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Everything You Need to Know About Text to Speech for Education

July 8, 2022 by Amy Foxwell

Want to know more about text to speech? Here are the answers to 11 common questions, including information about how to use text to speech effectively in education in order to support, attract, and retain learners.

With the advent of education technology, the learning landscape has changed rapidly. There are more and more ways for learners to consume course content—and both students’ and teachers’ expectations for how educators provide that content are higher than ever.

With the availability of different technology tools leveling the playing field and allowing learners to learn in many different ways, organization leaders, course designers, and teachers must be aware of the many different available content forms—including text to speech (TTS) which digitally “reads” written content out loud.

Audio is an important and growing segment of this education technology revolution, and savvy institutions know how to exploit this powerful medium.

At ReadSpeaker, we are specialists in voice technology. We understand both why and how to implement audio in course work. Our aim is to help educational institutions understand and utilize audio in their educational offerings. To further those aims, we put together this list of the questions that we hear from institutions about TTS and audio-enhanced content for education. More importantly, we provide answers.

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1. You hear a lot of acronyms bandied about in the educational technology field. What exactly is TTS?

Text to speech, or TTS for short, converts text into spoken voice output. Not to be confused with speech to text, which converts spoken inputs into written outputs, text-to-speech systems offer a computer-generated voice that “reads” text to the user.

Today’s TTS systems operate on the cloud, embedded in servers, or even on devices alone. Depending on the TTS engine—the software that generates synthetic speech—they’re compatible with virtually any digital text format, including scans of print documents. That leads to powerful educational assistance for students with vision impairments. It supports struggling readers as they learn. And it’s an essential tool for second-language learners working to integrate written and spoken expressions in a new tongue.

But TTS isn’t just an assistive technology; it’s a comprehensive education technology. As we’ll discuss later in this FAQ, TTS provides learning benefits for all students, regardless of circumstances. Text to speech allows the busy adult learner to study, hands-free, while cooking dinner. It offers relief from screen fatigue for online students. Most of all, TTS offers choice, allowing individual learners to customize the education experience to match their unique needs and preferences.

2. Isn’t TTS just providing audio files?

Text to speech engines can indeed create downloadable audio files of spoken text content, typically in the ubiquitous mp3 format. But they don’t stop there. They also provide immediate playback through your application, browser, or learning management system (LMS).

Going a step further, many TTS tools also provide “bimodal presentation,” which incorporates accompanying highlighting so that students can read along with the highlighted text as they listen to the content. Text to speech may also be integrated in various other ways so that the student can listen to what they are typing into documents or search engines. Any number of speech-enhanced tools use TTS to provide essential functionality.

Education technology from ReadSpeaker bundles robust TTS capabilities with related learning tools, so students can personalize text consumption. For example, ReadSpeaker’s cloud-based, online tool, webReader, allows students to listen to text content in more than 50 languages—with their choice of over 200 lifelike voices. They can listen to spoken text with a single click (or hotkey), or download an MP3 for offline use.

But webReader also places a variety of tools at their fingertips, including:

  • Simultaneous TTS and Text Highlighting—WebReader highlights each on-screen word as it speaks, integrating visual and audio content to aid in comprehension.
  • Resizing Text—Enlarge on-screen text with a click or a tap, with or without listening to the content read aloud.
  • Text-only Mode—Remove images and other distractions by engaging Text-only Mode, which shows plain text content alone.
  • Page Mask—Struggling readers often benefit by using notecards or rulers to focus on a single line at a time. WebReader’s digital Page Mask brings this capability to the screen.
  • Text-specific Tools—Highlight a line of text to call up a menu that allows you to listen via TTS, translate words between languages, or look up more information on the text subject without opening a new browser window.
Text to speech for education - WebReader user interface
This WebReader user interface is available on learning management systems, websites, mobile apps, and more.

3. What exactly is bimodal presentation?

Bimodal presentation simply refers to information that is presented in both audio and visual formats at the same time: reading a text, listening to it, and even having words (and/or sentences) highlighted along the way.

Many students find that bimodal presentation improves reading comprehension, information retention, and decoding (the process of matching letter combinations to audible sounds). These benefits build student confidence and create a more positive view of reading, setting the stage for a lifetime of learning.

Bimodal content presentation also aligns with Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an education framework recommended by U.S. education policies like the National Education Technology Plan and laws like the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). That brings us to our next question.

4. What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning is a way of giving all learners an equal opportunity to learn, preparing the learning environment with flexible tools and materials to better meet the needs of every student.

Both an educational framework and a set of practical recommendations, UDL offers Learning Guidelines organized into three categories:

1. Engagement

The UDL guidelines recommend providing multiple ways for students to engage with educational experiences, providing as much choice and autonomy as possible. That keeps learners motivated.

2. Representation

Here’s where bimodal presentation comes into play. According to UDL, educators should provide multiple means of consuming course content. That includes the ability to customize the way information is presented. That helps students absorb and retain the information you’re trying to teach them.

3. Action & Expression

Give students options for how they complete activities, including physical movement, multiple media, and access to assistive technologies.

Student choice is a recurring theme across all UDL guidelines. When you offer flexible learning experiences, every student can find the strategy that works best for them—and because every learner is different, these strategies will differ considerably. That’s why you need bimodal presentation and appropriate digital learning tools like text to speech.

5. Isn’t text to speech just for blind people, or those with learning disabilities?

When TTS technology first became widely available, educators used it primarily to help students with learning disabilities overcome decoding challenges so that they could concentrate on the meaning of their reading. It was also a useful tool for those with impaired vision. That’s all still true.

