Before we discuss tools, I must clarify that our goal is to increase your student’s auditory reading speed. Residual vision should not be used during this exercise. The exercise will focus on the auditory reading system just like a bicep curl focuses on the bicep. That means visual features such as word tracking and magnification are not relevant criteria for choosing the tool that will be used to increase reading speed even though those features may be desirable in the long term.
So, what is the most important criterion when choosing a tool for this exercise?
Use text-to-speech not human speech
Text-to-speech (TTS) software generates speech programmatically. All screen readers use TTS. Your student should use it for auditory reading. They should not use live or recorded human speech. There are several reasons TTS is better.
First, It is now possible for people with print disabilities to get true text versions of almost any published material not to mention content on the world wide web. That fact, combined with TTS, means your students have independent access to all the world’s knowledge. Second, your student can increase her reading speed all the way to her physiological boundaries using TTS. That is not possible with human speech. Third, TTS provides infinite control over the reading process. That means your student can read by paragraph, sentence, or word. She can read the same passage multiple times. She can spell words when needed. In short, TTS facilitates an interactive reading experience that is completely controlled by your student. Fourth, TTS can be used in conjunction with braille on a refreshable braille display or enhanced print on a screen. That means your student can eventually fluidly switch between ears, fingers, and eyes as required or preferred.
If your student is already using a screen reader …
If your student is already using a screen reader, keep using it for this exercise. I think their existing screen reader is the best choice for a few reasons. First, your student probably has some level of comfort with the screen reader. That should include the synthesizer/voice she is using and the basic commands/gestures that she uses to read text. Second, as your student begins to increase her reading speed she will begin to reap the benefits immediately during every interaction with her device. Furthermore, screen readers offer the best user experience for fully interactive reading by chapter, section, paragraph, sentence, word, and character.
If your student is not currently using a screen reader
If your student is not currently using a screen reader, I recommend that she uses Voice Dream Reader to increase reading speed. Voice Dream Reader is a self-voicing reading application that is available on iOS and Android devices. It supports more than 100 TTS voices. It can be used with a screen reader, but a screen reader is not required. The simple user interface can be used by every student from pre-school to post-doc. And, it supports a wide range of file types.
Voice Dream Reader integrates very nicely with Bookshare. Bookshare is a large and growing library of books. Anyone with a qualified print disability can join. It is free for students in the United States.
The integration between Voice Dream Reader and Bookshare means your student can easily search the Bookshare library within the Voice Dream Reader application. She can download a book in seconds and then immediately start reading it. Remember that the ultimate goal of this exercise is to light a spark in your student’s mind. The Bookshare library contains more fuel than she can ever burn. Voice Dream Reader is a shovel she can use to throw fuel on the fire. Her reading rate dictates the size of the shovel. Make sure that you enter your student’s Bookshare username and password in Voice Dream Reader so your student can quickly download books of interest. That will ensure she has plenty of fuel for her fire.
Choosing a voice
Before you begin to deliberately increase reading speed, help your student find a voice she likes. This should be a fun and playful process. There are lots of fun voices with different accents, etc. Choosing a voice provides some autonomy and enables your student to personalize her reading experience which can help her take ownership of the process.
I do believe that certain voices are more amenable to fast reading speeds than others. This could be universal or specific to each individual’s auditory system. I don’t know. However, I use Tom as my voice on iOS and Voice Dream Reader because it is easiest for me to hear that voice at higher speeds. I also use the Eloquence synthesizer with JAWS and NVDA for the same reason. Note that Eloquence is delivered with JAWS. However, it must be purchased and installed as an NVDA add-on.
All that said, your student doesn’t need to pick the perfect voice to get started. It is easy to change voice and/or synthesizer at any time. As you start this process with a new student, let them choose a voice they like and get on with it.
The most important criteria for choosing a tool are TTS, the ability to choose a voice, and the ability to adjust reading speed. Any tool that can do those things will suffice. Got a question about tools? Leave a comment below.
We’ll explore content and methodology in the final two posts of this series.
Frequently Asked Questions
What if my student prefers human speech rather than TTS?
TVIs ask this question from time to time. I have strong feelings about it. I think human speech is a necessary support for very young readers. It is an important part of the process of learning to love literature and the world of ideas, e.g. bedtime reading rituals. It is also wonderful to hear an author read their content in their own voice. However, as a professional with VIB I rarely read using human speech. TTS enables me to read almost any content I choose at a rate of my choosing using a voice that is both familiar and constant. I think TTS enables autonomy and independent learning in a way that is simply not possible with human voice. So, I encourage your students to use TTS as soon as possible. That is what successful adults with VIB do.
How do I select a voice?
Go to www.google.com and search for “manage voices in X” or change voice in X” where X is Voice Dream Reader, JAWS, etc.
How do I increase reading speed?
Go to www.google.com and search for “increase reading speed in X” where X is Voice Dream Reader, JAWS, etc.
What tools do you use?
I generally have two modes of reading which I’ll call “lean in” and “lean back”.
When I’m leaning in, I’m actively working in that I am actively writing, taking notes, or organizing my thoughts in words. The content that I read while leaning in is in direct support of that active work. I lean in using a Windows laptop. I generally use JAWS or NVDA with the Eloquence synthesizer. I use Google Chrome as my default browser with lots of different web applications. I use the Microsoft Office suite including Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Word, etc.
When I’m leaning back, I’m strictly consuming content for work or pleasure. I lean back using my iPhone. I generally read books using Voice Dream Reader, the Kindle app, or iBooks. I read newspapers and magazines using the NFB Newsline app. I listen to podcasts using the Podcasts app.