Archive for the ‘digital text’ Tag


Although awareness of the Mac built-in text to speech feature has grown, I think it’s important to keep disseminating information and technical assistance. Where I work in Maine, all of our middle schools and many high schools are 1:1 with MacBooks through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI). In these schools, students have immediate and timely access to “Alex,” Apple’s most recent and highest quality voice for the Mac. Alex is an impressively¬† human-sounding voice with natural intonation. And it’s easy to use: simply select the text that you want Alex to read aloud, and then press a self-selected key combination.

Imagine the possibilities, particularly in content area classrooms:

  • Students with specific learning disabilities benefit from seeing and hearing the text as it’s spoken aloud
  • English language learners benefit from having content area instructional materials spoken aloud
  • Novice and master writers alike benefit from employing Alex as their proofreader

Alex will read aloud any digital text: Web sites, text files, email, data in spreadsheets…any digital text.

If you have a Mac, you gotta listen to Alex. Here’s how:

  1. Open the System Preferences panel
  2. Choose the Speech pane
  3. Choose the Text to Speech tab
  4. Alex will appear by default in the System Voice dropdown menu. Adjust the Speaking Rate slider and choose the Play button to test your settings. Adjust as necessary.
  5. Select the box next to Speak selected text when the key is pressed. A dropdown box should appear. If not, select the Set Key… button.
  6. In the dropdown box, you’ll be instructed to Set a key combination to speak selected text. Your key combination should start with a modifier key (Command, Shift, Option, or Control) and at least one other key. Keep in mind that whatever combination you choose, it won’t be available to you for any other purpose on your computer. For example, I recommend that you not choose “Command-S” if you typically use this shortcut to save files. You may be tempted to click inside the key combination field, but you’ll soon realize that your key combination will appear as you press keys on your keyboard.
  7. Choose the OK button.
  8. Quit System Preferences.

Now you’re ready to have Alex read aloud to you. Select any digital text on your computer by highlighting it. Press your key combination. To stop Alex from speaking, press the key combination again.

Here’s a short video Quick Tip of the process.


Bookshare Part 2: Student Eligibility

A post about Bookshare appeared on the ACTEM listserv earlier this week that led to some confusion about “who is eligible and for what books?” The confusion is more than understandable as student eligibility for copyright exemption is pretty complex. Add to that confusion the new IDEA provision for accessible instructional materials (“NIMAS“), and we have a full-day symposium on how to get students what they need in the format they need…when they need it.

In the interest of keeping this post manageable and not a white paper, I’d like to shed some clarity on the Bookshare eligibility issue and leave NIMAS for another day.

As was indicated on the ACTEM list, not all students with learning disabilities qualify for Bookshare service. The disability needs to specifically impact the ability to read print and must be certified by one of the following: a neurologist, psychiatrist, learning disability specialist, school psychologist, or a clinical psychologist with a background in learning disabilities.

The reasoning for this goes back to Copyright law. It’s much easier for students with visual or physical impairments to qualify for Bookshare. “Learning” or “reading” disabilities must have a physical basis in order for a student to meet the requirements for copyright exemption. This is a much more complicated diagnosis than blindness or motor impairment.

The second misconception that I believe may be circulating is that Bookshare has “free textbooks.” No…and yes. Bookshare has a growing number of textbooks in its repository due to a provision of IDEA ’04, but it will take some time for that collection to become robust. To further complicate these matters, most of those textbooks will only be available for students who have IEPs (i.e., qualify under both Copyright and IDEA).

Like I said, this stuff has no place on a blog!

To know Bookshare

Bookshare logoI appear to be on an extended ebook kick as a result of being heavily implanted in accessible instructional material, or AIM, projects these days. But today’s post could have been written five years ago (well, most of it…you’ll see what I mean).

If you haven’t heard of Bookshare, consider this a fortuitous visit to my blog. Every educator needs to be aware of this unique electronic library, particularly now that it has announced Bookshare for Education (B4E). For years, Bookshare has provided ebooks to individuals who are blind or have other print disabilities. It accomplishes this through a community of people who scan and submit books. Bookshare has quality criteria and monitors the scanned books that they receive. Because of copyright exemption that permits the reproduction of publications into specialized formats for individuals with print disabilities, Bookshare now has 37,000 titles, with over 100 books being added every month, not to mention over 20,000 members. Three thousand school groups have discovered Bookshare as a source of core instructional materials for their students who cannot access traditional print.

Until October 1 of last year, schools could join Bookshare for a modest membership fee. All that changed when Bookshare was awarded funding by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) to develop and implement B4E, meaning that memberships for U.S. schools and qualifying U.S. students of all ages including K-12, post-secondary and adult education, are now free. Keep in mind that this is “all you can read” access for a full year (and another four as it is a 5-year award).

