Carnegie Mellon receives $6M from NSF to enhance talking computer that helps children read

October 08, 2003

PITTSBURGH--A team of Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh researchers has received a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to enhance an intelligent, automated Reading Tutor that listens to children read and verbally assists them when it hears them stumble.

The Reading Tutor displays stories on a computer screen, uses a speech recognizer to listen to children as they read aloud, and responds when necessary with spoken and graphical assistance.

The four-year grant will be used to improve and integrate speech and user modeling technologies in the Reading Tutor, which has been developed over more than a decade by Carnegie Mellon's Project LISTEN, led by research professor Jack Mostow.

Mostow, principal investigator on the Reading Tutor project, is working with co-PIs Joseph E. Beck, a postdoctoral fellow in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute; Albert T. Corbett, an associate research professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute; Mosur Ravishankar, a senior systems scientist in the Institute for Software Research International; and Rollanda O'Connor, associate professor and reading expert in the Instruction and Learning Department of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.

"What we do with this grant will improve how the Reading Tutor listens to children read aloud, assesses their skills, intervenes and helps them learn to read," said Mostow. "Children who use the Reading Tutor have improved significantly more in reading comprehension and other skills than statistically matched controls. But the Reading Tutor's effectiveness is limited by an inability to accurately hear and model the students with whom it is interacting.

"This work will integrate and extend methods from speech technology, cognitive psychology, user modeling and intelligent tutors. Its ability to listen enables novel continuous assessments of students' reading progress."

The Reading Tutor is being used in eight Pittsburgh schools and one in North Carolina. According to Mostow, it has helped to improve the reading skills of hundreds of children in the Pittsburgh area. About 600 elementary school students used the Reading Tutor in the 2002-2003 school year, logging about 4,000 hours in more than 26,000 tutoring sessions.

"The Reading Tutors have listened to students read millions of words, and have answered hundreds of thousands of requests for help on difficult words and sentences," Mostow said. "The project has the potential to improve literacy for thousands of children who use the Reading Tutor as we work to enhance it, as well as many more who will use it thereafter."

The grant will enable the researchers to build on the more than $6 million in previous support since Project LISTEN got under way in the early 1990s. While the National Science Foundation has been the key sponsor, there has also been support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as a $250,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments made in 2002.

The NSF project reviews said the proposal to enhance the Reading Tutor was "excellent, and should definitely be funded if at all possible. It builds on the successful history of Project LISTEN and extends and improves it. It is real science."
For more information on Project LISTEN, see

The new grant is funded by two federal programs--the Interagency Education Research Initiative (IERI) and NSF's Information Technology Research Program (ITR).

IERI is supported jointly by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. IERI supports scientific research that investigates the effectiveness of educational interventions in reading, mathematics and the sciences as they are implemented in varied school settings with diverse student populations.

NSF's Information Technology Research program supports innovative fundamental research at the frontiers of science and engineering through the creative and innovative use and further development of information technology.

Carnegie Mellon University

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