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Karaoke for literacy

Singing Coach is a software program that teaches people to sing in tune. It also had a surprising side-effect of improving users' reading skills.

A student using Tune In To Reading (photo credit: ELP)

Wonderful things can happen when you are open to unexpected possibilities. That's one lesson I take from the story that starts with a software program called Singing Coach. Carlo Franzblau had wanted to learn to sing since he was an off-key teenager with musical theater aspirations. In 2000 he developed Singing Coach, software with an American-Idol-in-training vibe. Users sing karaoke-style into a microphone and the software tells them whether their pitch is too high, too low, or in tune.

While performing quality-control tests on Singing Coach, Franzblau received some unexpected feedback: one of the first testers was a middle school student named Ashleigh who happened to be a struggling reader, and her mother reported that the singing software was improving her daughter's reading.

Franzblau pursued this unexpected finding with gusto. He teamed up with literacy professor Dr. Susan Homan at the University of South Florida to conduct a research study to see if Ashleigh's finding represented a genuine effect. Dr. Homan found that struggling readers benefited greatly from the program, raising their test scores by more than a whole grade level after nine weeks of training with the singing program, which has been redeveloped specifically as a reading intervention called "Tune In to Reading." The kids who used Tune In To Reading sustained their gain, continuing to make progress six months later even when they were not using the program.

This was an amazing result, especially considering that they were working with students who had fallen behind grade level and were not making gains with the standard reading curriculum. These struggling readers face a host of challenges, including a blow to their self-confidence, and anxiety about reading out loud in front of a group.

Tune In To Reading makes reading class fun again by turning it into singing class. (You can see it for yourself in this demo video.) The program works by building fluency skills in their target audience of third-to-twelfth grade students. These kids have had phonics training. Fluency provides a bridge they need to connect this between this basic knowledge and independent reading skills and comprehension. Tune In To Reading gets kids to read repetitively in a fun way. Each student reads each song to themselves three times before they sing it. Then they read it again as they sing it. The repetitive reading, silently and singing out loud, leads to fluency.

The connection between singing and learning is still being studied by neuroscientists, but any Gen Xer who can still sing songs like "I'm Just a Bill" from watching Schoolhouse Rock in the 1970's knows that song has a powerful connection to memory.

I had the chance to see a demo of Tune In To Reading, and it did seem like a lot more fun than a typical reading class. Most of the songs are public domain classics; nursery rhymes, folk songs, partriotic songs, spirituals, holiday songs. Larry Kinder, director of sales for the parent company, Electronic Learning Products, says that the company is looking into licensing more popular music for their library, to make sure that kids can choose songs that really engage them.

Tune In To Reading is currently distributed only through schools, but ELP is developing a home edition, and is also expanding into language products for English-language learners, Mandarin, Russian and Spanish. The possibilities are vast, and I for one love seeing a company use technology to reach out to struggling students in a new, positive way.