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Following the successful development of SPATS-HI for hearing-impaired listeners, it was recognized that similar software might be useful for the assessment and training of persons learning English as a second language (ESL students). ESL students often persist in attending to dimensions of spoken English that distinguish the sounds of their native language, but which may be much less useful for the identification of English speech sounds.  And even when attending to appropriate dimensions, these students may have inappropriately placed category boundaries.  Therefore, a version of the training system was developed for the ESL population.  There are now two distinct versions of SPATS, one that has been refined for use with hearing impaired persons, (SPATS-HI) and a second system that has been adapted for students of English as a second language (SPATS-ESL).  

The Importance of Perceptual Training for ESL Students

ESL students who have excellent reading and writing skills in English often continue to have great difficulty in understanding conversational speech by a native speaker.  Failure to understand English at normal conversational rates is, in a sense, the hidden language disability of a great many non-native speakers.  A non-native speaker of English may have very obvious problems with pronunciation, but the fact that they often do not understand what is said to them may be disguised by their smiling and nodding in response.  Only when an experiment is run incorrectly, a financial transaction mis-routed, or the wrong medication administered, does it become obvious that their perception of English may be an even more serious problem than their pronunciation.  It is also worth noting that as perception of the sounds of English becomes more accurate, it is very likely that improved pronunciation will be an additional consequence. One reason for this is that certain speech sounds, such as the l-r distinction (as between “lace” and “race”) for native speakers of Japanese, cannot be identified correctly.   But there is nothing wrong with the listener’s auditory system; they simply have not learned to listen correctly.  Considerable research has shown, however that ESL students can learn to hear differences, like those between /l/ and /r/ (for native speakers of Japanese, Chinese or Korean), that were previously inaudible to them.  Trials of SPATS with ESL students at Indiana University have shown that within approximately 20-30 hours of SPATS combined training on the syllable constituents of English (onsets, nuclei and codas) and recognition of English sentences, most ESL students approach the recognition accuracy of native speakers for these fundamental speech sounds.  

Distribution of SPATS-ESL

SPATS-ESL is made available to independent ESL schools and to university units, such as Engineering or Business Programs with large numbers of international students in need of improving their ability to converse in English.  SPATS-ESL is designed for students with basic knowledge of written English as evidenced by paper and pencil TOEFL scores at or above 500.  SPATS-ESL is not designed to teach English grammar, vocabulary, or idioms.  It is designed to teach International Students with a basic knowledge of English to be able to accurately perceive naturally spoken English sentences and to be able to identify the basic sounds of spoken English accurately.  Success with the program can be documented by proctored tests, discussed in a later section, and certificates can be issued that certify the learner’s competence in perceiving both the basic sounds of English and naturally spoken English sentences.  SPATS-ESL is not available for purchase by individual users, in part because its successful use has only been demonstrated when students are supervised and have periodic proctored tests of their achievement.

The Importance of Proctored Tests

There is an apt analogy between SPATS-ESL training and the study of the piano. Nothing but self-directed home study might be sufficient for the very unusual student to learn to play that instrument.  But the vast majority of piano students will only learn to play if they have periodic sessions with a teacher, in which they receive feedback, admonitions about practice, reinforcement for their achievements, and new assignments.  Learning to perceive the complex code that is represented by the sounds of English, when that code differs in many fundamental ways from that of one’s native language, is a complex perceptual skill.  This skill improves with systematic practice as do perceptual-motor skills like playing the piano, playing tennis or platform diving.  The SPATS-ESL system includes proctored tests to be very efficiently administered by a teacher or staff member.  On the basis of the proctored tests the ESL student is given periodic evaluative feedback and guidance for future training sessions.  These proctored tests are an important part of SPATS-ESL training, and in fact are essential for trainees to enjoy the maximum benefits of their practice.  The proctored tests can also be used to award certificates recognizing the specific level of speech recognition achieved by the ESL student, and to make that information available in a meaningful form to prospective employers.

