Apple Text-to-Speech – Review

This is one of those products that has been around for a long time and has become an extremely important tool for many of my students in and out of school. There are several different text-to-speech program that do this either as part of the operating system, software, in the browser or as a web app, but I am going to focus on the text-to-speech product that my students use with their Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) MacBook laptops.

Product Name: Apple Text-to-Speech
Company Name: Apple
Type: Desktop Software
Website: http://www.apple.com/accessibility/macosx/literacylearning.html

Company Product Description: “Text to Speech – Mac OS X comes with more than 20 male, female, and novelty voices, including the extraordinary Alex, a voice so natural that he even breathes when speaking long passages. Using Text to Speech (TTS), you can have Alex and other Mac voices speak selected text so you can hear a word as you see it onscreen. You can adjust the speaking rate to slow things down, and speed them up to adapt to the listener’s abilities.
Apple TTS voices work with all applications that support the Mac OS X Speech engine, including Mail, Safari, iChat, TextEdit, and many more. The voices included in Mac OS X Snow Leopard speak in English, but voices in additional languages are available separately.” from Apple’s Accessibility page.

“Convert Text to a Spoken Track in iTunes:  Using a feature called Services in Snow Leopard, you can save Text to Speech output as a track in iTunes so you can play it again later, burn it to a CD, put it into a playlist, and much more. You’ll find Services in an application’s main menu (the TextEdit menu for TextEdit, the Safari menu for Safari, and so on).  To enable it, choose Services Preferences, then check the box next to “Add to iTunes as a spoken track.” from Apple’s Accessibility page.The convert text to spoken track in iTunes tool/service deserves its own post at a future date, but I just wanted to provide this tidbit to highlight that this feature is available.

Below is a screenshot of Apple’s Text-to-Speech tab in System Preferences:
How much does it cost? Free it is part of Apple’s Accessibility package.
Is this the first time reviewing this product? I have never reviewed Apple’s Text-to-Speech.
Do my students have easy access the product? Yes, it is part of every MLTI MacBook Laptop that each of my students have available and all systems that run Apple’s OS-X (Snow Leopard) have it also. Students that have Windows based machines have both text-to-speech and speech-to-text capabilities for free, which I wish that Apple had also. Many of my students would use the speech-to-text function, once it was taught to them, but the commercial software version for Mac is too expensive.
Do I currently use Apple’s Text-to-Speech in my classroom? Yes. It was one of the first tools that I taught my classes to use this year.  Many of my students use text-to-speech in conjunction with eBooks that we have access to as a resource room and they use this tool to “read” books that are beyond their current reading levels.
Is Apple’s Text-to-Speech easy to use? I found Apple’s Text-to-Speech very easy to use and so do my students. We simply highlight what we want it to read and press the pre-defined key combo and Apple’s text-to-speech just works.How does Apple’s Text-to-Speech apply to Special Education? I have several students in my classes who are very weak readers or “reluctant readers” and are not be able to read grade level content area work or high interest books that their peers are reading. Most of my students do not want their peers to think they can’t do the work in class, so they make the “public” choice of refusing to do the work (it is better to be bad, than stupid in front of their peers).

Simply allowing students (in my opinion any student who needs it) to use text-to-speech tools during classes can give students a sense of independence and confidence that they do not have without this tool.  Most of my students do better with the see it, hear it together method than they do when those functions are separated and they and they have a better chance of comprehending grade level work.

I am noticing that many content area teachers are beginning to make their assignments available electronically, which allows student to use the text-to-speech program in content area classes. This is great for my students – now to just get past the “I can’t do it syndrome” that so many of my students have learned in school and have a difficult time unlearning.

The other benefit is that with student’s being able to use Apple’s text-to-speech, it allows the teacher and teaching assistants to focus on other areas of student weaknesses or other students who might have a higher level of need, instead of having to read text to a student.

What I like: Apple’s Text-to-Speech is not a tool that is limited to only Special Education students, it is available to all students that choose to use it – it is a great example of UDL in action.

iTunes allows the user to create study guides or “personal” podcasts from assignments that can be listened to on their iPods, iTouch or other device.  This capability has so many possibilities that could be done and is vastly underutilized in my opinion.

I like that some of my students are using the Apple’s text-to-speech program to proofread some of their writing before turning it in, which is one of my personal uses. I tend to read in or see what I “know” should be in my writing and text to speech forces me to slow down and see what is actually there and correct many errors that I would not have caught otherwise.

What I don’t like: Apple’s text-to-speech program works very well, the biggest thing is when students first learn that they can use it in a word processor, they tend to use it to “say” rather “interesting” comments about each other, the teacher and whatever else they can think of – usually rather inappropriate for the setting.But it isn’t anything all that different than I would have done when I was their age, sometimes we conveniently forget that we were not the angels, we make believe that we were when we were in school.  This is something that the students get tired of after a few days and they usually just use the program correctly now, but it sure can be interesting around school while they are getting used to using Text-to-Speech.

There are still teachers who are primarily paper-based and don’t understand how powerful and useful text-to-speech can be for a student who does not read at grade level expectations. We need to take the time to scan documents, allow them to use their computer and the headphones so that our students are able to use this tool in class.

Instead of like some teachers saying it gives the student to much opportunity to “mess around” on the laptop, using TTS is an unfair advantage for that student and they don’t really need to use it, because the student is just lazy and won’t do the work anyway.

Oh well I will get off that soapbox.

The reality is that I use Apple’s text-to-speech program myself when I am reading a technical, special education documents that I have to understand or proofreading something that I really want to have correct. The text-to-speech forces me to slow down and focus on what I am reading, which in turn allows me to understand more of what I am reading or correct mistakes that I otherwise would have missed.

Many of my students use this text-to-speech daily in class and also in other classes where their assignments are in electronic form.  Some of my students are enjoying their new found ability to read so much, that they are now reading for pleasure, when at the start of the year they fought tooth and nail not to read at all.

Recommendation: There are several text-to-speech programs out there for all operating systems, most browsers and many web applications.  Using and accessing text-to-speech software should not just be limited to Special Education students, many students and adults would benefit from using them to focus their reading or for proofreading their writing.  Overall, Apple’s Text-to-Speech program is a great product and I highly recommend using it or other text-to-speech tools more in the classroom.

Text to Speech is a powerful tool that can help students be more confident and gain higher levels of independence which I believe most students that I teach want. Apple’s built-in Text-to-Speech program is one of the easiest to use and the voice Alex is better than most, I strongly recommend using it whenever possible for the classroom and beyond.

What have you done to make a difference today?