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Reframing the Text-to-Speech vs. Human Audio Debate: Both Make Reading Easier

The proliferation and improved quality of text-to-speech is helping people with reading barriers succeed in school and life

On any given day, my morning routine might include a “conversation” with my home digital assistant from which I learn the latest news, the weather forecast, or just how terrible the traffic is on my route to work. In my car, my GPS app tells me how to get where I’m going, and I often listen to podcasts or audiobooks to make my commute more tolerable. On particularly busy or stressful mornings, I’m grateful that my Bible app can read aloud to me while I navigate the crowded freeways, providing needed inspiration. In some of these audio experiences, the voices talking to me are human ones; other times, they’re digital voices so human sounding that I hardly notice the difference. For me, though, consuming content in audio is merely a convenience. For many others, it is as essential as air and water.

Digital Text-to-Speech Voices Are a Lifeline

Consider the person who is visually impaired and depends on audio interactions to provide directions, read emails, and complete everyday tasks. Or the person with dyslexia who can read with greater ease and comprehension with narrated books because he or she doesn’t have to struggle to decode every word. For individuals with reading barriers, audio is a necessary mode of receiving and processing information. And although some of what they consume today will be human narrated, more and more information will be communicated through technology. Let’s face it: digital text-to-speech (TTS) voices are here to stay, and they will only become more common. Thankfully, the quality has improved significantly and will continue to improve every year. Soon, the distinction between human and text-to-speech voices will be negligible.

Emery holding a tablet with drawing in the back

Bookshare and TTS are life changing for Emery, a sixth grader with dyslexia

As I interact with educators around the country who support students with reading barriers, I sometimes hear concerns about students’ willingness to adjust to TTS versus human-narrated audio. Some educators indicate that their students have already chosen one audio format or the other, or the educators themselves have made this choice for them. In light of the realities described above, this either/or approach to audio formats can limit learning opportunities. Preparing students for the future requires helping them become comfortable with TTS as well as human-narrated audio content. Fortunately, students have a growing number of excellent TTS voice options from which to choose, so they’re sure to find at least one voice they can use for reading. And, research shows that reading with TTS benefits students now as well as in the future.

Text-to-Speech Offers Features that Improve Reading Proficiency

Many applications that facilitate TTS reading offer karaoke-style highlighted text (at the word, phrase, or sentence level) to accompany the narration. In addition, these tools often allow students to customize their experiences by selecting the font, font size, color scheme, voice, and speed that works best for them. Voice Dream Reader, for example, offers 186 voices in 30 languages. Many tools also facilitate bookmarking and highlighting of text, note taking, and connections with supplementary online resources. According to studies on TTS used by students with reading barriers, as cited by the National Assistive Technology in Education (NATE) Network, features such as these “enhance student engagement, interest, and motivation” (Reinking, 2005; Strangman & Dalton, 2005).

In another study with students with reading barriers, “students accessed twice as much text within the same amount of time” when consuming information with TTS versus reading text on paper. In addition, “the use of the TTS allowed students to demonstrate improved comprehension scores on factual and inferential (higher level thinking) comprehension questions.” Moreover, in this same study, “teachers reported improved academic performance, better on-task behavior, and more engagement when using TTS” (Hodapp & Rachow, 2010).

Another benefit and point of differentiation for consideration is that production of TTS-enabled books is far quicker, easier, and cheaper than that of human narrated content. That means more of the books students need will be readily available in a format that works well for them.

Bookshare plus Reading Apps Equals Versatility and Independence

As the producers of Bookshare, an ebook library of 700,000+ titles available in text-to-speech (combined with highlighted text, if desired), and readable on nearly any device, Benetech is doing its part to help students succeed now and in a digital future. We believe that no matter how you want to consume content – audio, karaoke-style, braille, large print, or printed on paper – that content should be accessible to you and available when you need it.

We encourage you to learn how text-to-speech reading can help your students.

9 Comments

  1. Jim Kauppila

    In a perfect world everyone would speak with perfect consistent diction, We could make recordings of all the books of the world. Having them accessible for those that need such support.

    In my world, the improvements in speech synthesis are quite impressive. The ability control the voice, pitch, and rate of speech are nothing short of amazing. We can get publisher files, scan and convert books with greater ease and speed than ever before.

    I started listening to synthesized speech in 1983, Thirty five years later I can swear on a stack of bibles, text to speech is a viable means to gain content from the printed word for those who struggle. The largest group of Nay-sayers, don’t struggle, they confuse instruction in Fluency with learning from content. I will not disregard the importance of Fluency in reading instruction. Students, adults who are using sites like Bookshare HAVE fluency problems, issues with understanding phonics etc. These people are using Bookshare to LEARN.

    Consistency in presentation is important for struggling readers. Speech Synthesis represents text with 100% consistency, Human speech will never achieve at that level.

    The developers of such great technology are a gift from God, proof that humans are able to create things of beauty and utility.

  2. Susan Melton

    I have been using Learning Ally for several years, and I had to wait for my books to be recorded every semester. I just learned about Bookshare last year because I had a visually impaired student in my class. I also have Natural reader and Grammarly on my computer. Before this technology was made available to me, I skipped over reading assignments because reading them was a struggle and relied solely on lectures to learn the required information.
    Now I have all my books at the beginning of each semester, and these tools have enabled me to keep up with my reading assignments and be successful in my Master Level Professional Counseling Program. Unless you have a reading disability, people cannot understand how important this technology is for students at all levels. Thank you, Bookshare, for providing recorded books for all of us.

  3. leonard kelsey

    I am 80 years old and have not been able to read a book cover to cover due to dyslexia. I have used both human and digital speech, at time both are hard to understand. If you want to learn and be entertained you will find what works for you Never just give in, you will miss so much. I share my belief ( Do what you have to — to do what you want too, just be choosey )

  4. Mike Hall

    As a visually impaired person from birth, I grew up using both braille and Talking Books. Talking computers did not exist. Getting a computer in the late ’90’s, my appreciation of text to speech has grown. I think we need both text to speech and the human voice. While more information is certainly available with text to speech, the human reader can add appropriate inflection, explain pictures and graphs and provide character voices. The appreciation of the book is enhanced. The best way to get the most from the written word, I believe, is to hear a variety of voices and reading styles. Thank you Book Share for the work you do.

    • Anita Desousa

      That makes perfect sense as you are guided by the sound of speech and not able to benefit from the text of written words as my dyslexic son can.

  5. Anita Desousa

    Love both but especially text to speech, I feel the non Dyslexic world thinks we are cheating!

    It is truly wonderful to see the highlighted words and to control the contrast of the background on the page while hearing the words.

    I am very excited to learn from the article, that there are ways to scan school books,as that is a tremendous advancement.

    A big thanks to BookShare, it has really changed lives, I only wish it were around when I struggled in school. So happy my son has it and students of the future will as well!

  6. I like the fact that you seem to get to new books faster than any of the others. I presume it is because you use the digital way.
    Howeever, it is not necessary to tell me what page you are. Necessary? It
    s annoying.

  7. Lillian Pipersburg

    My student used BookShare in School but I have no idea how to access the program during the summer months. Please help.

    Thank you,
    Lillian Pipersburg

    • Laura Deck, Bookshare Communications

      Lillian: Bookshare Customer Support is happy to assist you. Please contact them at support@bookshare.org or call 650-352-0198 (M-F 9-5 PT)

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