Text-to-Speech: Not Just For Special Education Students!

By Kristine Napper, Teacher & Techquity Expert

I’m a middle school ESL teacher who accidentally picked up a reputation for being “techy.” But I’ll tell you a secret — I’m not even that into technology. I kicked and screamed through my edtech class as an undergrad.

I am, however, a big believer in a concept I call “techquity.” Instead of doing the same old things on new devices and getting the same results, I believe technology can be used to create more equitable opportunities for all students. (You can hear more about techquity and my own techquitable journey here.)

We all have students reading below grade level. Students with learning disabilities, developing English proficiency, poor instruction, low attendance, and other factors, share the struggle of being unable to navigate grade-level text. While there’s no magical solutions to complex issues, text-to-speech (TTS) is a tool that I find makes a powerful difference for tasks that involve reading.

Accessing Content

The right to learn in school shouldn’t be limited by low literacy. Some of my lowest readers are also some of my brightest students. They might not decode well, but they can memorize, comprehend, analyze, connect, evaluate, apply… In short, they can think! When students can’t independently read a text about World War II, shouldn’t they still get to learn about World War II? Low readers often starve for more information and depth than remedial texts typically provide. TTS breaks down barriers to content.

Stretching Text Endurance

Although most of my students have enough skills to at least slog through assigned reading, for many it’s an exhausting process. They wrestle with each word, grasping for meaning.

Since making TTS available, I’ve noticed a pattern. Many students start an assignment reading on their own. As they fatigue, they pop in some headphones and continue reading with TTS. In a pre-techquity world, these same tired students would give up or turn into behavior problems. Now they’re staying engaged with text for longer, and adjusting strategies to fit their own learning needs.

Easing Text Anxiety

Conversely, some reluctant readers use the same strategy in reverse. These are the students that say they’re “too lazy” to start a task, which is usually covering up insecurity about their abilities. Using TTS sounds easier and less threatening, so they’re willing to get started. Once they get into the text, they often turn off TTS, preferring to continue at their own pace without the robotic voice. The technology lowers their affective filter enough to gain some reading momentum. Then, if they don’t need it anymore, they naturally stop using it.

Unlearning Helplessness

“Ms. Napper, what does this word mean?”

“Which word?”

“Co… cone…. cone-see-kwee…I don’t know how to say it!”

“How can you figure it out?”

At this point, they listen with TTS, and the next thing out of their mouth will either be, “Consequence! Oh, yeah, I know that word,” or “What does consequence mean?”

I’m so tired of students waiting for teachers to hold their hands. TTS allows them to be independent learners, using tools to get information. While I’ll happily help my students when they need it, they have to put in enough effort to at least ask a good question. If they can figure out the answer themselves, even better! It’s empowering for kids who are used to being spoon-fed.

Helps With Writing

For years I’ve told students to read their writing aloud before declaring it finished, but it’s never been very effective. Kids either feel awkward and refuse to do it, or they rush through reading it the way they want it to sound, rather than as it’s written. I’m seeing better results now that I tell them to listen to their own words via TTS. Kids who’ve never voluntarily used a period or comma in their life can hear how confusing the text sounds without punctuation. Those who can’t see the need for editing, can often hear it.

But How Will They Ever Learn To Read?

Let me be very clear — TTS does not replace reading instruction. My original intention was solely to provide access to content. However, I’m finding that it also supplements learning to read — which makes sense. Does anyone ever worry that reading to a child will become a crutch, keeping them from learning to read? Of course not; we encourage it as a way to promote literacy.

Most TTS highlights as it reads, drawing the eye along. It allows students to have meaningful interactions with text throughout the day, instead of dedicating that time and energy to avoidance. I’ve met 6th grade students who I secretly expected to continue needing TTS forever. Two years later, I have the joy of watching them surpass my expectations, voluntarily reading out loud in class without any technology.

Dropping The Stigma

When I started experimenting with TTS, I only offered it to the one or two students in a class with the highest reading needs. It opened doors for them… when they actually used it. They were self-conscious about peers seeing them using something “special.”

As I started imagining TTS benefitting more students, I changed my approach. Now I introduce it to the whole class as something we can all keep in our toolbox. “Some of our brains learn better by listening while we read. If that’s you, this might help. Some of you will want to use it a lot of the time. Some might just use it occasionally, when the reading is challenging or you’re tired. Some will find it too distracting. Do whatever works for your brain!”

Just like that, the stigma is gone! Kids easily accept that our brains learn differently, and that doesn’t make one style better or worse than another. They’ve taken ownership of how, when, and if they use TTS, and they’re handling the responsibility beautifully.

Explore some links to start finding the best TTS tools for you…

Chrome Extensions:

Web Based:

MacBook Built-In Tools:

Microsoft:

Chromebooks Built-In Tools:

iPhone/iPad Built-In Tools:


Kristine Napper is a middle school teacher of English Language Learners in Beaverton, Oregon. She uses her own experience of living with a physical disability to inform her work, uniquely suiting her to work with dual-identified students. She’s driven by a desire to promote student equity, as well as a love of laughing with kids every day. Listen to her talk at TEDxPortland. Follow her at www.kristinenapper.com and on Twitter at @Kristine_Napper.


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