Tag Archives: text-to-speech

Screenshot Reader

As more and more professors assign online homework, we will occasionally come across sites that are not accessible. Rather than offer homework in a standard text format, a publisher may present words as part of an image, in a video, in Flash, or in a format that allows students to drag and drop homework answers. Unfortunately, standard text-to-speech software used by students with dyslexia often cannot read words presented in these inaccessible formats.

Read&Write, however, has a tool that can recognize any text on the screen and read it aloud to the user. Screenshot Reader allows users to draw a box around inaccessible text on the screen and have that text read aloud. And if you are SUNY Cortland student, faculty, or staff, you can get Read&Write for free.

See the below videos on how to use Screenshot Reader on Mac and Windows PCs. As always, give us a shout if you need further assistance.


Using Read&Write to Recognize Text in a PDF

At SUNY Cortland, our faculty are responsible for providing accessible electronic readings for all students who need them for equal access. I’ve worked closely with the faculty on this for several years now and I’m pleased with the number of faculty who post quality accessible files on Blackboard.

Nevertheless, a stray inaccessible file will occasionally be posted. Maybe a student hasn’t identified yet or maybe a professor just forgot to check to make sure that one PDF is searchable. In cases like this, we ask students to call the matter to the attention of the professor so they can fix the error and let me know if the situation repeats.

But what if you want to just read that one document and be done with it? If you have Read&Write installed on your computer, you have the tools in front of you to make that PDF accessible.

Open Read&Write, go to the drop down menu next to the Scanner button and choose “Scan from file(s)…” (The below screenshots are from Windows, but Read&Write for Mac will work similarly.)

Image of toolbar with Scan feature drop-down menu

Then hit the big “Scan” button. It will prompt you to open a file from your computer. Find the file you want to read and choose it. If it is a file with multiple pages, Read&Write will ask you to choose which pages to recognize. When ready, hit “Scan.”

Multipage document detected notification

Read&Write will show you the progress of recognizing each page of the document. It takes a second or two to recognize the text on each page.

OCR in Progress notification

The document will then open in PDF Aloud, allowing you to listen while the words are highlighted.

Screenshot of a document being read in PDF Aloud

This will work if you want to use Read&Write to read a paper document as well. Just take a picture of it with your phone, transfer it to your computer, and follow the above steps. (If you use OfficeLens, though, it will recognize the text on its own.) If you have a scanner, you can scan the paper document as this video demonstrates.


Read and Write


We are excited to announce that SUNY Cortland has purchased a site license for Read & Write, a suite of reading, writing, and study tools for PC and Mac. The suite can be installed on any college computer and students may install it on their own computers.

Read & Write opens as a toolbar that hovers over everything else open on your computer or can be locked to the top or side of the screen, as seen below.

Screenshot of Read & Write toolbar locked to the top of a screen.

The toolbar allows the user to access the 30 or so features of the suite. It can be customized to allow users to focus on the handful of features they find most helpful. These features includes the following apps:

  • A text-to-speech app that highlights text while reading it aloud;
  • A scan and read app that allows the user to create searchable PDFs and other documents that can be read aloud;
  • PDF Aloud, an app that opens PDFs and reads them aloud;
  • Screenshot Reader, an app that allows the user to take a screenshot of part or all of the screen and then have it read aloud. This will be handy for students who want to have online homework read aloud and have been stymied by inaccessible Flash-based text.
  • A DAISY reader that allows students to read Bookshare and other DAISY files;
  • Speechmaker, an app that creates mp3 files out of text.
  • Study tools that can be useful for those doing reading and research with electronic documents, including several colors of highlighters and an app that inserts voice notes;
  • Writing tools, including a word predictor and an app that helps the writer sort through homophones and other confusable words;
  • An app that allows the user to graphically  organize ideas;
  • And more…

The toolbar includes drop-down menus to customize each app and view video tutorials of each feature, making them relatively easy to learn. That said, we will highlight some of the most useful features of Read & Write in future posts.