In fact, TTS is a powerful tool for improving digital accessibility, a central concern for educators in the age of online learning. The international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide the gold standard for removing barriers to access for all web users. According to WCAG success criterion 3.1.5, text must be easy to read—below lower secondary education level. Where it isn’t, you must provide a version of the text that doesn’t require high literacy skills. Text to speech is the simplest way to comply with this (and other) WCAG rules.

But to return to the question, TTS serves students with and without disabilities. With today’s learners having become accustomed to many different ways of consuming content, depending on their various circumstances and needs, more and more frequently TTS and audio support are being used by all sorts of learners, whether they’re working with a second language, consuming a large quantity of content, multitasking, or confronting the many other individual scenarios students experience.

6. How exactly does listening help students?

Text to speech and bimodal presentation are facets of UDL, providing a number of flexible ways to meet the needs of a diverse population of individual learners, giving all students an equal opportunity to learn and succeed. While bimodal presentation has been used for accessibility needs for several years, learning professionals are now recognizing the benefits for all students. A considerable amount of research has proven the effectiveness of bimodal learning on student success. According to the research, proven benefits of bimodal content presentation include:

  • Improved reading comprehension
  • Improved word recognition
  • Increased information recall
  • Facilitated decoding
  • A more positive outlook on reading
  • Increased reading time
  • Increased ability to pay attention and remember information while reading
  • More focus on comprehension instead of decoding words
  • Increased endurance for reading assignments
  • Improved recognition and ability to fix errors in a student’s own writing
  • Helping students with disabilities stay at peer level in all of their subjects
  • Improved self-esteem, motivation, and self-confidence

7. Is there any scientific basis to the role of TTS in improving learning outcomes? How can I be sure that this will really help my students?

Much research has been done on the results of using TTS in an educational environment. For example:

  • Research from Barcelona University clearly shows how TTS is an efficient tool for higher education.
  • A 2021 study by Bruno et al. found that direct instruction with TTS tools improved reading comprehension scores among postsecondary students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
  • A 2019 meta-analysis by Wood, Moxley, Tighe, and Wagner found that TTS improved reading comprehension scores for students with reading disabilities.

To understand the neurological processes involved in multimodal learning with TTS—and a primer on the value of Universal Design for Learning—watch Dr. Trish Trifilo’s presentation below.

8. Isn’t listening to text “cheating?”

When discussing educational technology and assistive literacy tools, the question often arises whether using text to speech is real reading. How will students learn to read if a computer reads to them? What happens when we take it away?

The issue is not just reading, but the amount of time and energy it takes to read and whether the reader is able to do anything with the information. As Michelann Parr, a specialist on text to speech in education, says:

“I offer that it is not our role to take something away, especially if it is enabling student engagement and self-efficacy…if you introduce TTS, you’ll be amazed at just how far your students can go…”

For more expert guidance on TTS in literacy education, read our in-depth interview with Parr.

9. There are plenty of free solutions out there. Why don’t I just use one of those?

While TTS is proven to help students of all types, there are some variables that can affect outcomes. A big one is the quality of the synthetic voice: Poor voice quality leads to an unpleasant learning experience, which leads to less usage, which keeps students and teachers from realizing the benefits of TTS. Free TTS solutions don’t offer the best-quality voices because they can’t continually reinvest in technological improvement.

ReadSpeaker is always improving. Our proprietary machine learning models allow us to create warm, lifelike synthetic voices that listeners prefer. In fact, research suggests that today’s high-quality TTS voices can actually produce better learning results than either human voices or old text-to-speech engines.

Additionally, ReadSpeaker’s TTS tools include extra literacy features, like those we discussed in Question 2 of this FAQ (read-along highlighting, resizing text, page masks, and more). Free TTS tools tend to be bare-bones, with fewer options for students to choose from. Many are only available for certain content, whereas ReadSpeaker supports online text, Microsoft Office Documents, PDFs, ebook file formats, and much more.

But TTS doesn’t have to be expensive to provide a great experience. Text to speech is actually a surprisingly affordable technology to provide, either on a student-by-student or campus-wide level.

10. It must be difficult to integrate this into content. How do you keep all the content speech enabled?

Text-to-speech technology, such as ReadSpeaker’s suite of audio enhanced learning tools, is surprisingly easy to implement and use. It’s also cost effective. Gone are the days of choosing between robotic voices or voice actors and recording studios. With cloud-based, dynamically produced speech, course content is instantly speech-enabled as soon as it is uploaded. Even better, the advancing state of the art text to speech technology provides high-quality lifelike voices.

Implementations are often just plug-ins or lines of code that take a minimum of staff-hours to implement and maintain. Most major LMS providers offer specific integrations that simply have to be turned on.

This gives educational institutions the ability to easily provide bimodal presentation to all learners. With TTS-enabled courses, lessons, tests, quizzes, assessments, reading assignments, and any other text-based content can be read aloud while students follow along with highlighted text, letting them engage with and absorb content in multiple ways.

11. Isn’t this just a “flash-in-the pan” technology gadget?

Text to speech is being integrated in content around the world, and not only in the education sphere. From government websites to corporations, thought leaders understand and are leveraging the power of speech.

Innovative educational institutions and publishers use ReadSpeaker TTS technology to provide innovative ways to consume content. These organizations include:

ReadSpeaker users find that our technology helps them attract and retain more students, while improving learning experiences and outcomes.

Join the ranks. Let us set up a free, personalized demo so you see how easy it is to integrate audio in your institution.

Have we answered all your questions? If not don’t hesitate to contact us at +44 (0)7483 236 115 or contact@readspeaker.com.

Find out more here.

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