I have been thinking and talking a lot about universal design for learning (here and here) and looking for ways/tools for instructors to share with students. Texthelp offers a platform called Read&Write (RW). While providing a number of capabilities (see the full list here,) RW is a text-to-speech (TTS) tool. The tool is available for a number of platforms, but I will be talking about the Chrome extension. Before going further I do want to point out that our Center for Academic Success can make the full version of this application available for students who need it. Tools like this are certainly beneficial for those who need them, but they can also provide helps for English-language-learners as well as provide another way for any student to interact with the material.
What we will be looking at here is the Read&Write for Google Chrome extension. As a Chrome extension it will only work in the Chrome browser and can only interact with content hosted on the Internet. By way of comparison the desktop application can open and read PDF documents saved to the computer.
Once installed the extension lives with all the others in the upper right of the browser. Once you are on a page you would like to be read aloud you can click the extension o bring up the toolbar.
The full toolbar looks like this:
It is outside the scope of this post to talk about all the functions of the toolbar. We will only be talking a small subset, which you can see below.
The three buttons on the left are the play controls for the TTS function. The next tool is a screenshot reader. You can take a screenshot of some text and then RW will read the text to you. The latter buttons on the right are highlighting controls.
Reading web pages is all well and good, but much of the reading students will do is from the humble PDF. This format in and of itself is not accessible. There are processes, namely optical character recognition, or OCR, that renders the text and make it searchable. OCR is the process by which a computer determines what the underlying text in a document is. There are many factors that play into the success of the OCR process. For a deep dive into OCR watch this video. once this has been done a number of options open up for manipulating the document. One major option is that the text may be read aloud.
As mentioned before the RW Chrome extension will only read documents/text that are on the Internet. This is where Microsoft Office 365 comes into play. Any OCR’d PDF that lives in OneDrive may be read aloud by the RW extension. In addition one can use the highlighting tools to highlight the text contextually – assigning an idea to a color, e.g. yellow for all main ideas and green for supporting arguments. Once the highlighting is complete all the highlights can be pulled into a single Google Document*.
*This unfortunately does require a Google account and access to Google Drive.
One note, certain capability is available for free and some only available after purchase. You can see the full list here. Texthelp does offer a free premium account to educators.
Watch below for a brief demo of the tool.