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


Microsoft is adding a new Reading Progress feature to Microsoft Teams, designed to help students improve their reading skills. Reading Progress works by allowing students to record themselves reading a portion of text, and allows teachers to rate accuracy rates, mispronunciations, and more.

Typically, students will practice fluency reading in the presence of a teacher, where they will read a passage aloud and the teacher will mark it accordingly. Teachers 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 that it would be difficult for teachers to measure reading comprehension remotely.

“With the pandemic, when you think about fluency reading, it’s going to be very difficult … because you can’t be next to students,” explains Mike Tholfsen, a product manager for Microsoft Education, in an interview with The edge. “You may be able to set up Teams calls or Zoom calls, but the vast majority of teachers don’t.”

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

A recent study from Stanford University found that the pandemic affected students’ reading skills, with an approximately 30 percent decline in reading fluency in early classes. “When the pandemic hit, we worked with the head of Microsoft Education and agreed to accelerate development,” said Tholfsen. “We put a lot of energy into it over the past year.”

Microsoft has been testing an early alpha version of Reading Progress with more than 350 teachers since October, and it is now ready to roll it out as a free add-on leading up to the next school year. The technology is powered by Azure at the back, allowing a teacher to adjust their sensitivity to measure students with speech impairments or dyslexia.

“We have partnered with our Azure speech services team and we have had a very close relationship with them,” said Tholfsen. “If you’ve seen the PowerPoint presenter coach, they use the same speech technology behind the scenes.” Microsoft has built a mispronunciations API that essentially measures confidence intervals and splits words based on a passage of text for a student to read.

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

Teachers see a full dashboard with words per minute and accuracy, and they can jump to a specific word to hear a student pronounce it. If teachers don’t want automatic detection, they can simply turn it off and watch a video of a student reading and then manually grade it. This speech technology will also handle different dialects and accents, although Microsoft will initially only launch it for a US English audience.

Microsoft has been working on this feature for a few years, after the team learned of a teacher who was creating 150 spreadsheet copies for other teachers to record reading comprehension data and then manually merge it all together. That painstaking effort led to Microsoft’s own mock-ups in early 2019 and a bigger push as part of the company’s in-house hack-a-thon in the summer of 2019.

Microsoft now hopes that this technology can be used outside of primary school students to aid reading fluency in special education, adult literacy, and elsewhere. The hope is that using this technology is also less stigmatizing than having to sit and read in front of a teacher, which can be daunting at any age. It should also free teachers from spending so much time practicing reading skills.

“Based on what we’ve seen so far, children prefer to read in front of the computer,” says Tholfsen. “Reading science will tell you the more a student reads out loud, the better he or she becomes fluent. If teachers can get back time to give more reading assignments, that’s generally a good thing for reading. “