Text-to-speech in the classroom.
What do teachers need to know?

Reading is a process of constructing meaning from written text. Decoding is a subskill of this process. Students who have difficulties decoding text must overcome barriers related to reading and understanding printed materials in order to be able to access content and information. While students experiencing difficulty require both explicit reading instruction and practice, they may also benefit from the use of technology as a support to help reduce the barriers of print while they are improving their skills. To maximize student success, technologies must be combined and aligned with effective instruction.

There is a range of technologies available to help individuals who struggle with reading. While each type of tool works a little differently, most tools help by presenting text as speech. This facilitates decoding, reading fluency, and comprehension. Students who do not require text-to-speech may experiment with it but are unlikely to choose to use it for daily reading.

Benefits to support student learning

Text-to-speech can:

  • decode text with an accuracy and fluency that students who struggle with text cannot attain on their own
  • enable students to work more independently with grade-level materials
  • increase independent access to interesting and age-appropriate content and opportunities to engage with text
  • support comprehension by freeing students to focus on the meaning of the text
  • support comprehension by enabling students to reread blocks of text, instructions or questions as many times as needed to ensure comprehension
  • provide opportunity for repeated reading of text to help students develop decoding, vocabulary, and grammatical skills
  • allow students to participate in discussions and activities related to content read
  • reduce fatigue and/or frustration, and increase students’ ability to complete reading assignments
  • help students pay attention and remember more through the use of highlighted and spoken text
  • assist students in proofreading written work by hearing content read back out loud.

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Types of learning tasks supported

Text-to-speech can provide support with:

  • any task in which students need to access instructions and/or information that is text based such as:
    • researching using the Internet or other digital text
    • classroom assignments and assessments
  • writing tasks where students can have their text read back to them as often as they require and then use that auditory feedback to revise their writing
  • fluency improvement tasks where text-to-speech with dynamic highlighting (tracking text word by word as it is being read out loud) can help students improve their reading fluency.

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Learning contexts

Text-to-speech can be used:

  • individually to support independent learning using text-based digital materials
  • with a partner or in a small group using text-based digital materials
  • in learning centres or workstations
  • for reading and/or studying at home.

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Students who would particularly benefit

Text-to-speech would benefit students:

  • with a reading disability related to decoding
  • who decode below grade-level expectations and/or struggle with typical grade-level materials
  • who are emergent readers who would benefit from accessing text above their current decoding level
  • with a visual processing difficulty
  • learning English as another language
  • who would benefit from hearing written text read back during the editing process of a writing assignment.

In addition, some students with vision loss may benefit from the use of text-to-speech software.

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Factors for consideration

Factors to consider when using text-to-speech:

  • To maximize student success, text-to-speech must be combined and aligned with effective instruction to support the reading process.
  • Consideration must be given to how individual students understand differing levels of content as well as students’ listening comprehension levels.

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Benefits of making text-to-speech available to all students

Having text-to-speech available to all students:

  • allows all students to experiment with the technology
  • provides a tool for students who may not have an identified disability but may benefit from additional support
  • supports students who may only require text-to-speech for certain words or certain passages of text
  • removes the stigma for individual students who might otherwise deny themselves the support, especially at the junior and senior high school level.

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Personalizing for individual student needs

Personalizing options differ depending upon the software, but typically there are options for:

  • controlling the speed at which text is read
  • choosing specific voices for reading text
  • choosing highlighting colours
  • choosing the amount of text to be read aloud at any one time (e.g., word, sentence, or paragraph)
  • custom pronunciation, such as names
  • turning voice on or off
  • highlighting or not highlighting words as they are being read out loud.

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Choosing the right tool

Choosing an appropriate technology solution involves gathering information about your students, identifying needs and potential technologies, and investigating the effectiveness of different technologies with different students.

There are many free versions of text-to-speech available on the web. Depending upon the personalizing options that they offer (e.g., type of text that can be read aloud, highlighting of text for tracking, adjustment of speed, choice of voice, ability to read in different applications), free versions may or may not be suitable for individual student use. For students who have specific learning needs or preferences, consideration may need to be given to purchasing text-to-speech software that can provide the level of support required.

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Conditions for success

Conditions for success include:

  • easy access to devices (e.g., laptop, tablet, desktop computer)
  • headphones
  • access to digital learning materials and resources (e.g., digital files including Word documents, PDF files and online resources).

Learn Alberta is a digital repository that supports teaching and learning in Alberta schools. As part of the Learn Alberta collection is a set of digital resources to support the learning of students with identified print disabilities.

