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Making your computer speak using text to speech

by Lynette Penney | Oct 18, 2012

Introduction

With the right software a computer can turn text into a spoken voice. Known as text-to-speech (or sometimes TTS), this tool is one of the most valuable uses of a computer for users with dyslexia or other reading difficulties as it helps them access the written word independently and develop reading skills. Text from web pages, documents, email or other files can be read aloud using text to speech technology.

What benefits can making your computer talk provide?

Reading web pages, e-books and electronic documents

Although the World Wide Web provides us all with a valuable and vast information resource, it can be daunting to those who find reading difficult. However, with a text-to-speech program many web pages can be read aloud, scan text documents, emails or even PDF files. This means that can you use your computer to read back text that you would otherwise struggle to comprehend and can also include pages of texts from books or worksheets that have been scanned in and turned into editable text documents using optical character recognition tools (OCR).

Multi-sensory teaching environment

Speech has always been an important aspect of software for teaching spelling, for example to reinforce ideas using both sight and hearing. Dyslexia experts often recommend using a multi-sensory approach to teaching. In other words, combining auditory and visual cues. Speech can add a new dimension to computer-based learning with speech output added to an on-screen representation of the word. Many of our software packages for developing spelling and reading skills use speech to enhance learning while AcceleRead AcceleWrite is a literacy teaching technique that has shown how text-to-speech can significantly improve reading and spelling.

Proof-reading

Synthesised voices are wonderful for checking your written work. It’s much easier to hear the mistakes than see them. As well as spelling mistakes, speech output also helps spot the right word in the wrong place, missing or duplicate words. Some applications highlight text as it is read aloud making it easier to identify where errors have occurred.

How can you make a computer speak?

There are two ways: pre-recorded (digitised) and generated (synthesised) speech. Pre-recorded speech sounds the most natural but takes up a lot of disk space and can only read out what has already been recorded, it can’t read out something that you have just written.

Text-to-speech engines generate speech from text and are not limited by disk space. Both dyslexic and visually impaired people have found them to be a great leap forward in making text accessible. However, they use more robotic sounding voices and are not ideal for teaching pronunciation as they will sometimes get the pronunciation wrong; words like read (reed) and read (red) will usually cause problems. However, the latest high quality voices have been specifically developed to sound more natural and many programs now let you train the speech engine to pronounce individual words correctly.

If you want to try text to speech to see if it useful for you then we recommend downloading and installing BrowseAloud . This is developed by the same company as Texthelp Read & Write and reads aloud certified web sites including ours and popular sites such as www.google.com and www.bbc.co.uk (these links will open in a new window).

What text to speech software is available?

Text to speech software ranges from basic screen readers where you must copy and paste text into the reader, to advanced packages for users needing additional support; menus and icons can also be read aloud. Some packages also combine text-to-speech with OCR software to convert printed text into speech in one go. Specialist programs can include other features to help with reading, spelling and word finding problems. Below is a table showing the differences between some of the most popular packages. Click on the product name to link through to the product page where you can find out more about the programs. Further explanation of the features can be found at the foot of the table.

