This article was originally written by Amy Foxwell and published by Edtech Digest on Janurary 13th, 2023.
As capabilities have improved, text-to-speech software has become a powerful tool for helping all students learn.
GUEST COLUMN | by Amy Foxwell
The ability to have text read aloud through text-to-speech technology once was a niche accommodation for a small subset of students. Now, it’s just good instructional design for everyone.
Converting the words on websites and in digital documents into audible speech goes well beyond helping students who struggle with print disabilities. It can help learners of all ages develop their literacy skills and their content knowledge. It extends students’ learning by enabling them to listen to content while they’re busy with other activities, like being driven to school or completing household chores. When paired with translation, it even helps school systems engage more effectively with families whose first language isn’t English.
As the use cases for text-to-speech software multiply, the tools themselves continue to improve. With the help of AI and machine learning technology, artificial speech is becoming much more natural-sounding. Digital voices are being developed in a range of dialects, and some can no longer be distinguished from human voices. Developers of the technology are also adding support for multiple languages.
‘Digital voices are being developed in a range of dialects, and some can no longer be distinguished from human voices.’
Meanwhile, the amount of processing power required by text-to-speech technology keeps shrinking. Because of this development, the technology can now be embedded easily within a learning management system (LMS), a school or district website, or in other learning tools.
This trend has enormous implications for teaching, learning, and family engagement.
A tool for equity and inclusion
To comply with ADA requirements, school systems traditionally provided accommodations to individual students as needed, such as loading text-to-speech software onto students’ personal devices. But as K-12 leaders have recognized the need to provide equitable learning opportunities for everyone, the focus has shifted to inclusive practices that accommodate all users. This helps everyone succeed regardless of their ability, and students with disabilities don’t stand out as being different. Embedding text-to-speech technology within an LMS is a fundamental way to do this.
Students like to use text-to-speech technology whether they can read printed text or not. In a recent survey from the higher-education technology group EDUCAUSE, only 5 percent of college students said they had a disability for which they needed assistive technology. However, more than a quarter of students (26 percent) said they’d use text-to-speech tools by choice.
Text-to-speech software with the ability to translate text into multiple languages is also a powerful equalizer for students and families who don’t speak English. When integrated into a school or district website, the technology can make education more inclusive for English language learners and help families support their children’s success.
Enhancing literacy skills
Embedding text-to-speech capabilities into digital content and instruction not only makes learning more inclusive; it also enhances students’ reading skills.
Research suggests that listening to text as it’s read aloud improves students’ content knowledge, as well as their literacy skills and attitudes toward reading. Listening to audio content allows students to access a more complex and diverse range of texts, including text beyond their reading comprehension level. By eliminating the need to decode words, students can keep up with their grade-level peers even if they struggle with reading or are learning English as a second language. Listening to spoken text while following along with the printed words also helps emergent readers learn to read.
The connection between listening and literacy is a key reason why educators are incorporating more audio into instruction and why students are listening to more texts outside of school. A 2021 study found that nearly half of eight- to 18-year-olds had listened to some form of spoken-word audio in the past 18 months.
Deepening student engagement and success
Audio technology is all around us now. With voice commands, we can access content and control devices in our homes using technologies like Alexa. Podcasts and audiobooks have become mainstream forms of entertainment.
Text-to-speech technology is one more audio tool that can unlock rich possibilities for learning. It does much more than just improve accessibility; it expands the ways students and families can engage with content.
When Los Angeles Pacific University embedded text-to-speech technology within its LMS, leaders were hoping to make instruction more accessible for everyone. They didn’t realize the huge effect it would have on student interest and engagement overall.
“All students engage more deeply with course materials when voice capabilities are added,” says Director of eLearning Operations George Hanshaw. “We’ve seen this time and again. And better engagement leads to greater student success.”
Amy Foxwell is a Director at ReadSpeaker, a text-to-speech solutions provider, and Founding Partner at Foxwell Associates, a tech and innovation consultancy. She earned BAs from Vanderbilt University and University of Leeds, and a Master’s from American University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.