A child and parent reading in a tent

Speech technology cannot truly replace reading, researchers argue

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According to Dutch psycholinguists, speech technology cannot replace the benefits of learning to read, such as word prediction.

Approximately one in five people could be considered to have poor levels of literacy, either due to limited learning opportunities or learning difficulties such as dyslexia. This puts these people at a severe disadvantage in most walks of life, although speech technologies such as voice recognition and screen readers have been pushed as a solution for low literacy.

However, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics at Radboud University have argued in an article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences that speech technology should never replacing learning to read, as being literate has many benefits, including better understanding of speech.

“It is very relevant and timely to look at the advantages of reading on speech, especially as people tend to read less and in different ways than they used to,” said Professor Falk Huettig. “Contemporary social media writing and reading habits, for example, are quite different from traditional print media. Information that people used to get from written sources, such as novels, newspapers, public notices or even recipe books, they get more and more from YouTube videos, podcasts or audiobooks.”

The researchers acknowledge that reaping information from a wider range of sources is not a bad thing, particularly as many of these methods still augment vocabulary, improve short-term memory and increase knowledge about the world. However, the physical act of reading is apparently crucially important for developing skills such as word prediction: a skill which allows even very young children to predict upcoming information in sentences. Word prediction comes much more naturally to experienced readers, as they encounter millions of words every year and build large networks of words and associations between them. In turn, word prediction allows people to read faster.

People with limited literacy may struggle to grasp the concept of a ‘word’, which has less meaning for those unfamiliar with written language. For instance, young children and illiterate people asked to repeat the last word of a spoken sentence tend to repeat the entire sentence. Storing both the spoken and written forms of a word in memory helps make spoken words more salient, the researchers argue.

“Our arguments provide one more reason why more efforts should be undertaken to teach the hundreds of millions of illiterates in developing countries and functional illiterates across the world how to read (or to read better) and why a focus on artificial intelligence voice recognition and voice assistants to overcome literacy-related problems has its dangers,” the psycholinguists wrote.

“Writing is an ancient human technology that we shouldn’t give up easily. Teaching how to read and how to read better remains very important, even in a modern technological world.”

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