CDT provides to those programs that adopt SPATS-ESL, without charge, the necessary additional software for proctored testing.  The proctored tests measure each student’s competence in the perception of the basic sounds of English at four graded levels of difficulty, and their competence in recognizing naturally spoken sentences in the quiet and in moderate amounts of background conversational noise.

SPATS-ESL is Appropriate for Students from All Language Backgrounds.

SPATS-ESL adapts its training to each individual’s needs, independent of their language background (the student’s native language, or “L1”) so there is no need to use different programs for students from various L1’s.  SPATS-ESL also is progressive, in that it begins with the most common sounds of English and adds more as it works toward the student’s learning of the complete set of 109 sounds of English speech (including the consonants and consonant clusters in syllable initial and final positions and the vowels and vowel-like sounds).

Student’s Guide to SPATS-ESL

Even though SPATS-ESL has complete on-screen instructions a Student’s Guide has been prepared to supplement the on-screen material.   Those interested in learning more about SPATS-ESL may find that scanning the Student’s Guide will help them understand the system. (Also, an Administrator’s Guide to SPATS-ESL and Proctored Tests is in preparation and should be posted no later than June 15, 2009.) It is available by clicking on the link below.
Student’s Guide to SPATS-ESL 

Administrator’s Guide to SPATS-ESL

Administrators of SPATS-ESL programs will need instruction from CDT. This can be obtained through personnel training, attending a workshop, or, in the near future, by joining, an online workshop.  As further assistance to SPATS-ESL Administrators, CDT has prepared an “Administrator’s Guide to SPATS-ESL.”  It is available by clicking on the link below.
Administrator’s Guide to SPATS-ESL

On Becoming a SPATS-ESL Certified Program

Programs interested in licensing SPATS-ESL should contact CDT or call (812) 336-1766.

The SPATS speech-perception training systems, SPATS-HI and SPATS-ESL,
are highly evolved applications that assess trainees’ skills and automatically present a training curriculum that is designed to yield the most improvement possible per hour invested in training. These systems require some supervision by a clinician or teacher, who has been trained in their use.  Training for SPATS supervision can be provided in one or more 2-3 hour workshops by arrangement.  In the near future, training sessions may be available in the form of "virtual" visits to CDT, conducted by a combination of conference telephone calls and online instruction with the actual programs. If you are interested in participating in one or more of these online workshops, please contact us and indicate whether your interest is in SPATS-HI, SPATS-ESL, or both. Please join our mailing list so that we can inform you of new items on our site of other upcoming SPATS related events.

For other information about SPATS training systems, please contact Dr. James D. Miller
Telephone: (812) 336-1766

Or mail inquiries to:
Dr. James D. Miller
Communication Disorders Technology, Inc
Indiana University Research Park
501 N. Morton Street, Suite 215
Bloomington, IN 47404


Miller, JD, Sillings, R, Watson, CS, and Kewley-Port, D  (2009) “Speech Perception Assessment and Training System (SPATS-ESL) for speakers of other languages learning English” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 125(4): 2755 (A)
[Poster Presented at “Special Workshop on Cross-Language Speech Perception: Variations in Linguistic Experience” Portland, OR.  May 21-23.]

Miller, JD, Sillings, R, Watson, CS, Darcy I, and Bardovi-Harlig, K (2009) “Experience with computerized speech-perception training (SPATS-ESL) for speakers of other languages learning English” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 125(4):2767(A)
[Power-Point presentation presented at “Special Workshop on Cross-Language Speech Perception: Variations in Linguistic Experience” Portland, OR  May 21-23.]

Kewley-Port, D., Nishi, K., Park, H., Miller, J.D., and Watson, C.S. (2009). Learn to Listen (L2L): Perception training system for learners of English as a second language. /J. Acoust. Soc. Am., 125, No. 4, 2773.
[Poster Presented at “Special Workshop on Cross-Language Speech Perception: Variations in Linguistic Experience” Portland, OR.  May 23.]