For folks who are following NIMAS, you may be interested in the fact that Bookshare is also an Accessible Media Producer (AMP).

I encourage you to learn more about Bookshare. It’s FAQ section is a good place to begin.


Build-A-BearMy kids love the Build-A-Bear store as much as I hate the mall (I teach my kids not to use the word “hate” but there’s really no adequate synonym here). Build-A-Bear served a useful purpose in our lives for a couple of years – perfect gifting. What relative wouldn’t want an adorable, cuddly, stuffed creature that is selected, created, and personalized by a loving niece, nephew, or grandkid? Now that everyone in our family and annual gift-giving circle has a bear, we’re left to having to think creatively again (and happily avoiding the mall).

Kids love Build-A-Bear because they “own” the process – from choosing the particular bear, to inserting its heart (not a highly delicate procedure), stuffing it, bathing it, clothing it, naming it, and completing its birth certificate. My kids insist on adding the little (read: big price) personalized recorder on which they compose a message of “happy birthday” or “congratulations” or whatever the occasion may be. In the end (if you’ve managed to ride out the overstimulation caused by the crowd, bright lights, loud music, and mind-numbing noise from the “stuffing machine,” not to mention the shock upon check-out), kids are tickled to walk out of the store, carrying the box that houses their creation, anticipating the joy it will bring to their loved one. Truly, I’ve never encountered a problem with my kids handing off the bear to its rightful recipient. My theory is the “pride factor” – they really look forward to the smile on “Poppa’s” face.

Book Builder

Our students gain the same pride in academics when they’re given the opportunity to create something of their own and to share it with an authentic audience. Teachers share this pride. This element of co-production is one of my favorite features of UDL Book Builder, an online host for writing, illustrating, and posting one’s own stories. Developed by CAST, teachers can create, design, and customize their own digital books for their students’ use. Alternatively, students can create their own stories for digital publication (creations can also be downloaded).

On the surface, the Book Builder interface appears to be geared toward the elementary and middle grader. I encourage teachers of all grade levels to examine Book Builder, however. We can learn a lot from its promotion of literacy techniques, particularly how it simultaneously scaffolds both the reading and writing processes.

One area of the site provides guidance on how to go about writing and illustrating a story, focusing on considerations related to the introduction and content, genre, audience, and media (see Tips for Authors and Illustrators).

The guide includes a review of required reading skills (i.e., decoding, fluency, and comprehension) and how associated support strategies can be embedded within the story you’re about to create. One of the most compelling applications of the promoted techniques is the availability of reading coaches to “extend your teaching reach.” These little fellas come pre-named by default but you can personalize them, as well as adapt them for your own coaching purposes (they’re you – only animated!). For the sake of example, here they are as their default selves:

PedroPedro (“P” for “prompting”): prompts readers to actively think about the text using one or more comprehension strategies

HaliHali (“H” for “hinting”): provides hints in the form of a peer’s response to Pedro’s prompts

MontyMonty (“M” for “modeling”): offers models of expert strategy use and think-alouds that show how he is actively making sense of the text

Now, I realize that these guys look elementary, but it all depends on the words you put in their mouths. To see what I mean, check out this impressive range of books (each is available in the Shared Books Library):

  • Shakespeare’s Shylock (Grades 9 – 12/ ELA)
  • Still I Rise (Maya Angelou) (Grades 9 – 12/ ELA)
  • Multiplying Binomials (Grades 9 – 12/Math)
  • Fracturing Fraction Frustration (Grades 6 – 8/Math)
  • Gettysburg Address (Grades 6 – 8/Social Studies)
  • The 500 Million Year History of Vertebrates (Grades 4 – 8/Science)
  • Animal Parade (Grades 3 – 5/ELA)
  • The Majestic Migrating Monarch (Grade 2/Science)
  • And Suddenly Spring (Grades 1 – 3/ELA)
  • A Rainforest Adventure (Grade 1/Science)
  • Transportation (K/Social Studies)

Other features you won’t want to miss while exploring Book Builder:

  • Your story vocabulary can be captured in a hyperlinked glossary, which can include sounds and images
  • You can add your own media to your books
  • Created books can be added to a searchable, browseable Shared Books Library
  • The Resources section has valuable and highly relevant information that will improve your and your students’ stories

It’s important to note that Book Builder does not have its own built-in text-to-speech program. The books are compatible with both free and commercial text-to-speech tools, however. Alternatively, you can choose to add an audio narration of the text on each page of your book.

