As nearly every teacher knows, students with disabilities have been increasingly included in general education classrooms. Nearly 6.4 million students, 13% of the total student population, are identified with disabilities and receive special education services in schools across the nation (US Department of Education, 2010). General education teachers are therefore often seeking ways to support students struggling with decoding and comprehension, especially as they access content area curricular materials. The good news is that there are now many cost-effective technologies to help students access these texts.
Just because a technology is available doesn’t mean that it enhances learning or is appropriate for every learner. Before jumping into specific technological solutions, I encourage educators to think about integrating technology within a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, which promotes a technology-enhanced curriculum that is accessible and appropriate for all learners, including those with disabilities. See the thoughtful TILE-SIG posts already exploring UDL for further information.
Students with disabilities who struggle with grade-level, content area texts can improve their reading comprehension by using technology to have texts read aloud (e.g., Anderson-Inman & Horney, 2007; Higgins & Raskind, 2004). Over the past ten years, rapid innovations in text-to-speech (TTS) technologies have created new and affordable ways to help students read print-based or digital texts that have no audio equivalent. TTS technologies provide students with the ability to hear virtually any text read aloud with a synthesized voice.
Students can access PDFs, word processing docs, EPUB files, webpages, emails, and more from virtually any computer, phone, or tablet. There are many TTS readers available and the following list provides recommendations for teachers and students that are either already integrated into common classroom devices or are offered as low-cost add-ons that still provide comparatively high voice quality.
Speak Selection (free) available on all iOS X devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and Mac computers). There are options for multiple voices, pace control, and simultaneous text highlighting.
Screen Reader (free) available on the Kindle Touch, all second generation Kindle Fire devices, and available as a software upgrade for the first generation Kindle Fire. The Screen Reader provides multiple options related to the voices, pace, quantity of text to read at a time (word, line, paragraph, etc.), and more.
Ivona MiniReader (free) & Text Reader ($59 for one natural voice, additional voices for a fee) are available for Windows only. Ivona TTS products read a range of text files. The MiniReader is designed with an easy-to-use floating text bar that allows students to read text from any open program. The Text Reader integrates seamlessly with multiple applications and provides options to convert text into mp3 files.
NaturalReader - (free, $69.90) compatible with MAC OS or Windows. NaturalReader reads a range of texts including word processing applications, emails, websites, and even printed-text scanned into PDF format. The NaturalReader upgrade provides students additional options to convert files into audio files, an add-on specific to Microsoft Word, and extra voices. The upgrade is recommended for students that frequently rely on TTS software.
Voice Dream Reader - ($9.99, additional voices for a fee) available on iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touch. This app reads PDFs, EPUB, Microsoft Word & PPT, Apple Pages & Keynote, and more. It is known for its high quality voices, multiple language options, and intuitive and functional design and use.
Each of these tools has their own strengths and limitations but they all have the potential to help students learn content that might otherwise be unavailable to them because of their reading ability. These tools also serve as a reminder that teachers should actively seek solutions for overcoming students’ individual learning barriers because the rapid changes in technology are constantly creating new opportunities for all learners.
Anderson-Inman, L., & Horney, M. A. (2007). Supported eText: Assistive technology through text transformations. Reading Research Quarterly, 42(1), 153-160. doi:10.1598/RRQ.42.1.8
Higgins, E. L., & Raskind, M. H. (2004). Speech recognition-based and automaticity programs to help students with severe reading and spelling problems. Annals of Dyslexia, 54(2), 365-388.
US Department of Education. IDEA Part B Child Count, 2010, Students ages 6-21. Available at www.IDEAdata.org
Kara Sevensma is an Assistant Professor of Education at Calvin College. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TILE-SIG will host a special session on Sunday, May 11 at 3:00 p.m. at the International Reading Association 59th Annual Conference in New Orleans. The session includes the presentation of the 2014 Technology in Reading Research Award, "Changing the Landscape of Literacy Teacher Education: Innovations with Generative Technology" with keynote Dana Grisham (National University, TILE-SIG 2013 Reading Research Award Winner), and 18 roundtable discussions about research findings and practical classroom ideas. Visit http://www.iraconference.org to learn more about IRA 2014 or to register.