Students have a new, less stressful way to improve their reading — and it’s easier for teachers, too

Andres Villegas is a serious, quiet 11-year-old who has loved to read since he was 4 — especially Harry Potter and science fiction. But whenever he was asked to read aloud, his palms would get sweaty and he’d skip or mispronounce words, even ones he knew.

Then his fifth-grade teacher found a new program that lets students practice their verbal reading skills. Soon Andres was reading out loud to a computer that was invisibly evaluating his literacy, instead of having a teacher mark down mistakes on paper, and discovered it was “actually kind of relaxing,” he says. “In front of the camera, I don’t feel that stressed out. I feel like I’m less distracted, and I’m reading better — more clearly and not that slow — and I feel much more confident.”

It’s a development being seen among hundreds of students who have been trying out the new feature, called Reading Progress, which will be available for free in Microsoft Teams for Educators by the start of the next schoolyear in the U.S. It uses AI-enhanced evaluations to give teachers insight into students’ struggles and already has saved them hours each week that they’ve been able to put back into individualized instruction — to the benefit of their students, especially amid the disruptive pandemic.

boy and girl sit together looking at a book

Andres Villegas reads to his cousin Camila Cardenas. (Photo by Earnie Grafton)

“This is something teachers really, really needed for management, time, efficiency and effectiveness,” says Andres’ teacher, Jennifer Saikaly Moreno, who quickly spread the word among fellow teachers during remote schooling last fall and is using Reading Progress back in the classroom this spring. “I’ll be using this forever and always.”

For Andres, the newfound confidence has turned him into a supportive leader among his classmates, his teacher says, and is extending beyond the classroom, too: He has started reading books to his little brother, who’s in first grade, as well as his 4-year-old cousin.

Learning to read is a crucial building block for life, and the practice of reading aloud is key to comprehension and empowerment.

“Employability, civic lives, social media, ways for our students to become advocates for themselves and others — it all starts with that foundation of literacy,” says Shaelynn Farnsworth, a reading expert and the News Literacy Project’s national director of educator outreach. “If you’re illiterate, you’re cut off from all those opportunities. That’s why reading is the No. 1 focus and at the forefront of education.”

Jose Garcia wished he’d had a program like Reading Progress growing up in Los Angeles in the early ‘90s.

A man with glasses smiles outside on a sunny day

Jose Garcia

Garcia, the instructional technology support specialist for Fontana Unified School District, where Andres attends and Saikaly Moreno teaches, was born in the U.S. to parents who had immigrated from Mexico and spoke Spanish at home. From the outset he was shuffled into Spanish-speaking classes, along with almost all the kids he knew. He could speak English, but he says the schools were overcrowded and he didn’t get much practice in reading out loud, which meant he didn’t do well on tests for moving into English-speaking classes.

a woman smiles while sitting in a chair in front of a white board with colorful numbers

Jennifer Saikaly Moreno

“I remember the fluency tests where they call you to the table, and the teacher’s assistant puts a timer on and you read, and they mark what you got wrong,” he says. “If this tech was around when I was growing up, I would have tested out earlier, and it would have set me up for better opportunities.”

In most elementary and middle schools in the U.S. today, students do frequent reading tests similar to the ones Garcia recalls.

They read a text to a teacher, who has a paper copy and marks any errors such as a mispronunciation or an omitted or inserted word. The teacher reviews the results to see what level pupils are reading at and what they’re struggling with and need to focus on — both individually and as a class. The assessments give insight into the students’ vocabulary and comprehension, in part by the cadence of their reading and whether they follow punctuation cues with pauses, phrasing and intonation.

two girls sit close together looking at a book

Brielle Taylor reads to her younger sister Zoe. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

It’s a heavily time-intensive process, especially with larger classes, and the insights aren’t easily come by and can be outdated by the time they’re all tabulated. Kids find it stressful, too, and often clam up when they notice the teacher marking down their mistakes.

Mike Tholfsen, the product manager for Microsoft’s Immersive Reader feature, saw teachers tweeting about their frustration and gathered his team for “a giant brainstorm session” in 2018, bringing in literacy experts and educators from around the world to outline the problem.

“We learned that reading fluency is important, but it’s incredibly painful for teachers to do,” Tholfsen recalls. “They hate doing it, it takes them forever, they have to pull the kids out into a hallway where it’s loud, and the rest of the class is going crazy while they’re listening and marking in the hallway. The kids don’t like reading out loud, and for many it’s stigmatizing” — the list of frustrations was long.

“To get better at reading fluency, you need to read out loud and practice more — it’s a self-reinforcing thing,” he says. “But because it’s such a time suck, it’s like kids were only brushing their teeth a couple times a year instead of every day.”

Tholfsen pulled together a team including experts from all reading science methodologies to make sure the new feature would work regardless of the technique being used. Designers had to account for the difference in children’s voices, since voice-recognition software was created for adults, and for accents and colloquialisms — along with masks that can muffle dictation. And developers gave teachers control over the level of discretion, with the ability to change mistakes that get marked or even to turn off auto-detect and do their own evaluations of the videos.

