Text-to-Speech Software

A large pair of microphones around a smartphone.
Photo by Sanket Mishra

Text-to-speech software, or TTS, will read the text of documents and web pages aloud. Most have different voice options to choose from, and allow you to customize the speed and pitch of the voice. They can also highlight the word currently being read, allowing users to follow along visually.

Some users may find the computer-generated speech robotic and difficult to listen to at first, so it’s worth experimenting with different voice options, or downloading new voices from an app’s website. Voice quality has also improved drastically over the years, and will likely become even more natural in future.

Who can benefit?

  • People with low vision or who get eye strain from reading from a computer screen
  • People whose learning style is better suited to auditory or bimodal learning
    • Many TTS programs have the option to highlight the text as it’s read, which promotes multimodal learning.
  • People who struggle with reading comprehension or who are English language learners
  • People who prefer to multitask while reading

Below are some examples of text-to-speech programs used at the University of Illinois, as well as some free alternatives available to anyone. The free alternatives listed are by no means exhaustive, and many won’t have all the features available from paid programs. However, they do give a good example of the basic functionalities available, and may help determine whether it’s worth pursuing more feature-rich alternatives.

Disclaimer: DRES and the University of Illinois do not formally endorse or recommend any specific software programs. The programs listed below serve as examples of different categories of AT, with a focus on the software available to University of Illinois students registered with DRES with assistive technology as part of their accommodations. For vendors interested in having their AT programs featured on the DRES website, please contact us at dres-accessible-media@illinois.edu.


Kurzweil 3000

Platforms: Mac, Windows; browser extensions for Chrome, Edge, and Firefox.

Kurzweil Education produced the first commercially-available reading machine, and remains a leader in the field of literacy technology. Kurzweil 3000 combines text-to-speech capabilities with a number of tools to develop and enhance both language proficiency and general learning skills. The free Read the Web browser extension also adds web browser functionality.

Feature Highlights

Reading Tools

  • Read: Reads documents and web pages aloud, including highlighting the current line for visual reading
  • Zone Editor: Manually change the reading order so page elements read correctly
  • Create Audio File: Export a document or web page as an audio file to listen to later

Writing Tools

  • Write: Built-in text editor with spell check and word prediction to aid in writing papers
  • Speech to Text: Built-in dictation capabilities

Study Tools

  • Notes: Add your own text, voice, or sticky notes to readings
  • Dictionary & Picture Dictionary: Help define and visualize unfamiliar words
  • Highlights: Highlight important information, then extract your highlights to study later as Column Notes and Vocabulary Study Guides
  • Outlines and Brainstorms: Create an outline from your notes and highlights, or organize your ideas visually with a mind map-style Brainstorm

See it in action

Kurzweil offers a number of demo videos that show off its functionality. Start with their Overview video to get a feel for the available features, then browse through their videos on any specific features that look useful to you.


Read&Write

Platforms: Mac, Windows, Android, iPad; Chrome browser extension.

Read&Write is a literacy-support program that offers several study tools that help improve language and study skills, in addition to text-to-speech. It’s available free to UIUC students, faculty, and staff from the WebStore.

Feature Highlights

There are different versions of Read&Write for Mac, Windows, Chrome, and mobile platforms, and some features vary between versions. A complete breakdown of features available on each platform can be found here.

  • Text-to-speech: Reads documents and web pages aloud, including highlighting the current line for visual reading
  • Talk&Type: Built-in dictation tool with word prediction and spell check
  • Highlighters: Highlight important information, then export your highlights to study later with Collect Highlights and Vocabulary List
  • Dictionary & Picture Dictionary: Help define and visualize unfamiliar words
  • Screen Masking: Dims the screen except for the current line for better focus while reading
  • Screenshot Reader: Reads inaccessible text from graphics
  • Audio Maker: Export a document or web page as an MP3 to listen to later

See it in action

Read&Write offers playlists of demo videos for each of their products, depending on the platform you’re using. They don’t all have an overview video, so we recommend starting with their Intro to Read&Write for Google Chrome video to get a feel for the range of features, then browse through your platform’s playlist to see videos on specific features of interest.


Free TTS Alternatives

Microsoft Read Aloud

Platform: Microsoft 365.
How to get it: Read Aloud is part of Microsoft’s Immersive Reader tool suite, which supports Universal Design for Learning. It comes built into Word, OneNote, Outlook, and more. It is also available directly in Canvas.

Adobe Acrobat Reader Read Aloud

Platforms: Adobe Acrobat Reader for Mac, Windows, Android, iOS.
How to get it: Read Aloud comes built into Adobe Acrobat.

Windows Narrator

Platform: Windows.
How to get it: Narrator comes built into Windows.

Apple Speech

Platforms: Mac, iOS.
How to get it: Speech comes built into Mac and iOS.

@Voice Aloud Reader[1]

Platform: Android.
How to get it: Download @Voice Aloud Reader here.

Voice Aloud Reader[1]

Platform: iOS.
How to get it: Download Voice Aloud Reader here.

[1] These apps are similarly named, but unrelated.


Locating Digital Files

There are many online repositories of digital books and other texts that can be used with a TTS program. DRES students with an accommodation for accessible reading materials can also contact AMS for help locating digital copies of reading materials needed for their courses and research.

SensusAccess

Not all text is created equal, and you may encounter inaccessible text files that your TTS program can’t read. While Kurzweil and Read&Write both have optical character recognition (OCR) tools to make inaccessible text accessible, free TTS programs may not be able to handle an inaccessible file.

SensusAccess is a text conversion tool that can be a useful supplement to TTS programs that don’t have built-in OCR tools. When you upload a document, it gives you options to convert it into a different format; you can turn a PDF into a Word document, an EPUB into a MP3, and so on. In the process, it will also convert any inaccessible text into a format that any TTS program can read.

SensusAccess is available free to anyone with an Illinois.edu email address. After you upload your file, SensusAccess will email you the converted file once it’s been processed.

Be aware that the conversion process may not be perfect; the process is automated, and issues may arise, like tables being turned into graphics or characters being swapped, like I’s becoming L’s. For higher fidelity conversions, talk to your Access Specialist about adding professional text conversion from AMS to your list of accommodations.


For More Information

If any of these programs sounded useful to you, contact your Access Specialist or begin the accommodation process today to get an assistive technology program added to your accommodations. For questions or to request personalized AT training, email AMS at dres-accessible-media@illinois.edu and include “[AT]” in the subject line.