 Feature    Write:Outloud SOLO Edition & Read:Outloud SOLO Edition Read & Write Standard & Gold  ClaroRead Standard & ClaroRead Plus    Kurzweil 3000 v10 (PC), v3 (Mac)
 Price for single user licence (ex VAT) £71(Write:Outloud); £195(Read:Outloud)  £71(Write:Outloud); £195(Read:Outloud)  £140 - £320  £119 - £159
 VAT relief available    Yes  Yes  Yes  Yes
 Operating system (full minimum specifications listed on the product pages)    PC or Mac.  Standard version PC only.Gold version for PC or Mac. PC or Mac  PC or Mac version.
 Does the program work with other applications or is it a free standing application? [i]   Free standing applications but works with other programs in the SOLO suite.  Works with numerous applications  Works with numerous applications Free standing. Also provides reading toolbar in Mozilla Firefox and Taskbar for accessing speech and proofing tools in word processing applications.
 Does it highlight text as it is read aloud? [ii]    Yes - all text in Write:Outloud and text files opened in Read:Outloud  Yes in MS Word & Internet Explorer  Yes in MS Word & Internet Explorer  Yes
 What are the highlighting options?   Highlights word by word or selected text. Choice of colours available.  Where possible highlights text within the document with sentence/paragraph coloured a different colour to the word being read aloud. Ten colour schemes to choose between.  Highlights word, sentence or paragraph being read aloud in MS Word. 48 foreground and 16 background colours to choose from.  
Highlights word or background of reading unit (word, sentence, paragraph) in one colour and the word being read aloud in a different colour. Four schemes to choose between.
 Will it provide support for reading emails?    Read:Outloud will read aloud web pages so can be used with web-based emails.  Yes  Yes. Can read text when selected or when the mouse dwells over it. Will read out new emails with highlighting if MS Word used as the email editor in MS Outlook  Will read aloud web pages so can be used with web-based emails.
 Can it read back text as you type?    Yes in Write:Outloud  Yes  Yes  Yes
 Can it read out icons, menus or help files?    Yes within the application.  Yes. The screen reading function enables menus, icons and dialogue boxes to be read.  Yes, using the option to read text the mouse dwells over.  Menus and buttons within Kurzweil 3000 are read aloud.
Can it read web pages?    Yes when web pages are opened Read:Outloud  Yes with highlighting within Internet Explorer.  Yes  Yes within Mozilla Firefox.
 Can it read aloud Dragon NS training scripts? [iii]      Yes, in screen reading mode  Plus version can also echo back text dictated into Dragon.  
 Can it read aloud PDF files      Gold version includes PDFAloud toolbar for reading aloud PDF files with highlighting (also available separately).  Plus version can convert a PDF file to a Word document to be read aloud.  OCR tool can open PDF files within Kurzweil to be read aloud.
 Does it include additional, high-quality, voices? [iv]    Yes  Yes  Yes  Yes
What functions are available to customise the voice?    Alter speed and pitch  Alter speed, pitch and pause speed between words  Alter speed and turn on pause between words. Alter speed 
 Can you train it to correctly pronounce words?    Yes  Yes  Yes  Yes
 Spell checker [v]    Yes  Yes  Yes Yes 
 Check for homophones    Yes can verify homophones through the homophone tool while the dictionary provides alternative spellings  The “sounds like” tool checks homophones and similar sounding words. Can check the whole document.  Provides homophone checking tool within MS Word. Can highlight all homophones in a document.  It will highlight homophones in a document.
 Word prediction    Available separately through Co:Writer SOLO edition (£149)  Yes  Yes  Yes but no UK specific spellings.
 Dictionary with definitions    Yes  Yes    Yes
 Thesaurus      Yes  Provides synonyms within Word through the checking tool  Yes
 Convert speech output into an audio file [vi]      Gold version only. Save in MP3, WMA or WAV format  Yes saves a Word document in WAV format.  PC version only. Save in MP3 or WAV format
 ESL support (i.e. foreign languages)        Additional RealSpeak voices in other languages can be purchased  Yes (PC only)
 Study skills support (highlighting, notes, etc.)    Read:Outloud provides highlighting tool for making notes that can then be exported as an outline to Draft:Builder or Write:Outloud  Study skills highlighting within MS Word. Gold version only: Fact Finder tool support internet searches, Fact Folder for collecting information (PC only), Fact Mapper for visualising gathered information (PC only)    Comprehensive study skills tools including vocabulary lists, highlighting tools, sticky notes and bookmarks.
 Scan from printed page      Gold version only. One click scanning to PDF, Word or html  Plus version only. Scans into Word.  Yes
 Error Log      Yes, records usage and spelling errors    Yes, records usage and spelling errors
 Additional Tools    The SOLO suite, comprising of Write:Outloud, Read:Outloud, Draft:Builder and Co:Writer also provides teachers management tools, word banks and an application for outlining written work.  Talking calculator with audit trail (Scientific calculator in Gold).Word Wizard tool.Abbreviation and auto-correct tool.

Unit conversion tool.

Daisy format reader (Gold only).

Pronunciation Tool (Gold only).

Speech input (using Windows XP tool).

 Talking calculator.Change character, line and paragraph spacing in a Word document.Change font size, style and colour in a Word document.

Plus version also includes Screenruler and Claroview for supporting users with visual stress.

 Test taking tool.Vocabulary bank tool.Can read DAISY format files.
[i]
There are two types of text-to-speech programs: toolbars that work within other applications and talking word processors. Toolbar applications, such as Read & Write, mean that the additional support tools are available in a variety of programs including Microsoft Office, emails and the web. Along with many other benefits this means that you don’t need to use a different program to your classmates or work colleagues, promoting inclusion and accessibility. Alternatively, a free standing word processor program may contain text-to-speech functions. These programs tend to be simpler to use, learn and set up making them more appropriate for the younger or less experienced computer user.

[ii]
Synchronised highlighting of text as it is read aloud is important for dyslexic users with poor auditory processing as the visual tool reinforces the reading process. It is also very useful when proof reading for identifying where an error has been made.

[iii]
Training speech recognition programs such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking can be difficult for poor readers as the training script has to read accurately. Some text-to-speech programs can be used to read aloud the scripts to help with the training process.

[iv]
The quality of computer voices has improved immensely of the past few years. There are now some voices which sound very human-like. However these are not provided in all applications and you may have to pay extra for additional voices.

[v]
For more details on spell checkers have a look at our spell checker comparison article comparing the functions and spell checking ability of both handheld and software-based spell checkers.

[vi]
By converting speech output into an audio file you can listen to text away from the computer on a digital music player or CD; great for revision or just reading away from the computer.