You may learn how to obtain a copy of Read and Write for your college-owned computer or your own computer at no charge by contacting Jeremy Zhe-Heimerman. In the future, we hope to publish a link that will allow any member of the SUNY Cortland community to download the software directly.


Vital Source Text-to-Speech

VitalSource logoI spent time this week working with a student who wanted to use the text-to-speech feature on her VitalSource e-textbook.

Those of us who work with disabled students in higher education have learned to be skeptical of e-textbooks. The combination of piracy-wary publishers and indifferent platform creators has resulted in most e-books being inaccessible to students with dyslexia and others who require text-to-speech for equal access. When I last tried VitalSource’s platform (back when it was CourseSmart), there was a way for many books to be read aloud through text-to-speech, but it was cumbersome to say the least. A look at VitalSource’s new platform shows some limited improvement.

Use of text-to-speech in a VitalSource book requires downloading and installing their Bookshelf desktop app. I worked with my student’s PC laptop, but a Mac app is available as well. Once installed, the student can open the book, easily navigate to the desired page, and click on the play button to start reading.

VitalSource desktop app
There are plenty of downsides to VitalSource books, though.

  • Words are not highlighted while being read aloud. This makes it tougher for the reader to follow along.
  • Text-to-speech is not available in the web app.
  • There is no text-to-speech function in the iOS app and, as seen below, Speak Selected Text does not work either.

No "speak" button in iPad appOne day, students will be able to buy completely accessible ebooks. For now, the VitalSource desktop app may be acceptable to some users, but it, along with the rest of the ebook industry, falls short of offering equal access.

NaturalReader for PC and iOS

NaturalReader app logo

NaturalReader has been one of our most popular free apps for students with dyslexia for years. Students with PCs have found it especially useful, as Windows does not have a user-friendly text-to-speech tool built into it like that found in Mac OSX. But in recent years, NaturalReader apps have become available for Mac, iOS, and Android as well.

This post will focus on the PC and iOS apps, as those are the ones that we’ve worked with the most. I’ve found that the Mac app has not been updated as regularly as the PC app and doesn’t work quite as well. And since OSX has its own text-to-speech capabilities built into it, there’s not as much of a need for it on that platform. We don’t have access to an Android device to test that app, but student reports indicate that it is similar to the iOS app in design, strengths, and weaknesses.


NaturalReader for PC has two interfaces. One, the Floating Bar, hovers over whatever window is open on the screen. The other is a traditional app that opens up documents to be read aloud.

The traditional interface can open RTF, Text, PDF, Word, or ePub files. The files are displayed as text only, so all images are stripped out and much of the formatting is lost. Users may then click the play button to begin reading wherever they wish.

reg interface

The free version picks up whatever voices are already on your computer. The user may easily adjust the speed without leaving the main interface. One may buy additional voices separately, or spring for one of the paid versions with other additional features.

As seen in the image above, the speech output syncs with highlighting on the screen.

When a user clicks on the “Floating Bar” button seen in the bottom right of the above image, the app shrinks down to a bar that hovers over whatever window is open on the screen.

Floating Bar

The user then must select text to be read aloud by dragging the cursor over it. When one clicks on the play button, NaturalReader will read the selected text aloud. There is no synchronized highlighting here unless the user clicks on the little arrows on the bottom right of the bar. That opens up a box that displays the selected text and highlights the words as they are being read aloud, as seen above. Clicking on the settings wheel allows the user to change the voice and the speed.

Students use NaturalReader differently based on personal preference. Some stick with the Floating Bar for all of their readings. It works for everything, whether a searchable PDF with lots of images, an HTML article, or a Word document. Others like the highlighting in the traditional interface and will open text-heavy documents there. When a document has lots of images, though, these students will typically rely on the floating bar so as not to lose all of the formatting that’s lost in the traditional interface.


