Reading skills of Dutch children are in decline. Reports from 2018 and 2019 have shown that reading comprehension and reading enjoyment have declined among children in the Netherlands and that the number of children who have difficulty reading has increased from 12% to 18%. As a result, one in five adolescents in our country is in danger of becoming an adult with low literacy skills. In collaboration with Radboud spin-off NovoLearning and education publisher Zwijsen, language and speech technologist Helmer Strik of Radboud University is developing an app to support reading education.Is low literacy still a problem in an era when video and voice messaging have become ubiquitous? “Yes”, says Helmer Strik firmly. “Reading is the foundation for learning. If you cannot read fluently, you will have difficulty keeping up with your peers in school. If you have to focus too much on simply recognising words, you will have insufficient capacity to understand what you have read. And despite the emergence of innovative means of communication (such as voice messaging), much information is still presented in written text. And it will stay that way for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever.”Learning to read requires lots of practiceFrom previous research, Strik knows that technology can aid children in learning to read faster and better. For example, e-readers enable children to read and listen to text at the same time. Furthermore, educational publisher Zwijsen is offering an app that enables children to practise reading. Strik and colleagues have investigated the impact of these types of apps. They studied children who used the apps at school and at home and the results showed that the apps were effective. Children, especially those who had worked with the software at school, learned to read better than children who did not practise with the software or who used it only at home. The most important factor turned out to be the time that children spent using the app. “Reading requires practice. Children have to practise a lot.”However, existing apps cannot recognise speech correctly all the time. Commercial apps, such as Duolingo, are also inadequate in that respect. “It's very difficult for apps to recognise mistakes in speech and give feedback on them”, Strik explains. “Duolingo, for example, often accepts errors in speech. The app does not flag ‘I am going gome’ as an error. And if it does spot an error, it does not indicate specifically what you are doing wrong and how you can improve that aspect. You still need a teacher or parent to guide you.” Strik’s team is now developing an app in which children read aloud and receive immediate feedback. “It does it in a way that is still fun”, he laughs. In this way children can practice independently.Speech technology for childrenThe biggest challenge of the project is to adapt existing speech recognition technology to children's voices. Speech recognition for children is much more difficult than for adults, partly because children speak at a higher pitch. “Children's vocal cords oscillate more than 250 times per second, compared to 100 times per second in adult men. Because the wavelength is shorter, it's more difficult to extract information from children's voices. We can adapt speech recognition software for adults to more accurately recognise children's speech, but to do that we still need a lot more data from children's voices.”When the app is finished, Strik hopes to expand it so that the progress of individual children can be evaluated automatically. “For example, the teacher now has to keep a manual record of how many words a child can read correctly in three minutes. This evaluation could then be taken over by an app.” Strik emphasises that this technology will not replace human teachers. “However, we can automate such repetitive tasks so that teachers can spend more time motivating and inspiring students.You have a part to playOur society is facing major challenges. Radboud University wants to contribute to a healthy, free world with equal chances for everyone. With ‘Je bent nodig’ (You have a part to play), Radboud University aims to reach people who want to contribute to that goal. At Jebentnodig.nl you’ll find more articles and a link to our job opportunities.Do you want to be kept updated of our articles? Register at Radboud Recharge.Image by Annie Spratt via Unsplash.