Reading E-Text: Alternative Strategies Using AT

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June 2015

By David C. Winters, Ph.D.

I thought I heard you coming down the hall! Great, because it’s time for another visit to my AT Lab, so come right in.

You might remember that last time we talked about alternative strategies for making grade/age level text accessible to people who are not fluent decoders. In this way, they can keep up with the same new information and vocabulary experienced by their peers. I hope you have been able to try out some of the low-tech and high-tech suggestions we discussed.

We also need to remember that, even though we want to make text accessible through text-to-speech options, we still need to work toward improving decoding skills. In fact, I call this Dr. Dave’s AT Lab Principle #3: The key to instruction for the person with reading difficulties from fourth grade forward is to continue to work on building fluent, automatic decoding through direct instruction while also providing alternative access to text. Most of the time, this alternative access involves high-tech AT.

Digital Text Provides Access

When considering high-tech options, last time we focused on AT that can “read” printed text aloud. Today I want to introduce you to a few options that “read” electronic text (e-text) aloud. Rather than using print media, e-text uses a digital format and includes e-books, PDFs, and documents composed on a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

During your last visit, we talked about using Kurzweil 3000 firefly ( to read printed text through a scan-to-read approach. This versatile app also works with many kinds of e-text (.doc, .pdf, .epub, .rtf, .txt, .kes). The app accesses the e-text from a cloud-based Universal Library, often managed by a teacher or school administrator. While the full-featured app requires users to purchase a yearly subscription or a standalone version, the tablet app, firefly, is free to anyone. This tablet app includes numerous classic literature and non-fiction texts and makes use of several basic features of the full program. For example, users can choose among male and female voices in several languages and vary the speaking speed. Given the significant financial investment you will make with the app’s yearly subscription or standalone version, be sure to take advantage of the 30-day trial offer if you think you might be interested in the full app.

By the way, that trial offer reminds me of Dr. Dave’s AT LAB Principle #4: Whenever possible, take advantage of a trial offer or lite version of an AT device or app. While not all devices and apps provide a trial offer or lite version, if I’m considering more than one device or app that might work in a situation, I will almost always try the one with the trial offer or lite version first.

More Great Options Read E-Text Aloud

Another option for reading e-text aloud is the powerful iPad/iPhone app Voice Dream Reader (, which costs $9.99. While the app comes with one female US English voice, users can purchase additional voices that cost from $1.99 to $4.99, with almost 100 voices in 20 languages available. The app extracts text from about a dozen file formats (e.g., .pdf, .docx, .ppt, .epub, .pages, .rtf), quickly processes text for the best text-to-speech possible, and stores it on the device for access even when not connected to the Internet. The app can access the text from numerous sources (e.g., Dropbox [], Google Drive [], “Open in …“ the app’s built-in web browser, and even cut-and-paste).

Voice Dream Reader has several features that allow the user to visually adjust the text, including 10 fonts, text sizes, spacing, and the colors used for the text, highlighting, and background. While reading, the app can highlight each word as it is spoken and has an option to highlight the entire line or sentence in a different color. When listening to some formats, such as PDF, the user can view the original layout or just the text. In addition, the user can adjust the speech rate as well as change voices, which are quite realistic.

Since we’ve been talking about PDFs, let me share the vBookz Voice Reader apps ( These apps include the vBookz PDF Voice Reader ($4.99 for iPad/iPhone; $14.99 for iMac/MacBook), and the vBookz Free Audiobooks ($4.99). The apps work with true text PDF files. For other PDF files, such as ones that you may have scanned, you will need to first use the free vBookz OCR Scanner app to convert the file to a true text PDF file. The user can download PDFs from Dropbox, Google Drive, or by using the “Open In . . .” option, if available with that file. After downloading, the app quickly processes the PDF to optimize it for text-to-speech.

The vBookz Voice Reader apps come with male and female voices in 16 available languages. While the app is reading the text, the user may view the PDF in its original format or view just the text. The app uses the “dyslexie” font. In this view, the user may adjust the size of the font as well as the font and background colors.

Oh, my! I see that our time is up for today’s visit. I hope you get to try at least one of these apps between now and your next visit. And the next time you come, we’ll talk about some more text-to-speech options.


More of Dr. Winter’s AT Labs:

February 2014
Dr. Dave’s AT Lab: Welcome to Dr. Dave’s AT Lab!

May 2014
Dr. Dave’s AT Lab: 
Did You Catch All That? Note-Taking and AT

October 2014
Dr. Dave’s AT Lab: AT for Reading: Young Children

February 2015
Dr. Dave’s AT Lab: AT for Reading: Alternative Strategies using AT

David C. Winters, Ph.D., Fellow/AOGPE, is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education at Eastern Michigan University. He has been a classroom teacher, tutor, diagnostician, administrator, and tutor/teacher trainer for over 30 years and is a member of the International Dyslexia Association Orton Oaks. He currently teaches courses introducing preservice teachers to special education as well as instructional and assistive technology, writing, and assessment in special education for preservice special educators and speech language pathologists.

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