Let Your Laptop Do the Talking

I delivered my presentation for the 2009 Spring Teacher Institute last Wednesday evening – from my kitchen table. The technology for delivering sessions across the Internet was Adobe Connect, and although initially a bit intimidating for the novice online deliverer, all of the presentations I’ve had a chance to view were interactive and engaging. Most of all, it was an inspirational experience to be involved in such an endeavor with educators from all over Maine.

My session was titled, Let Your Laptop Do the Talking. This is a spin-off of my MLTI Accessible Instructional Materials content meeting (AIM for All Kids), with the focus on text to speech and conversion of text files to audio, such as mp3.

These tools, which are available for both Mac and Windows users, enable access to all content areas for all students. Printed text alone can be a barrier for many learners, including those who have specific learning disabilities, physical disabilities that impact ability to turn pages, and blindness or low vision. Audio alone presents barriers to learners who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as students who are not strong audio processors. Either format in isolation is also problematic for English Language Learners.

Ideally, content is delivered in multiple formats, such as both text and audio. When curriculum and instructional materials are provided in accessible digital text format (e.g., text editor docs, Web pages in HTML), the content can be rendered in any format, including audio and Braille.

A very simple tool that’s available on every Mac laptop with OS X is Speech. With Speech, you can have any digital text that appears on your screen read aloud by your computer’s built-in speech synthesizer. All you need to do is select the text and then press a self-assigned sequence of keys. Here’s how you activate Speech on your computer:

1. Choose Apple menu > System Preferences > Speech

2. In the Speech panel, choose the Text to Speech tab

3. Choose a System Voice and a Speaking Rate. The Play button allows you to test your settings.

4. Select the box next to “Speak selected text when the key is pressed”

5. To set the command key sequence to activate speech, type one or more modifier keys (Command, Shift, Option, or Control) plus at least one other key. Note that the command key sequence that you choose will no longer be available for other computing purposes. That is, if you choose Option-Command-Esc as your command key sequence, it will no longer be available for Force Quitting out of an app! My sequence of choice is Option-~ (Option + the “tilde” key, which appears in the upper left corner of your keyboard, below the esc key).

6. Click OK when the key combination you selected appears in the field.

When you want to have text on your screen read aloud, highlight the selection, and then press your key sequence set in step 5. To stop the speech, press the sequence again.

A few tips regarding the System Voices: First, when introducing kids to the available built-in choices, choose text that is interesting and engaging to them. Suggest that they go to their favorite Web sites and select text to have read aloud (Facebook updates are nifty snippets to start with!). Second, encourage them to use the voice for at least a couple of days before abandoning it. Third, if the built-in options aren’t working for the student, consider downloading a voice for 30-or-so bucks. Cepstral and Assistiveware both have voices that you can demo before downloading.

Here’s a short video from my desktop of how to activate Speech on your Mac

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