Ebooks as Textbooks - Part 1 - Reading Aloud

This is the start of a short series on using ebooks and ebook readers as textbooks.

Reading Aloud - using Text-to-Speech with your ebook. 

Ebooks seem to be the new wave for textbooks. Already ebooks and book rentals have had a major impact on book sales at the college level and a number of states have already passed legislation or are working on legislation concerning changing the school textbook to be either more or fully digital. In my own state of Florida we already have legislation that will require schools to begin changing to digital textbooks by the 2015-2016 school year. Of course one of the driving pressures for this change is money, ad the US DOE expects that this kind of change could save approximately $60 per student per year - something that could be a nice summative savings (especially when you consider that my district has about 200,000 students = a savings of $12,000,000 from the yearly budget). And while this is all fine and good in terms of savings, is it a good idea for learning? So I've been experimenting with a number of the aspects of textbook use and then using a digital textbook to see how well it works. Overall, I'm finding that for myself and the students that I've worked with it is quite as effective, although there is a learning curve and a bit of getting used to new methods.

Today I wanted to write about the audio possibilities of using ebooks as textbooks, in other words Text-To-Speech. There has been a lot of research done on reading aloud to students by both people and machines doing the reading, and usually that research has shown from moderate to significant results. By having a book read-aloud, as an instructional approach, this strategy supports both nonreaders and nonfluent readers prior to the introduction of instruction in cognitive and comprehension strategies. Strategies for reading textbooks aloud to students include  the teacher reading aloud to the student, a student reading aloud to another student, the student reading aloud to him/herself, and having a text-to-speech program read the text aloud - another possibility would be to get the textbook either read by a machine or professional reader as an audiobook. Letting students hear the words as they are visually reading them allows for multiple modalities of learning and can support vocabulary development, along with providing a tool for differentiated instruction. Many students may have seen "new" words many times, but may not have heard them enough to know how to actually sound them out - as a long time science teacher I can attest to this, and in a recent project with my undergraduates creating an audiobook from the first Tarzan novels, it was amazing to see how many words that they did not know how to pronounce out of a middle school reading novel. One other aspect to understand is that I'm concerned with the text of textbooks, not novels, for those, at least for now, the machine reading is not where it would need to be.

There are a few ebook reading devices available today that can read their texts aloud. Products such as the Kindle Touch, Asus EEE Reader, Ectaco JetBook Color, Icarus Reader Excel, Samsung's Papyrus, and the Sony Pocket Touch are dedicated ereading devices that can read aloud through text-to-speech. In addition to dedicated readers Apple's iPad and most desktop and laptop computers with the right software can read aloud. For example using Adobe Reader on your desktop or laptop you can use an option in the View menu to read the page or the whole text aloud.

So over the past few months I've been experiments with my Kindle Touch and a few other programs like Read Please and Adobe Reader to read aloud a variety of different textbooks and see what happened.
I've used the programs and devices to read textbooks that I'm using with my own classes along with using them with a variety of K12 textbooks. One change or skill that has to be developed is "listening reading" - we are very used to sight reading, but listening and reading takes a different set of skills - no longer just saccades and fixations, listening and understanding a textbook is a different set of skills. I've worked over the past few years to build my book listening skills, at first just listening to a textbook would wear me out after about 15 to 30 minutes - so it will take practice to get better with textbook listening. Although an immediate plus that I noted was listening while sight reading - that caused an immediate improvement in comprehension.

In my own experiments of late, I've been listening to textbooks while walking or riding my bike, along with reading them at my desk. And for textbooks, I’ve found that this machine reading of the text can be effective. The only issue that I've actually been having is that the as is reading to me I keep waiting to take notes, not something good to do while  riding. But when I have something to note, I pause the ebook reading aloud, and then I use the annotations features to take my notes, and then I continue reading. The gender neutrality of the machine reading, along with not great prosody doesn't bother me with a textbook like it dose with a novel. When I tried the same thing with a required reading novel I  quickly I found myself being frustrated with the reading that was occurring. This was not a problem with the voice or the speed at which it was reading, or of the machine’s reading prosody, as for example question’s intonations did go up at the end of the sentence as compared to the rest of the sentence. New reading systems are a much more advanced than the old reading systems were and I had been listening to reading systems for quite a long time. I've also found my experiences with Adobe Reader and Read Please to be similar.

An advantage of these readers is that they can be on-demand, when a student wants or needs the text aloud, they just have to turn on that feature, not have to find someone to help them. One point of concern though, if you are doing this in a classroom with multiple students, make sure that they are all using ear buds or headphones. Otherwise the reading just can become a confusing mix of words and sounds that will be a learning disruption. Another concern that I have is that read aloud by itself isn't the best for math, it is fine as a support while visually reading math, but not effective by itself (above basic math).

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