Thursday, December 11, 2014

For When You Just Need the Text to Speak to You

Last year, our district started its 1-to-1 initiative by putting Chromebook carts in my classroom and each eighth grade classroom (because we had all taken REMC's Blended Learning in the Classroom course).  I was on one of the teams that had a number of students who had accommodations stating that texts and assessments be read aloud to them.  My problem that year was that I only had support during one quarter of my classes, so if I was going to read every chapter from the book, and every quiz and test aloud, ALL of my students had to hear me; while this benefitted some of my students without IEPs, many of my students complained of being distracted.

In order to make sure that I was meeting the needs of all of my students, I started recording myself reading chapters using Audacity, but found that that was very time consuming; there had to be another way.  I'm not sure how I discovered Chromevox, which is a screen reader extension for Google Chrome, but I do know that many of my students benefited from hearing the text read aloud while they followed along in their books.

Students biggest complaint about Chromevox was that the voice was very choppy and fake sounding which often distracted them from the material being read.  I tried looking into the setting to see if I could find some other voice options, but aside from adding an accent to the already lifeless voice, it didn't do much to make it more listenable.  All this leads up to my excitement today in reading Kellie Ady's most recent post on the CCSD's Instructional Technology Blog titled Tuesday Tech Tip: Using Chrome to Read Out Loud (Text to Speech).  In Kellie's post, she introduced Read&Write for Google which is available on the Chrome Web Store.

I downloaded the app to try things out and noticed that the voices sounded slightly better than what I was experiencing with Chromevox, but what really surprised me was how easy it was to use.  In order to turn Read&Write on, you simply click on an icon in your address bar, rather than having to click ctrl+alt+z.  To hear something being read, you simply place the cursor on the sentence you want read and click the play button, pause if you need to, and stop when you're done.  I even tried it out using an online test in Schoology that I used last year and was able to have it read aloud.  When I dug around in the settings some more, I realized that I had hit the jack-pot when I clicked on the first voice in the list, US Ava - Vocalizer.  This voice is about the closest I have actually heard on text-to-speech that actually sounds like a human reading.

Like most apps available, there are two versions, the free version which offers text-to-speech, and a translator, and a premium version which offers the basics plus too many more options to go into here for $10 per student per year.  While I can see our Special Ed department making a couple of purchases for the premium edition, I feel that the free version offers quite a bit of support for students who simply struggle to read as well as their peers.  I plan on using with some of my lower readers this year and hope to respond later with some of my results.
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