The digital repository contains grade 4 to 12 student textbooks for language arts, mathematics, social studies and science. These digital resources are available for students with disabilities in Alberta and many can be accessed with the use of text-to-speech.

To access these digital resources, log in to Learn Alberta, choose Resource Search, scroll down to Learning Resource Type, and choose Resource for Students with Disabilities. Access to Learn Alberta can be gained through individual school districts or by contacting Learn Alberta through www.learnalberta.ca.

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Instructional planning considerations

Instructional planning considerations include:

  • choosing materials and resources that align with the cognitive ability of individual students to understand content
  • having learning material and resources available in an accessible digital format (e.g., Word or PDF accessible files)
  • ensuring that students have easy access to the necessary device (e.g., laptop, tablet) and software in the learning environment
  • providing methods to make digital material and resources available to students (e.g., flash drive, email, network)
  • arrangements for how students complete assignments at home
  • ongoing instruction related to reading (e.g., introduction of key vocabulary, building or activating background knowledge prior to reading, comprehension strategies).

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Introducing to students

To familiarize students with text-to-speech software, identify critical functions and systemically introduce through:

  • explicit whole group, small group or individual instruction
  • peer training and support
  • video tutorials online.

If using software that provides a suite of tools, initially limit the function to only text-to-speech and gradually expand to include the other tools on an as-needed basis.

Guided practice

Introduce text-to-speech with an engaging task (e.g., reading an online magazine in an area of interest) and allow the student to become comfortable and confident with using text-to-speech before extending to an academic task or specific subject area.

Identify a specific task the student would be expected to complete using text-to-speech (e.g., working with a partner to review three websites) and indicators that demonstrate that the technology is making a difference in the student’s ability to complete the task.

Sample indicators of success might include:

  • increased student participation in learning activities
  • demonstration of understanding of text-based material (e.g., through verbal or written expression)
  • increased on-task behaviour
  • increased completion and/or quality of learning tasks
  • self-initiated reading for own interests
  • view of self as a reader.

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Monitoring and assessing effectiveness

Collect data on a regular basis based on indicators of success to help determine the effectiveness of using text-to-speech. If expected success is not achieved, it might indicate a need for a change in how text-to-speech is being implemented (e.g., student is being asked to use text-to-speech on too many tasks or in too many subject areas). The student may require more time to become comfortable with the software, or perhaps a different software or approach may need to be considered.

Note how often students use text-to-speech over the course of a school day, how long they use it at one time, and what impact it has on reading success. For example, did students complete the assignments? How long did it take? Did they understand and remember key concepts?

If results indicate that text-to-speech software is not benefiting an individual student who is struggling with decoding, consult with an assistive technology consultant to explore other options.

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Differentiated instruction

The strategic use of technology can engage learners at varying levels of readiness and in multiple ways, supporting the differentiation of instruction to help meet the diverse learning needs of students.

Text-to-speech can:

  • provide a scaffold and support access to learning when students are provided with digital text and resources with text-to-speech options
  • provide students access to text above their independent decoding level
  • allow students to work from the same resources in various ways
  • provide choice and access to a wider variety of learning options for all students when a variety of learning resources are available as digital text
  • help create a learning environment responsive to the learning preferences, interests, and readiness of the individual learner.

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Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

A Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach recognizes that barriers to learning can exist within the environment and aims to maximize learning for all students by creating flexible learning environments that reduce or eliminate potential barriers. For some students, the emphasis on print materials is a barrier and interferes with their ability to access and interact with content.

UDL also emphasizes the need to clearly identify the purpose of the learning activity in order to allow students multiple options for how they can successfully accomplish the goal or purpose of the activity.

For example, if students are asked to read a short story, the purpose of the learning task will determine the scaffolds and supports that might be appropriate. Is the purpose to:

  • practise decoding and reading fluency
  • learn a comprehension strategy
  • learn about a key character
  • form an opinion and share back with the whole group?

If the purpose of the short story assignment is to form an opinion and share back with the whole group (rather than practice decoding skills), then using text-to-speech to support decoding would enhance comprehension and would not interfere with the goal of the learning activity.

However, if the goal of the learning task is to collect evidence of independent reading fluency, text-to-speech may not be appropriate.

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Response to Intervention

Typically, Response to Intervention is the practice of providing evidence-based instruction and intervention matched to student need. The RtI model offers tiered interventions for students who are not benefitting from universal instructional strategies and therefore require additional or more intensive interventions.

Text-to-speech could be considered a solution for students who have difficulty decoding at grade-level expectations, particularly in the upper grades.

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