Microsoft had recently acquired Flipgrid, a social learning platform for students. Its founder, Charlie Miller, encouraged Tholfsen’s team to combine audio and video to help teachers feel more connected to students and let them see what was happening — such as distractions or mouth movements — when mistakes were flagged.

When Tholfsen started running the prototype past teachers last year, “it resonated unbelievably and they wanted it now, for their whole school,” he says. “It was a Spidey-sense tingling feeling. We were on to something.”

boy stands leaning against a wall, holding a book

Andres Villegas enjoys reading to his little brother and younger cousins. (Photo by Earnie Grafton)

The timing of the new program couldn’t have been better for Joe Merrill, a first-grade teacher in Florida.

Since schools sent everyone home in March 2020 due to the pandemic, teachers had “a lot of catchup to do” last fall, says Merrill, who teaches foundational reading skills to 6- and 7-year-olds, helping them choppily sound out words at the beginning of the year until they’re smoothly reading whole sentences by the end. First grade is a big academic year, he says, with growth so fast the kids can jump 10 levels, whereas advancement slows to three or four levels a year by fourth grade. Frequent assessments are crucial to help him quickly adjust his instruction and adapt to the pace of the progress being made.

A man smiles as he sits in front of a school

Joe Merrill

a woman smiles while standing near a fenced garden

Liliya Petrovskaya

Merrill arranges his pupils into groups of five and aims to listen to one per day per group read out loud, notating their mistakes in order to have a curated list at the end of each week that helps him choose appropriate texts for the following week.

He started using Reading Progress at the beginning of this school year and says it has saved him five hours a week of class time, not to mention hours of work after class to review and assess.

“I can turn that time right back into more targeted instruction, which is incredibly valuable,” says Merrill, whose students surprised him by surpassing yearend expectations only three quarters of the way through. “We’ve been able to close that gap and keep the foot on the accelerator to make sure we’ve caught up.”

a woman walks holding hands with a little girl on each side of her

Brielle Taylor with her mother Lauren and little sister Zoe (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

In Tacoma, Washington, 9-year-old Brielle Taylor has jumped from a fourth-grade to sixth-grade reading fluency level since starting to use Reading Progress in February.

Brielle recalls completing a reading quiz recently and looking up at her mother, curious how she’d done.

“Mom made this expression, and I didn’t know if it was bad or good, because she just said ‘Whoa,’” Brielle says.

It turned out Brielle had passed her “stretch growth goal,” which students don’t usually meet unless they’ve worked “really hard,” says her mother, Lauren Taylor, who happens to be the principal of the school.

“Looking with my mom lens I’m obviously super proud,” Taylor says. “But from the principal lens, with COVID I wasn’t sure if there would be any growth at all, and so to see that she made not just the typical growth but also beat the year’s stretch growth goal, in March already, that’s huge.”

Even Brielle’s little sister, 6-year-old Zoe, can hear the difference and now asks for Brielle, instead of their mother, to read to her every night before bed.

“She can read harder books now,” Zoe says, “even the new ones she got for Christmas.”

Brielle’s teacher, Liliya Petrovskaya, says the new feature allows for quicker feedback than the old method, and that makes students more self-motivated.

Petrovskaya assigns a text in Reading Progress to her class and gets the results within five minutes, she says, including words per minute and the accuracy rate. Then she goes through the evaluations on her own and spends the allotted one-on-one class time watching each student’s video with them and discussing it together. The process gives her time to reflect on each kid’s needs without classroom interruptions or the pressure of having to give feedback on the fly.

“When I meet with them now, there’s more quality to it and I can dig deeper with each student, instead of just saying, ‘You read this many words per minute and made these mistakes,’” Petrovskaya says. “And when they listen to themselves, it becomes more intrinsic. Kids naturally want to get better, and this taps into that. It takes the reins from me and gives control to the students over their learning, because they can see their mistakes themselves, and that has been super powerful and empowering for them.”

a man leans over a student who is typing on a laptop on a desk

Luis Oliveira has taught English as a second language for 30 years. (Photo provided by Oliveira)

The Reading Progress insights empower educators as well, helping them teach students at all levels from kindergarten through adulthood.

Luis Oliveira, who has taught English as a second language for 30 years, was shocked to see the word “mathematics” show up in a Reading Progress word cloud as the biggest problem for one of his high school classes. That word had never been an issue before, but the system flagged a mispronunciation for almost every student, and when Oliveira watched the videos at that point in the texts — teachers can skip to certain words or lines as they review the evaluations — he could tell even those who pronounced it correctly had hesitated.

Oliveira often assigns texts about American culture to his immigrant students, knowing they engage more when they’re interested in the subject matter. This schoolyear he chose a lot of articles about the COVID-19 virus and vaccines to help them understand discussions going on in their other classes. He suddenly realized he needed to diversify more.

“The word cloud and videos help target the problem areas much easier,” he says. “And if it helps the teachers help the students, then it’s a great thing.”

Lead image: Brielle Taylor reads to her little sister Zoe. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)