Carnegie Mellon Program Combines Drama Skills and Computerized Language Technology to Teach Elementary Schoolers Clear, Efficient Speech Patterns

Byron SpiceThursday, May 4, 2000

PITTSBURGH- Thirty-two fifth graders from the Holy Rosary Elementary School in Pittsburgh's Homewood section will be the stars of a poetry reading at Carnegie Mellon University's Purnell Center for the Arts to showcase how they've enhanced their speaking skills.

Since January, they've been participating in a unique new speech program called "My True Voice," taught by Carnegie Mellon Drama Professor Natalie Baker and her students. It combines a curriculum to teach the Standard American English Dialect with computer software originally designed to teach foreign languages developed at the Language Technologies Institute (LTI) of Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science. The program, which aims to help young students develop a clear, efficient manner of speaking, is the result of a collaboration between Baker and Maxine Eskenazi, a systems scientist in the LTI. Baker, who has been teaching her voice and speech curriculum at Carnegie Mellon for seven years, wanted her teaching to have a broader impact. She met Eskenazi who has been developing "Fluency," a system that detects and helps correct pronunciation errors of foreign language learners. With support from the Extra Mile Foundation and the university, they collaborated to create "My True Voice."

Baker developed a new sophomore drama course, Speech and Phonetics, Instruction and Outreach (SPIOC), which required students to act as speech coaches in an inner-city school environment. She developed sets of exercises for the students to use while Eskenazi adapted her software to create a language teaching approach that detects and corrects pronunciation errors in elementary school students' speech.

"The ability of children to move beyond just repeating words learned in primary grades and to use complex words correctly in higher grades requires listening, writing and speaking skills," said Baker. "Through this project, the fifth-graders improve their speech, and the acting students learn by teaching the language exercises they have been taught."

Students work at a computer with a soundboard which also has a side view of a head showing how the tongue should be positioned for a particular sound. When students say a word or words, they get a green light if they are pronouncing the words correctly or a red light that means try again.

"The software gives the students a chance to practice sounds for as long as they wish and get feedback on how they're doing," Eskenazi added.

Based on the success of the semester-long pilot at Holy Rosary, the Extra Mile Education Foundation plans to add three more Pittsburgh Diocese schools to the program beginning this fall. They include St. Agnes in Oakland, St. Benedict the Moor in the Hill District and St. James in Wilkinsburg.

The Extra Mile Education Foundation was created by to provide financial support for three parochial elementary schools educating children of inner-city families. Its subsidies are made possible through philanthropic support that makes tuition in the schools affordable for disadvantaged families seeking a quality, value-based education.

Other supporters of the project include the Grable Foundation, Buhl Foundation, the Frick Education Foundation and the Gumberg Family Foundation.

EVENT: My True Voice poetry reading and rehearsals.

WHEN: 5:30, Tuesday, May 9.

WHERE: Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theater, Purnell Center. Rehearsals may also be attended at Holy Rosary: 1 p.m., Friday, May 5; 1 p.m., Monday, May 8; or 3:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 9, at Carnegie Mellon.

For More Information

Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 |