Microsoft Teams’ new reading feature helps students during the pandemic and beyond

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Microsoft is adding a new Reading Progress feature to Microsoft Teams, designed to help students improve their reading fluency. Reading Progress works by allowing students to record themselves reading a passage of text, and offering teachers the ability to assess accuracy rates, mispronunciations, and more.

Typically, students practice reading fluency in front of a teacher where they’ll read a passage out loud and the teacher will mark it accordingly. Teachers will measure the speed, accuracy, and expression of reading as part of this process. Microsoft accelerated its work on this feature during the pandemic, when it became clear it would be difficult for teachers to measure reading fluency remotely.

“With the pandemic, if you think about reading fluency, it gets really difficult … because you can’t be next to students,” explains Mike Tholfsen, a product manager for Microsoft Education, in an interview with The Verge. “You might be able to set up Teams calls or Zoom calls, but the vast majority of teachers aren’t doing that.”

The new Reading Progress feature in Microsoft Teams.
Image: Microsoft

A recent Stanford University study found that the pandemic has affected students’ reading ability, with a drop of around 30 percent in reading fluency in early grades. “When the pandemic hit we actually worked with the head of Microsoft Education and agreed lets speed up development,” says Tholfsen. “In the past year we put a lot of effort into it.”

Microsoft has been testing an early alpha version of Reading Progress with more than 350 teachers since October, and it’s now ready to roll this out as a free addition ahead of the next school year. The technology is powered by Azure on the backend, allowing a teacher to adjust its sensitivity to measure students with speech disorders or dyslexia.

“We work with our Azure speech services team, and we’ve had a really tight partnership with them,” reveals Tholfsen. “If you’ve seen PowerPoint presenter coach, behind the scenes they use some of the same speech technology.” Microsoft has built a mispronunciation API which essentially measures confidence intervals and breaks words down based on a passage of text that a student is asked to read.

Students only see the text they need to read.
Image: Microsoft

Teachers will see a full dashboard that shows the words per minute and accuracy rate, and they’ll have the ability to jump to a specific word to hear a student pronounce it. If teachers don’t want the auto detection, they can simply turn this off and see a video of a student reading and then assess it manually. This speech technology will also handle different dialects and accents, although Microsoft is only launching it initially for a US English audience.

Microsoft has been working on this feature for a couple of years, after the team heard from a teacher that was making 150 spreadsheet copies for other teachers to record reading fluency data and then merge it all back manually. That painstaking effort led to Microsoft’s own mock-ups in early 2019 and a bigger push as part of the company’s internal hack-a-thon in the summer of 2019.

Microsoft is now hoping that this technology can be used beyond just students in elementary schools to help with reading fluency in special education, adult literacy, and elsewhere. The hope is that using this technology is also less stigmatizing than having to sit in front of a teacher and read, which can be daunting at any age. It should also free teachers from having to spend so much time on reading-fluency practice.

“Based on what we’ve seen so far, kids do prefer reading to the computer,” says Tholfsen. “The reading science will tell you the more a student reads out loud, the better their fluency will get. If teachers can get time back to give more reading fluency assignments, that’s a good thing for reading in general.”

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