The book that reads itself

12th September 1997 at 01:00
It has taken Kathleen Aitken 10 years - and a financial gamble few teachers could afford - to realise her invention for helping pupils overcome reading difficulties. Sue Palmer reports

Kathleen Aitken was washing her hair when the idea first came to her. It was one of those stray thoughts that often cross teachers' minds but which most of us just think of, then forget. Kathleen, however, didn't forget. She went downstairs and talked to her husband about it. Then she pursued her idea for 10 years until at last, this autumn, the invention she dreamed of is about to go on sale. Any primary teacher who sees it will swiftly recognise that this invention could revolutionise learning to read.

In its present incarnation, Kathleen's idea is called Alto and is produced by Tomy UK toys as an "early years interactive learning system". It's a book, an ordinary book, that a parent can read to a child. What distinguishes it is that when the parent has to go off for a few minutes, he or she can slot the book into a special frame, feed in a "smart cassette", and the book will then proceed to read itself aloud.

Alternatively - and this is the important bit - the child can attempt to read independently, knowing that any difficult words, letters or sounds can be made intelligible at a single touch. There is a pencil-like attachment that you point at icons or words on the page; touch one icon and the whole page will be read aloud; touch individual words and you hear them individually; touch individual letters and they are articulated as phonic sounds or letter-names.

There are six books available initially - titles such as My First Book of Animals allow a pre-school child to hear animal noises and musical notes, as well as words and sentences - but there is clearly huge potential for development for other markets, including special needs children, who first put the idea into Kathleen's head and for whom she is desperately keen to see that it is developed.

Kathleen Aitken, a Scot, trained as a teacher at Jordanhill College in Glasgow and taught in Paisley until her husband's job took them to England. In 1987, after a break from teaching to raise her family, she was working in a secondary school in Wiltshire with children who had failed to learn to read. "I realised how scarred these children were by their repeated failures. Before you could tackle the reading you had to deal with all the problems that came from low self-esteem. Computers helped, but they wanted to be able to read books. I was always looking for material they'd want to read and could read without constantly needing to ask for help."

She discovered a set of highly simplified classics, written for foreign students of English, which her pupils could just about manage. "They made some progress but it still wasn't enough. One boy had a simplified Treasure Island. He said it was a great story but he still got frustrated because there were always a few words on the page he couldn't read."

That evening Kathleen had the thought that was to be a driving force in her life for the next decade: "Wouldn't it be great if you could get the individual words and letters on the printed page to speak themselves." She asked her husband, a lecturer in microelectronics, whether such a thing were possible. It was not his field, but he suspected that technology had developed sufficiently for such a thing to be achievable, so the idea would be worth pursuing.

She started by investigating whether a book that spoke was already available or being developed. Talking computers were on the way, but that was not what she wanted. "It had to be a real book, not something on a computer screen. " No one in the computer centres she visited had ever heard of anything like her idea. So she decided to take out a patent: "I didn't know how you did such a thing, but I just phoned and wrote to people and read loads of articles till I found out. It cost Pounds 300 and we didn't have money to waste atthe time, so it was quite a gamble."

Next she looked into government business initiatives and grants for research and development. The responses were dusty - "Not technically possible", "No funding", "No support available" - so she turned to a computer expert at the Information Technology Training Centre in Swindon. "He was great. He too thought we were on the edge of the technology, and he funded his young marketing assistant to do some market research in schools and colleges. All the responses were 'Wouldn't this be marvellous', and that gave me the motivation to carry on.The Swindon Business Development Centre helped me find an expert in the field with a reputation for tackling the impossible - Professor Reg King at the RMCS (Royal Military College of Science) campus of Cranfield University. "

So it was, after 18 months, that Kathleen met the first of the people with whom she would eventually set up a company, Scanna Technology Ltd, to produce her book-that-reads-itself.

Prof King provided a list of criteria for finding an expert in micro- miniaturisation to develop the idea and, after Kathleen's husband had spent days in the library and on the phone - "He had to do it, it was too technical for me" - they found Dr Hrand Mamigonians.

"Dr Hrand was very enthusiastic and he and Prof King set about getting a 'proof of concept' prototype together," Kathleen says. But development needs money, so Reg King brought in a marketing contact, Noel Cummings, who set about looking for backers so they could form a company. It took years. "It was often frustrating," says Kathleen. "Money would seem forthcoming from somewhere and our hopes would be lifted, then it would fall through for one reason or another. We almost gave up a number of times. But we were all so convinced of the impact the book could make."

Dr Hrand and Prof King produced a rough prototype, demonstrating how a pointer (later metamorphosed into the user-friendly pencil attachment on Alto) could trigger a recorded reading of a page by touching an electronic "page number" and how it could identify individual words and letters as co-ordinates on the page. "It was very basic, not at all portable. People had to travel to see it," Kathleen recalls. Eventually, a prototype was produced and demonstrated publicly at the Institution of Electrical Engineers. This was enough to get Scanna Technology the financial backing it required: Tomy were interested.

Since then things have moved fairly fast. Tomy UK named the product Alto, and employed Dr Hrand to advise on development, initially for the early-learning market. However, as Kathleen Aitken says, there are endless possibilities especially for educational use.

"It's a real book, you see. You don't have to sit at a computer. It gives a child absolute security and release from failure. If you don't know a word or a letter or a sound, you can get it clearly, easily, repeatedly, without having to ask. There's immediate feedback."

Anyone who has taught reading, especially to children with learning difficulties, will appreciate what a difference such an invention could make. A lot of parents and teachers will be grateful. It's often been said that IT is a useful literacy tool, but you can't curl up with a computer. With the right development, Alto could provide support for every child to curl up with a book and discover the joys of reading.

* The Tomy Alto is available fromWH Smith from October. Basic system (frame, case and first book) Pounds 64.99, books: Pounds 12.99 each approx. Scanna Technology, 197 Knightsbridge, London SW7 1RB.

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