Achievable ways technology can assist students with learning disabilities (Part 2)

Text to Speech



iOS, the operating system on which iPads work, has a variety of settings which allow text to be read aloud.  This could be an article in itself but, in short: to enable text-to-speech, go to Settings – General – Accessibility – Speech.

iOS has great speech to text capability
iOS has great speech to text capability


  • turn Speak Selection on and you can then select by sections of text or particular words by tapping and holding down on the screen in any app the text you want read aloud. A box pops up which gives you the option to copy, define or speak that selection.
  • turn Speak Screen on and you can then swipe down with two fingers from the top of the screen to hear the contents of that screen spoken.  A little box appears here too giving options to pause, fast forward or rewind, to speed up or slow down the rate of speech.

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Many iBooks have a text-to-speech function.  There are also other sources for talking books which can help a struggling reader to enjoy literature and the many benefits that being widely-read brings.



Other programs

If you want to go to be able to import text from other sources to read aloud, then Voice Dream Reader for iPad is a good option.  It’s integrated with many other programs, has a lot of features and is robust.  One thing it doesn’t do is OCR (optical character recognition) so if you want to be able to scan a non-electronic document (such as a worksheet or homework page) and have it read aloud, then Prizmo or Readiris might be the answer.

Voice Dream Reader
Voice Dream Reader










Vision Australia has a library which anyone with a print disability can join. That is:

  • A person without sight, or whose sight is severely impaired
  • A person unable to hold or manipulate books, or to focus or move his or her eyes e.g. MS, stroke, severe arthritis
  • A person with a perceptual disability e.g. dyslexia, visual processing disorder

The library has an extensive catalogue so it’s well worth checking out.


Mac OSX (10.8 and later) has dictation and speech-to-text features which work in a similar way to the iPad features and can be accessed via System Preferences.

Speech settings on a Mac
Speech settings on a Mac









Options for PC

If you’re looking for something that works on a PC, WordTalk is a free add-in for Microsoft Word, developed at the University of Edinburgh.  It highlights and reads text in a Word Document. Once you have installed the add-in from the website, an extra tab labelled “Add-ins” will appear when Word is opened. That tab contains a toolbar with the available options such as speak a word, speak a paragraph, speak from the cursor.


Texthelp produces Read & Write for Google, a Google app which provides text-to-speech, editing and translating tools.  Read & Write for Google is free for teachers but there is a cost for individuals and schools.  It’s a good option for someone who wants to work with the Google suite of apps.

A Chrome browser showing the Read&Write for Google toolbar
A Chrome browser showing the Read&Write for Google toolbar


There is an app version of Read & Write for Google which is free for the lite version. iReadWrite is an iPad app also produced by Texthelp with text-to-speech and word prediction features as well as a dictionary and a number of sharing and display options.

Have you used any of these?  Let me know which ones you prefer in the comments section below.

Next time: Writing and Text Prediction

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Achievable ways technology can assist students with learning disabilities (Part 1)

Whereas Assistive Technology has been expensive and obvious in the past, the rise of 1:1 technology and BYOD programs in schools is making AT simpler and cheaper to access and much easier for teachers to integrate into the mainstream classroom.


These technologies are not intended to replace learning support but rather to provide options for students to access resources and produce work without being hampered by their challenges with spelling and other language conventions.


Unfortunately, those with learning disabilities are often subjected to the same spelling and language convention assessments as other students so the following programs may not be appropriate in all situations. For a project where the real aim is that students can show their content knowledge and ability to analyse, some of these apps and programs can put them on a level playing field with everyone else.


This article merely scratches the surface of assistive technology but I have attempted to present options for different types of devices and different budgets. In some cases, negotiation with the school’s IT department may be necessary. In many cases a lite (free) version is available so you can try out the app and see if it suits your learners.

Speech to text 

There are some really good free options here.  Something really simple but very liberating especially for students in the middle primary age-range who are starting to need to research and work more independently but are still struggling with reading and spelling is to teach them to use a voice command for internet searching.  On an iPad or iPhone, ask Siri to search.  In a Google browser window, tap the microphone button and speak.