NaturalReader for iOS currently is free for 100 minutes, at which point it becomes all but inoperable. If one wants to keep using it, NaturalReader Pro is $9.99 as of publication. Just make sure you don’t buy the old NaturalReader with the teal logo which, for some reason, is still available on the app store even though it is quite buggy.

It’s relatively easy to open files in NaturalReader, as one may link a OneDrive or Dropbox account or open a webpage. If a file is open elsewhere on your device, a user may also tap the button to open it in another app, one of which will be NaturalReader.

ios open

Files then display and are read aloud as the text changes color.


The below images demonstrate how a web page article can be found in NaturalReader and converted to text for reading aloud.

ios web article

After tapping on the “Listen Now” button, the article is converted to text as such:

ios read web article

There are three major shortcomings to this app that make me unable to recommend it over our favorite mobile text-to-speech app, Voice Dream Reader, which also costs $9.99 and is now available in Android in addition to iOS.

First, it’s not easy to navigate through a file to a particular spot. Voice Dream users can double tap on any word and text-to-speech immediately begins at that tap. With NaturalReader, one either taps the play button and listens to the file from the beginning or one taps the arrow at the bottom right of the screen to bring up a menu to scroll to a place in the document. It’s not always easy to find the exact spot, though. The image below demonstrates how I’ve moved the switch horizontally to navigate to page 5 out of 9.


Second, Voice Dream syncs with more cloud services. Besides Dropbox and OneDrive, users may sync their Google Drive, iCloud, Bookshare, Evernote, Box, Pocket, and Instapaper accounts. This makes it easier to open files in Voice Dream than in NaturalReader.

Finally, Voice Dream is more rich with features for customized reading and note taking. I’ll be writing another review of Voice Dream Reader in the near future that spends more time on these features and the improvements made on the app since my first review.

The Takeaway

NaturalReader for PC is an excellent choice for those looking for a free text-to-speech app for windows. NaturalReader for iOS is worth trying out and keeping an eye on, but it’s not at the level of Voice Dream Reader, which is available at the same price.

Please let us know your own experiences with NaturalReader and other text-to-speech apps.

Mac OSX Text-to-Speech

Many don’t realize that OSX includes a very useful text-to-speech tool. This one minute video nicely demonstrates how to use it.

This is a great tool to keep focus on reading a PDF when it’s hard to pay attention to the text. Or maybe you are writing a paper and need to hear your words read back to you while editing. There’s no need to seek out and purchase an app when this is built right into your operating system.

This feature is limited in that one must repeatedly select text and hit the keyboard shortcuts to listen. Additionally, each word is not highlighted while being read aloud. But it’s a perfectly adequate text-to-speech function that many of my students have been satisfied with over the years.

Prizmo for iOS

Prizmo for iOS is a leading scan and read app that may be useful for those of us with dyslexia or visual impairments. The user takes a photo of a document, the app converts it into text, and then it allows one to hear it read aloud or save it as a searchable PDF.

An older version of Prizmo is reviewed with similar apps in this article from a couple years ago that focuses on blind users. Since I’m most familiar with our students with dyslexia, I’ll focus here on its applications for them.

One can easily think of the times this might be useful for a dyslexic student. A professor hands out an exercise or reading in class and you need to listen to it? Open up Prizmo, snap a photo, and plug in the headphones. Stuck with a reading on paper rather than listening to accessible e-text? Use Prizmo page by page. Maybe your instructor posted a reading as an image PDF rather than a searchable one? Open it in Prizmo and make it accessible. (Please note that our students should always be able to get accessible e-text. Just see Jeremy. But this could work in a pinch.)

So this app sounds great, but how well does it work? How good does the image quality need to be for the optical character recognition (OCR) engine to accurately translate the image into text? How well does it read? How easy is it to export the documents to other apps or cloud storage? I put Prizmo through its paces and here’s what I found.


Let’s start with a nicely scanned PDF that a professor may have put on Blackboard without running OCR herself. Will Prizmo be able to make it readable with few to no errors?


