Learn the basics about text-to-speech, what the research says about how well it supports comprehension, tips on how to get the most out of the technology, and a short list of recommended text-to-speech tools.
Text-to-speech (TTS) is a very popular assistive technology in which a computer or tablet reads the words on the screen out loud to the user. This technology is popular among students who have difficulties with reading, especially those who struggle with decoding. By presenting the words auditorily, the student can focus on the meaning of words instead of spending all their brain power trying to sound out the words. While this can help students work around their reading difficulties and access the classroom material, this technology does not assist students in developing reading skills.
In recent years there has been a steady increase in the amount of TTS software available on both Android and Apple devices (Csapo, 2015). It has also gained popularity in workplace settings as a tool to help users proofread their work.
What the research says about text-to-speech
Despite the growing popularity, the research on text to speech is somewhat unclear.
While this technology allows students to access the classroom material, some researchers have found mixed results on how well students are able to comprehend the text being read to them (Dalton & Strangman, 2006). Furthermore, another team of researchers found that text-to-speech technologies did not impact adolescent students ability to comprehend the reading, however the students did report that they value the increased independence that the TTS software gave them (Meyer, 2014).
However, one study found that students who have been diagnosed with dyslexia did benefit from the use of TTS software. This team offered students training in TTS software in a small-group format for six weeks, and saw improvements in motivation to read, improved comprehension, and improved fluency (White, 2014). Similarly, positive results were found in another study in which TTS was found to be effective in allowing students to access the reading material and was also perceived favourably by the students who used it, especially students in grades 6-8.
Getting the most out of text-to-speech
While the research is clearly mixed, there are some ways to ensure that TTS will work for your students. One such consideration would be to ensure that students find the right TTS voice. Having a high quality TTS voice that sounds similar to a human voice will improve reading comprehension; the less robotic, the better (Cunningham, 2011). To preview different TTS voices and help figure out which one is most prefered by your student, visit the Acapela Group website to listen to options.
Another major consideration is the speed at which the computer presents the text. Many students will set the voice to very high speeds to get the readings done as quick as possible, however it has been shown that having the computer present the words at a rate between 140-180 words per minute is an optimal speed for students (Cunningham, 2003, Cunningham, 2011). When selecting a text-to-speech program, you should select one that has a bi-modal reading setting. Bi-modal reading is when the computer highlights the presented word as it is presented out loud (Montali & Lewandowski, 1996). Presenting the words visually and auditorily helps the student focus on the reading task and encourages deeper comprehension.
Lastly, when using a TTS program, only select a small amount of text at any one time. If a student selects too much text at one time they may lose focus mid-stream which will negatively impact comprehension.
Recommended TTS programs
If you are in the market for a TTS program, consider some of the following popular programs:
Alternatively, most computers and tablets come with built in TTS software; check your device setting under the accessibility section to explore your onboard TTS software.
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Csapó, Á., Wersényi, G., Nagy, H., & Stockman, T. (2015). A survey of assistive technologies and applications for blind users on mobile platforms: a review and foundation for research. Journal on Multimodal User Interfaces, 9(4), 275-286.
Cunningham, R. T. (2011). Understanding Synthetic Speech and Language Processing of Students With and Without a Reading Disability (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Toronto, Toronto.
Dalton, B., & Strangman, N. (2006). Improving Struggling Readers' Comprehension Through Scaffolded Hypertexts and Other Computer-Based Literacy Programs. In M. C. McKenna, L.D. Labbo, R. D. Kieffer, & D. Reinking, International handbook of literacy and technology (Vol 2) (pp. 75-92). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Draffan, E. A., Evans, D. G., & Blenkhorn, P. (2007). Use of assistive technology by students with dyslexia in post-secondary education. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, 2(2), 105-116.
Forgrave, K. E. (2002). Assistive technology: Empowering students with learning disabilities. The Clearing House, 75(3), 122-126.
Meyer, N. K., & Bouck, E. C. (2014). The impact of text-to-speech on expository reading for adolescents with LD. Journal of Special Education Technology, 29(1), 21-33.
Montali, J., & Lewandowski, L. (1996). Bimodal reading: Benefits of a talking computer for average and less skilled readers. Journal of learning disabilities, 29(3), 271-279.