Text to Speech: What is it and what does it do?

What is TTS?

Text to speech allows students to see the text on the screen and hear it read aloud at the same time. The text is usually highlighted as it is read. The text on the screen is usually read with a synthesized voice, which varies from product to product. However, sometimes e-books that are available on digital platforms on our school board virtual libraries are narrated, which means that students can listen to the e-book with a real human voice. This is a preferred option for many students and is a recommended format for listening to supported e-books or audiobooks ; however the choice should be up to the student as to whether they prefer a synthetic or human narrated voice.

See a quick demonstration of TTS through narrated text:

See a quick demonstration of TTS with a synthetic voice:

There are many free tools available for students to access text-to-speech. In addition, many of our school boards now have board-wide licenses for TTS software. Please see our contact list if you would like to have more information on how text-to-speech is being used at your school board.

What does TTS do?

TTS technology essentially becomes the student’s “decoding eyes.” (Parr, 2013). By reading the text aloud with simultaneous highlighting, TTS assists students to decode.

Decoding is the process that readers use to quickly and automatically translate the letters or spelling patterns of written words into speech sounds. Decoding involves fluency of these subskills: phonemic and phonological awareness, the alphabetic principle and phonics, and word recognition. Automaticity between all of these subskills must occur so that students can focus on making meaning of the text. When that automaticity isn’t achieved, making meaning (comprehension) is affected. Comprehension relies on decoding ability, therefore many students with decoding difficulties exhibit secondary difficulties with comprehension. Parr (2011) describes the implications of students who struggle with decoding and then, comprehension:

The problem is one of information processing. By the time the word is successfully decoded, the child may have neither the energy nor the capacity left to understand and utilize the content. As a result, many of these students enter into a vicious cycle of withdrawal from text. Frustrated, they often stop reading, losing the text exposure necessary for reading development and, ultimately, for the acquisition of knowledge and understanding in all subjects.

This cycle is only intensified at the secondary level. Students do not necessarily have the active reading strategies to make sense of the text that they require to read, therefore they do not read; however they still need repeated practice in order to gain those active reading strategies.

This cycle highlights that there are other factors that influence becoming an independent reader who is “skilled at the cognitive and affective demands of reading, and see benefit in and derive pleasure from this skill” (Beers, 2003). These include background knowledge, word knowledge (vocabulary) and engagement and motivation to read.

Here are some implications for use of TTS with struggling readers:

  • TTS is not remediation. TTS bypasses the difficulty that a student with a reading disability will always have. At a certain point, we need to start bypassing the difficulty/disability in addition to remediating. As Edyburn (2006) stated, “How much failure data do we need before we know you can’t do a specific task?”
  • Although we might put TTS in place to bypass difficulties with decoding, students still need specific reading strategies individually tailored to address specific gaps (ie. understanding a student’s specific learning profile and matching to specific reading remediation strategies).
  • We know that TTS can assist in “breaking the cycle” by allowing students to read more (increase in practice for specific strategies), engage in text, and to enjoy reading.

By adding TTST to the reading experience, we are no longer valuing “word knowledge” and “phonological awareness” over comprehension, meaning-making and social/cultural transformation. TTST allows readers to participate in the discourse communities of their choice, thus creating opportunities for full engagement and enabling learners to do things on their own initiative and their own terms, in their own way and for their own purposes.

(Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, 2011)

For an additional Canadian resource on use of text-to-speech in the classroom (documentation and videos), please see the Learning Technologies Alberta resources on text to speech.