Educator's Review: Text, Books, and Kurzweil 3000

People who are poor readers because of dyslexia or other learning disabilities find that their reading is slow, inaccurate and tiring. At the college level this poses a significant challenge. Students who are expected to extract meaning from text find they have to proceed slowly, re-read passages frequently, struggle to decode unfamiliar words, and interrupt their reading frequently to recover from fatigue and stress. Tight semester schedules and course loads put additional pressure on academic success, especially in the absence of the usual family support.

Kurzweil 3000, a text-to-speech program that combines the "reading" of text with an array of language and study tools, provides such students with a powerful tool. A product designed for struggling readers and writers, it uses a multisensory approach by presenting printed or electronic text on the computer screen with added visual and audible accessibility. New features in version 6.0 offer students flexibility in accessing and comprehending print and Web-based information. A notable change is the ability to selectively extract highlighting by color. Also, when scanning text, page numbers can now be set to match the actual page numbers in the book. Students and faculty are also finding the ability to open and save documents in a Word document format has expanded their ability to integrate Kurzweil in an academic curriculum.

Self-Efficacy Boost
A notable benefit of the product is an increase in students' productivity and timely work completion. Being able to work independently at times and in places that suit their needs is important to students. For many of my students, late night hours are their best time to focus, but accessing support at 9:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. is challenging, at best. As students' sense of self-sufficiency increases, so d'es their sense of self-efficacy. For many, the Kurzweil 3000 provides a way for achieving success in a collegiate environment. Students can select the features appropriate to their learning profile and objectives. For example, students with short-term memory issues can use the voice notes feature to document relevant thoughts for later review. With training and some patience in learning to use the study tools, students with learning disabilities and attentional issues have a greater opportunity to work with complex readings at a rapid pace.

For the student who finds reading challenging due to decoding and fluency issues, the text-to-speech feature of Kurzweil 3000 is an invaluable resource. In addition to having the text read to them, they have the opportunity to read with the program. This is an improvement over books-on-tape support many students used previously. They can also import their own writing into Kurzweil to ease the challenge of the editing process. Hearing their work read to them increases their ability to pick up on contextual and technical errors. In addition, the language tools—recursive dictionary, syllabication feature, and thesaurus—facilitate students' efforts to work with sophisticated and specialized vocabulary. Finally, the RealSpeak "voice" of Kurzweil's latest version is a more lifelike rendition of speech, which addresses an early concern expressed by new users regarding the cognitive dissonance caused by electronic voices.

Access to E-Knowledge
Another benefit of Kurzweil 3000 is the increased accessibility it provides to sources of knowledge, such as Web pages, eBooks, and PDF files. The ability to "read" the Internet is an essential one, especially as it becomes more necessary for success in higher education. Using the "Read the Web" feature allows students to go directly to the Internet for research. By being able to read professional journals online, students are able to easily access a huge amount of information. While this feature can be inconsistent in its reading of the text of pages with extensive graphics, students can transfer the page into Kurzweil using the "Virtual Printer" feature in order to overcome problems with misinterpretation. As the world of electronic texts continues to mushroom, the ability to use Kurzweil 3000 for diverse formats will be vital.

The value of this comprehensive text-to-speech program can be considerable for students with attentional issues—especially in the context of electronic information. Students report experiencing less distraction, stress, and fatigue when using Kurzweil, and as a result, they're able to spend more time on a task. The ability to see, as well as hear the information, provides students with the opportunity to access new information through both auditory and visual senses. This multimodal presentation of information supports focusing and memory retention.

Valuable Study Tools
As a former reading and study skills instructor, I find the study tools incorporated into the program one of its most innovative features. They enable the development of study systems for highlighting text, learning vocabulary, and note taking. Used as a unit, these tools allow students to strategically select information for further work. The ability to create vocabulary lists, idea previews, and questions eases the pre-reading process. In my experience, students are more willing to undertake challenging reading after having built this foundation for grasping information and improving comprehension.

For a student with significant abstract comprehension issues, the highlighting feature can be a valuable tool. The highlighting feature enables students to select headings for creating guide questions. This ability to organize information before undertaking the task of reading complex information provides students with a structure for understanding. We formatted a process where he would interactively read the material by highlighting and annotating the text as he went along. Using the extraction features, he was then able to organize information from various sources to support him in analyzing and synthesizing the information. With the resulting outline, he could write a summary. By being able to extract information by color, he was also able to create a list of vocabulary terms and study questions. Through the active manipulation of information, his comprehension improved. For students who have difficulty seeing connections between disparate or similar pieces of information, the ability to synthesize content at the point of intake is imperative.

Using the notes and sticky notes tools, readings can be annotated. However, to be able to access the "Sticky Notes" feature required us to scan and save the text in the .kesi extension—the Kurzweil file format. Although the documentation provided with the program is clear and comprehensive, the limitation regarding sticky notes is not apparent and can be a slight setback. Once comfortable with the use of sticky notes, students can easily margin-note as they go along.

The ease of scanning into Kurzweil 3000 makes a somewhat tedious process less time consuming. The ExperVision OCR, incorporated into the program, contains a number of valuable features, including two-page scanning, repeat scanning, and auto-rotation of pages. A helpful new feature of version 6.0 is the ability to re-number pages according to the original page numbers. At the collegiate level, where students are typically reading at a relatively fast pace, the ease of scanning is a benefit.

Memory Lapse
While I believe Kurzweil 3000 can be an important learning tool, the program's computer memory should be considered: If used in conjunction with Windows XP and voice-recognition software, 256K of RAM is best. Otherwise, the program can be slow to open and the highlighting may lag behind the "reading" of text. On occasion, I have found it necessary to enter the program through a reading saved in the .kesi format due to the demand on memory.

Overall, Kurzweil 3000 6.0 is one of the most powerful learning tools I've worked with. This article was written and edited using the program. Its features, as well as its compatibility with voice-recognition software, made this possible. For students, the product can be used to flexibly increase control over their learning. In addition to working with information visually and auditorily, students can actively navigate content and use the available study tools to optimize their learning experience. This comprehensive learning tool has something to offer most students with learning disabilities working at the post-secondary level. Its impact on a student's reading speed, comprehension, and attention span is significant.

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