Rupal Patel, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of speech-​​language pathology and audi­ology at North­eastern, is devel­oping inno­v­a­tive reading soft­ware that helps young­sters learn to read aloud with more expres­sion in their voices via a novel inter­ac­tive com­puter program.

Her research in speech dis­or­ders led to a dis­covery that those with speech prob­lems can still con­trol the prosody — the melody or tone — of their voices. As a result, a lis­tener can deter­mine a speaker’s inten­tion even if the words are not under­stand­able. For example, if a speaker’s voice rises at the end of a sen­tence, it likely means he or she is asking a question.

Patel, the director of Northeastern’s Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Analysis and Design Lab­o­ra­tory, applied this con­cept to her soft­ware pro­gram. Dubbed “Read n’ Karaoke, ” it incor­po­rates existing children’s books and pro­vides visual cues to begin­ning readers in order to improve oral reading expres­sive­ness. To show changes in pitch, words change in height. To reflect pauses in speech, the spacing between words increases. To cue readers to speak louder, the words grow darker.

When kids start reading, they sound very monot­o­nous, and they don’t have much inflec­tion in their voice,” Patel said. “They are learning to con­trol that aspect of voice, and there are no visual sig­nals in the written text to give them an idea of how to say it.”

The children’s inter­ac­tion with the pro­gram is a crit­ical com­po­nent, Patel said. Loaded onto a hand­held device, it enables chil­dren to record them­selves reading the text, play those record­ings back to them­selves, and listen to record­ings of an adult reading the sen­tences with the proper inflection.

A National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion grant is helping Patel take the project to the next level. The newest ver­sion of the soft­ware won’t alter the actual word text but instead will pro­vide inflec­tion cues in the form of over­laid graphics, which Patel said would make the text more legible.

While the goal is to make chil­dren more expres­sive in their reading by making the words “come alive” on the page, Patel hopes her research will ulti­mately lead to greater com­pre­hen­sion of the text. She pointed to research that indi­cates chil­dren, even up until the fourth grade, may not under­stand what they’re reading when reading aloud.

Young chil­dren often have a dif­fi­cult time just engaging in reading out loud and under­standing what they read out loud. We want to help them close that gap,” Patel said.