Google Voice Search
Google Voice Search



iPads have a built-in dictation feature. To enable the Dictation feature, go to Settings, General, Keyboards and then Enable Dictation.  You will need to be connected to the internet for dictation to work. Once you are in an app and ready to type, tap the screen and when the keyboard appears, tap the  microphone picture and start dictating.  You can give commands like New Paragraph but corrections need to be made manually.  Tap Done when you are finished dictating. I have found this feature easy to set up and use.

Speech options
iPad speech options



Setting up Windows Speech Recognition
Setting up Windows Speech Recognition

Setting up Speech Recognition in Windows 7 or 8 is a little more complicated.

You will need to set up a microphone and train your computer to understand your speech.  There is a tutorial on the Windows website which takes you through how to talk to your computer so your voice is understood accurately.  Over time the computer builds up a profile of your voice so accuracy should improve.






There are a number of programs and apps which also provide a speech to text feature.  The best known of these is probably Dragon Naturally Speaking for PC and Dragon Dictate for Mac.  There is an accompanying iPad and iPhone app, Dragon Dictation.  Because business and the health industry also use dictation, there are many dictation programs on the market and many free apps.  The robustness of these apps varies.  Some are glitchy or won’t allow easy export of text.

Nuance produces a range of Dragon Dictation programs
Nuance produces a range of Dragon Dictation programs



Have you tried any of these? Which one is your favourite?



Next time: Text to Speech

Kabilan29 at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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4 ways to make text easier to read

Some students struggle with reading comprehension

The reasons students struggle to be able to comprehend text are many and varied.  They might have a print disability such as dyslexia, an

Researching is hard work
Researching is hard work

intellectual disability or it may be that the text they want to read is just too advanced for their current reading level.

When students are researching and enter the topic name into a search engine, the results can be overwhelming and some results can be very scholarly in nature.

I do not mean to suggest that the curriculum be made easier, that poor reading skills be excused or ignored for mainstream students or that students should be allowed to take the lazy way of doing things.

Sometimes, for one reason or another, it is of benefit for children (and adults) to be able to access clutter-free, simplified reading material.


Four ways you can provide that material and teach students to modify their methods for research and reading.

1. Google search tools

When the results of a  Google search are displayed on your screen, click on Search tools, then on All results and then on Reading level.

Reading 8

You will see a graph which displays the percentage of results considered to be at a Basic Reading Level, an Intermediate and an Advanced Level. Choose Basic and the results displayed for the search will only be those at a Basic Reading Level.

Reading 4



2. Wikipedia simple text

For better or for worse, Wikipedia is the “go to” website for most school age students beginning research.  Once you have a Wikipedia article open, scroll down the page until you see Simple English listed under languages in the left sidebar.  Click and, lo and behold, you have a simplified version of the article.

Reading 2

3. is a free website into which you can paste text or a url for a website.

Reading 6
Reading 7












The site then substitutes words it judges to be difficult with a simpler word or phrase.  It does come up with some strange substitutions, e.g. Bakery Hill became (shop that sells cakes, pies, etc.) Hill and the flow is often interrupted when a phrase is substituted for a single word. Single words can also be pasted in to get their meaning and there are other features which provide activities for learning vocabulary. More features are available if you register but it is not necessary to register if you just want to paste and substitute.


4. is a free web and mobile app which doesn’t actually simplify text but which declutters the web page to remove distractions which can be very…well…distracting for some students. Once you have installed the Readability bookmarklets, an icon will appear on your browser toolbar. When the page you want to read is in front of you, click on the armchair icon, and choose Read Now.

Reading 5


You will then be presented with a “clean” version of the page.  There are other features in Readability which allow you to mark articles on your reading list to read later and to send articles to your Kindle.














The option obviously needs a bit of setting up so it’s harder to use when you’re away from your own computer.  The other options can be easily used on any computer.

Has anyone used these programs or found any others which do the same sort of thing?

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