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Program helps children read by singing

A new program being studied by USF researchers may help children who don’t like to read begin singing a different tune.

The program, TUNEin to Reading, allows children to use headphones and an attached exterior microphone to sing popular songs displayed on their computer screens. The studies have found that the program improves children’s reading comprehension by having them read the lyrics on the screen.

A music staff appears on the screen with lyrics written where the notes to the song’s melody would go. The program bases the player’s score on how well they keep to the melody – something Susan Homan, a professor in the Department of Childhood Education and Literacy Studies and head researcher of the project, said is key to its effectiveness.

“If you sang ‘Oh Susana,’ it wouldn’t give a score about how well you pronounced the words, it would give you a (score based on) how well you were in rhythm and how well you followed the melody,” Homan said. “The more fluent you are as a reader, the better your comprehension. The two things go together.”

Yet, the program was never originally intended to help children learn how to read.

Homan said Carlo Franzblau, a former donor to the College of Business and the owner and founder of Electronic Learning Products, approached USF five years ago about funding a research study on the program because of its peculiar results.

“He was a frustrated singer,” Homan said. “He got the lead in ‘Bye Bye Birdie,’ but when they heard him sing, they told him, ‘You can keep the part, but you can’t sing.’ So he had kind of promised himself if he was ever in a position to help people and improve his singing he would do it.”

Franzblau’s efforts manifested in a program called Singing Coach.

“It fell into the hands of the parents of a struggling (sixth-grade) reader at Adams Middle School,” Homan said. “Her name was Ashleigh (Jackson), and I think she was two reading levels below (where she should have been), so her parents asked her if she would like to try it because she loved to sing. Because she was singing the words over and over again because she was trying to get a better score, it actually improved her fluency in word reading.”

That information made its way back to Franzblau, who then approached USF. At the time, Homan was working with children in Hernando Middle School, where 38 percent of the kids were failing reading. Because of the dismal rates, they decided to launch the study at the middle school.

“It was sort of a learning curve for me to see how far behind some of these kids were in school,” Franzblau said. “If you look at the research, you’ll see it was seventh- and eighth-graders who were reading at the fourth-grade level.”

Homan began her study with a “readability analysis” of the 24 songs included in the Singing Coach program and found they ranged from a second-grade reading level through eighth-grade level. The group study that followed included 48 seventh- and eighth-grade students.

Only half of the students used the Singing Coach program, while matched pairs in a control group did not receive any additional instruction outside of their reading class.

“That first study was remarkably dramatic. Twenty-four children used it, and then I matched it to their FCAT levels, reading levels and by their reading teachers,” she said. “The kids who were using it, after nine weeks, went up one-and-a-half grade levels in terms of vocabulary and comprehension, and their matched pairs didn’t grow at all.”

The research team discovered that even after they took the program away from the students their progression was not only retained, but also had increased another three-quarters of a grade level.

“We took it away at the end of January and waited until the end of May and went back. All I was hoping for was that they hadn’t lost ground,” she said. “Whatever had straightened out for them – which I believe was the rhythm of reading – stayed with them. So once they had the fluency of our language back again, it stayed with them, and they kept improving.”

The results of the initial study prompted other backers to become involved in what turned into the TUNEin to Reading program, she said.

Since then, the program has won the 2007 Technology Innovation of the Year award from the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, the 2007 Technology Innovation Award in Software from the Wall Street Journal and more than $1 million to fund the research for five years from Just Read, Florida! and the Florida Department of Education.

Franzblau said USF’s study has been the most consistent of all the projects, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of the program’s research funding. Other studies are in progress at MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Harvard Medical School.

“They are hoping to document with functional MRI images, the changes in brain activity that they suspect occur when students rapidly increase their comprehension skills,” he said. “This is research that is painstakingly slow and has been going on for several years.”

The results of the USF studies have yet to be published, but Franzblau said that regardless of what the future brings for the project, the most rewarding aspect is the improvement enjoyed by the kids.

“It was really gratifying to see the impact that the program had on these kids,” Franzblau said. “I think TUNEin has the potential to be a very widely used program and a very vast growth product line as well, given the benefit. The need is very, very significant.”