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Speech Assessment and Training System for Students of English as a Second Language (SPATS-ESL)

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 refined for use with hearing impaired persons (SPATS-HI), and a second designed for students of English as a second language (SPATS-ESL).  


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 misrouted, 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 both fundamental speech sounds and sentences.  


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 who need help 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 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 recognize the learner’s competence in perceiving both the basic sounds of English and naturally spoken English sentences.  SPATS-ESL has recently been made available for purchase by qualified users, because the latest versions of this program are designed in such a way that it may be used without supervision.


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 can be given periodic evaluative feedback and guidance for future training sessions.  These proctored tests can be a useful part of SPATS-ESL training and may help 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 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 the 109 sounds of English speech (including the consonants and consonant clusters in syllable initial and final positions and the vowels and vowel-like sounds).


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 examining the Student’s Guide will help them understand the system. The Student's Guide is available by clicking on the following link:
- Student’s Guide to SPATS-ESL being revised


Administrators of SPATS-ESL programs will benefit by instruction from CDT. This can be obtained through personnel training, attending a workshop, or by participating in an an online workshop. The "Administrator’s Guide to SPATS-ESL”  is available by clicking on the link below.
- Administrator’s Guide to SPATS-ESL being revised


Programs interested in licensing SPATS-ESL should contact CDT: contact@comdistec.com 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 benefit from 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. Training sessions are also available in the form of virtual visits to CDT, conducted by a combination of conference calls and online instruction with the actual programs using GoToMeeting software. 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 or of upcoming SPATS-related events.

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

Or mail inquiries to:
Dr. James D. Miller
Communication Disorders Technology, Inc
3100 East Hinkle Place, Ste 107
Bloomington, IN 47408


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, J.D., Sillings, R., Watson, C.S., and Kewley-Port, D. (2011) “Speech Perception Assessment and Training System (SPATS-ESL) for speakers of other languages learning English” In house, 16-page manuscript that expands on the above Poster.
[Download pdf version]

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 the "Cross-language speech perception and variations in linguistic experience" Portland, OR May 23, 2009.]

Miller, J., Watson., & Sillings, R. (2011). Internet accessible, computerized training of ESL learners to perceive the sounds and words of spoken English. In S. Huffman & V. Hegelheimer (Eds.), The role of CALL in hybrid and online language courses. Ames, IA: Iowa State University.
[Download pdf version]

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Communication Disorders Technology, Inc.
3100 East John Hinkle Place, Ste 107
Bloomington, IN 47408
Phone:   1-812-336-1766
Fax:   1-812-822-3438
E-mail:   cdt@comdistec.com