Pretty good, I’d say. You’ll see the cursor on the page and the keyboard along with it. That’s to allow one to fix any errors if need be. It was also quite easy to open that PDF up from Dropbox, so I would guess that one should be able to open PDFs or other image files from other sources as well.

Now we’ll move onto those documents you might receive on paper in class. Here’s how Prizmo converted the first page of a syllabus. The syllabus was flat on the desk and the light quality was decent and slightly shaded for my iPad Air’s camera.


Not perfect, but not bad, eh? And if the image quality doesn’t make for the greatest readability, one may adjust the contrast and brightness before running the OCR. Here’s another handout:


And yes, the OCR engine goes beyond English to  recognize 10 common languages and allows one to purchase many others.

What about an article from a journal that is not laying completely flat on the desk?


Hmmm….some major problems here.

It looks like Prizmo is acceptable  for use when one is starting with a high quality scan or photo. But it’s not a cure-all for documents that aren’t prepared well to begin with.


Prizmo includes built in voices and in-app purchases allows one to buy many others. Here’s what it looks like when Prizmo is reading a document. You’ll see the word highlighted as it reads, although it does not have all the features one finds in Voice Dream.



So maybe you want to open that accessible PDF you made in Prizmo in Voice Dream or on another device. One can easily export your document to other apps or to cloud storage. Here’s the above PDF in the original layout view in Voice Dream after exporting.


Final Assessment

Prizmo could be well worth its $10 price to someone often wanting to be able to listen to paper documents and willing to put up with some imperfections. However, its limited accuracy when image quality is less-than-perfect means that we as a college need to continue to provide students with accessible readings that don’t require students to run their own OCR.

Have you used Prizmo? How have you liked it? Have you come across other affordable scan and read apps that have worked for you?


Voice Dream

Voice Dream logoLet’s start this blog off with the app that I’ve heard students praise the most: Voice Dream for iOS. This is a high-quality and low-cost text-to-speech app that allows the user to listen to text files quite easily. Students with dyslexia have found it especially useful, but anyone who wants to listen to a PDF, ePub, DAISY, Word, or Text file on their iPhone or iPad will appreciate its ease of use.

A full review, including an interesting interview with the developer, can be found at LibraryCity, but here are a few of the things that make this a popular text-to-speech app.

  • It’s easy to open files in Voice Dream. Sync your Dropbox, Google Drive, or Bookshare accounts to easily import the files you want to read. Or add whatever is on your clipboard or whatever you type into a text editor.
  • Includes its own web browser so you can listen to web pages.
  • Voices – Comes with Heather, a high quality English voice from Acapela, and allows access to any of the dozens of built-in iOS voices. If that’s not enough, dozens of additional voices in 20 languages are available as in-app purchases for a few dollars each.
  • You may choose to view the original image layout of the PDF while reading or text only. This is helpful when reading a textbook that is filled with photos, charts, and the like that you might want to have an eye on while listening. The below screenshot gives you an idea of what this page view looks like in Voice Dream.

Exact page layout view with sentence highlighted in Voice Dream

  • If viewing just the text on the page, Voice Dream allows you to make only 1, 3, or 5 lines of text visible. Some readers who often find themselves losing their spot on the page have found this especially useful.
  • Voice Dream highlights the words as they are being read aloud to keep the reader focused. If that bugs you, it’s easily turned off. See that feature in the above screenshot and the below text view that also demonstrates only 5 lines visible.

Photo 2

Voice Dream is currently priced at $9.99 at the iOS app store, but I’ve seen it on sale at 50% off or more in the first week of semesters.

I recommend trying out Voice Dream Lite first. Download it for free and listen to 300 characters at a time before having to press play again. Also, you can download any of the extra voices for free to try them out.
Update 2/12/15: Voice Dream Lite is no longer available.

If you have used Voice Dream, how does it work for you? Do you recommend any other good text-to-speech apps? What other types of academic apps would you like to see us review? Please let us know in the comments.