scaffolding provides information at the
“teachable moments” when it is needed.
For example, explicit vocabulary instruction is important but
time-consuming [Beck et
Explaining unfamiliar words and concepts in context can remediate
deficits in vocabulary and background knowledge [Elley, 1989], so we added support for
vocabulary acquisition by presenting short “factoids” – comparisons to other
words [Aist, 2001b;
Aist, 2002a]. An automated experiment embedded in the
Reading Tutor tested the effectiveness of reading a factoid just before a new
word in a story, compared to simply encountering the word in context without
a factoid. The outcome variable was
performance on a multiple-choice question, presented the next day the student
used the Reading Tutor. Analysis of
over 3,000 randomized trials showed that factoids helped on rare,
single-sense words, and that they helped third graders more than second
graders [Aist, 2000;
Aist, 2001a; Aist, 2001b].
By acquiring predictive models of the effects of tutorial actions, embedded
experiments can inform a decision-theoretic approach to tutoring [Beck, 2001;
Beck, 2002; Beck and Woolf, 2000; Beck and Woolf, 2001; Beck et al., 2000; Murray et
al., revisions under review].
The zone of
proximal development depends on tutorial scaffolding as well as on student
proficiency [Murray and
Arroyo, 2002], so the Reading Tutor lets the student read as
much as possible, but helps as much as necessary. It provides spoken and graphical assistance
when it notices the student click for help, hesitate, get stuck, skip a word,
make a mistake, or encounter a word likely to be misread [Mostow and
Aist, 1999]. Its
“visual speech” [Massaro,
uses talking-mouth videoclips of phonemes to scaffold phonemic
awareness. The Reading Tutor assists word
identification by previewing new words [Mostow, to
appear] and reading hard words aloud. Its word attack hints include rhyming and
sounding out. It supports vocabulary
acquisition by explaining new words [Aist, 2001b;
Aist, 2002a; Mostow et al., 2003c]. It scaffolds comprehension by reading hard
sentences aloud and by asking questions [NRP, 2000] – “cloze” items [Mostow et
al., 2002c] and generic “who-what-where” questions, which
at first appeared to boost comprehension of nearby sentences in an embedded
experiment [Beck et
al., 2003]. The
Reading Tutor bolsters motivation by listening attentively, “backchanneling” [Aist and
Mostow, 1999], giving encouragement [Aist et
al., 2002], and praising good or improved performance [Mostow and
Aist, 1999]. By reducing frustration [Betts, 1946] and making a wide range of
authentic, engaging text cognitively accessible to the child, scaffolding
helps address the motivational issues of confidence, challenge, curiosity,
and control pivotal to effective tutoring [Lepper and
Chabay, 1988; Lepper et
al., 1993]. Poor
readers’ listening comprehension is far above their independent reading level
so reading hard words and sentences to them reduces frustration and repairs
comprehension failures caused by lack of automaticity in word identification.
to improving automaticity is repeated reading, in which students read a
passage or page of text until their reading rate increases by a given amount,
usually 25% or more [Samuels,
1979]. A recent review of the repeated reading
literature [Meyer and
Felton, 1999] recommended that poor readers practice
building fluency for 10-20 minutes per day over a long duration, engage in reading
aloud, and use text at their instructional level. However, improving word
recognition accuracy and comprehension can require assistance to remediate
errors [McCoy and
Pany, 1986; Young et
al., 1996] – which requires listening to the student read
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