Ivan Sysoev and Anneli Hershman

SpeechBlocks is a smartphone app that allows children to explore spelling principles in an open-ended way. Children rearrange words on the screen by pulling them apart and putting them together with their fingers. Each word formed is pronounced aloud by a speech synthesizer. The interactions afforded by the app were informed by current research findings in early literacy learning. To alleviate the fear of making a mistake, and to support fun exploration, we excluded the notion of “right” and “wrong” from our design: Nonsense words are pronounced along with regular words, much to children’s amusement. While the app is intended to help children acquire basic reading and writing skills, it has also turned out to be a medium for self-expression and creativity.

SpeechBlocks in a Preschool

We conducted several studies with children using SpeechBlocks. We found that:

Please see our last paper for details.

Guided SpeechBlocks

In their play with SpeechBlocks, children often want to spell specific words. If adults are available, the kids will ask them for help. Such cases present valuable learning opportunities, as children’s skills grow largely within the “zone of proximate development” - the range of activities that they cannot do on their own yet, but can perform with some assistance. But what if there is no adult around willing to provide such assistance? Can the app do it on its own? We are trying to answer this question in our recent work. Our experimental system learns about the word that the child wanted to spell through one of the input channels (such as optical character recognition, as in the video below), and then helps to spell the word by highlighting the connection between sounds and letter combinations.

Sentences in SpeechBlocks

In our research, we noticed that even the youngest children often want to create phrases or full sentences after they have spent time playing with letters and individual words. Sometimes this seems to be a more complex form of playful experimentation, other times self-expression or purposeful communication. To investigate this expanded play pattern, we created Sentence SpeechBlocks.

Social SpeechBlocks: Word Pong

[On hold]

We are experimenting with ways to incorporate social elements into our SpeechBlocks prototype to add meaningful ways for children to interact within the app. In this video, you can see children sending their words to one another. A character, which is the child’s avatar on his/her friend’s phone, then pronounces the word aloud.

SpeechBlocks Collaborators: Susan Fine, MA CCC-SLP and 826 Boston

Projects building on SpeechBlocks:

Bilingual SpeechBlocks - modifying SpeechBlocks to help bilingual Spanish-English speaking children differentiate between letter-to-sound mappings in their two languages

PhonoBlocks - a different kind of blocks for early literacy learning.

PlayTrees - visualizing children’s play with SpeechBlocks

Literacy coaches - creating a supportive environment around the learner