What better way to create a gift for our students? And what better way to engage our students in the creation and publication of their own stories, which is a lasting gift in and of itself. All that with no trip to the mall. Yeah!

Fast Forward Digital Media

NIMASOne of my first posts to this blog related to the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS). NIMAS is mandated under IDEA ’04 and is a partial acquisition system for getting Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) to kids who need them – in a timely manner. Maine is participating in a 15-state consortium to develop work flows and training materials that will support schools in the implementation of this law. That work is well underway and information will be disseminated over the course of the next year (district administrators have been notified of NIMAS and the initial steps of compliance).


While NIMAS is a highly technical standard that is intertwined in legislative mumbo jumbo, its intent is as pure as our own individual pursuits to equip kids with curriculum materials in formats that they need or prefer, such as digital text, audio, Braille, or enlarged print. I don’t pretend to frequently agree with what the Feds choose to pour money into, but this funded statute has resulted in some innovative and emergent tools that heretofore have been reserved as accommodations for students with print disabilities. The provision of books in flexible online interfaces for all students is emerging. A compelling example is a creation by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). Called UDL Editions, current texts include “Call of the Wild” by Jack London, Shakespeare’s “18th Sonnet,” Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the Gettysburg Address, and a couple of books related to coyotes (not sure why coyotes…my first thought was supplements to Call of the Wild but then again Buck yearned to be a wolf…).

I realize that literature in the public domain has long been available on the Web in digital format. But creations like UDL Editions extend accessibility to include features that promote literacy skills, regardless of reading ability. Supports are scaffolded into “maximum,” “moderate,” and “minimal,” and include features such as “Stop and Think” prompts, highlighting of critical features, models, hints, and immediate feedback on responses. And Texthelp has donated its speech synthesis program to the site, including topic fact-finder, dictionary, and English-Spanish word translation.


Lots more good stuff to share – stay tuned!


Welcome to UD in ME, a blog about the role of universal design in the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, better known as the MLTI. The purpose of bringing UD to the MLTI is simple: to make learning with technology accessible to all students in Maine, including students with disabilities.

Stop! Don’t tag this blog exclusively for special education. You see, while UD has its roots in disability and related social movements, its message to us as general education teachers is that we can learn from and generally apply what we know about the most unique learning needs of our students. That is, we don’t individualize the curriculum for all learners (repeat statement as necessary). Rather, we aim to integrate the common needs of diverse learners into the repertoire of methods, strategies, resources, and tools for teaching our content area.

Why UD in the MLTI? One reason is that one-to-one computing is the ideal environment for implementing UD! Flexibility, usability, and accessibility are the primary elements of UD, and when learners can customize the content of the curriculum for their own needs and preferences – voila! – auto individualization without the teacher having to create the content in (fill in the number of students you have) ways. The most simple example: Providing a “handout” in electronic format creates access and increases engagement by enabling learners to:

  • Change the text size or font
  • Create more white space
  • Adjust the color/contrast
  • Have the text read aloud with Mac OS X built-in speech
  • Transfer the content of the handout to their specialized software program (e.g., Kurzweil 3000 or Read & Write Gold)
  • Use a specialized screen reading program for students who are blind or have low vision (e.g., Mac OS X VoiceOver)
  • Interact with the handout via assistive technology for students with motor impairments (e.g., switch access; onscreen keyboards; or voice recognition software, such as iListen or MacSpeech Dictate)
  • Markup the handout using any number of input strategies (e.g., traditional keyboarding, alternative keyboarding, or voice recognition)

Imagine, all of those options for student access, engagement, and interaction as a result of simply providing a handout in its electronic format rather than taking a trip to the photocopier!

Of course, not all MLTI teachers have one-to-one computing in their classrooms. Students who do not have laptops, however, may still have access to computers within the classroom, library, computer lab, and at home. High school teachers with MacBooks can get a lot of mileage out of making their curriculum materials available electronically and directing students to a route for retrieving them.

OK, you say, UD isn’t that simple. There’s a learning curve to this. Yes…as simple as the most simple step of providing a handout in electronic format may be, UD is a process.

I’m sometimes referred to as a “UD expert.” At a recent conference I was asked the question, “Who’s the authority on universal design in Maine?” Experts? Authorities? Truth be told, I think we’re all grappling each and every day with how to be the best teachers we can…and still have time for our families and get a decent night’s sleep. As much as I’ve thought about, researched, and practiced UD over the past 8 years, I continue to learn – a lot from my own mistakes and shortcomings. I learn the most, however, from working with teachers and sharing experiences. So, I’m excited about this blog and its place in UD in ME!