Supporting reading

Text-to-speech systems

Dyslexic adults are often able to perform better on conventional reading or spelling tests rather than the tests set by LADS Plus but problems still arise. Reading mechanically word-by-word, can still be a task that is not undertaken lightly and accuracy may only come after many attempts.

Vocabulary

Due to a lack of practice, a dyslexic adult’s vocabulary may be weak and handheld electronic or computer based dictionaries and encyclopaedia can help. They have search and browsing facilities that do not always require the whole word to be finished and some come with speech feedback for instance the Franklin Language Master or the Concise Oxford Dictionary CD ROM on which the main word is read by a recorded digitised voice, and the meanings can be heard via a synthesised voice.

Small scanning pens have also been designed specifically to read a word and provide a spoken meaning for example the Quicktionary Readingpen II. They need to be held at the right angle and drawn steadily across the word, but have improved their recognition rates in recent years. iANSYST is a company that has provided a particularly helpful set of web pages with descriptions of these products http://www.dyslexic.com/

Reading text

Text-to-speech software is usually designed to read the text within windows on the screen, by use of a computer-based voice, and can help those who tend to skip lines or whose eye jumps a small section of text so that the meaning is lost. This type of software can also be used when syntax problems result in a misunderstanding of the whole, despite being able to cope with particular phrases or clauses. Poor comprehension also occurs when someone is reading so slowly that they cannot remember what was at the beginning of a section and find themselves re-reading parts over and over again without improving their understanding. If someone is reading at around 150 words per minute the text to speech program can often provide intelligible speech at a higher rate (after the reader has become used to the voice) and even encourage faster reading speeds (the average adult reading speed tends to be around 240 words per minute).

These programs do not have to be expensive if the reading element is all that is required. The benefit of using a reader such as the one provided by TextHelp(Read and Write) or Sensory Software (SpeakOut) is that the menu bar floats above most Windows programs (or can be hidden in the case of SpeakOut) and the text does not have to be cut and pasted into a separate program. This is usually the case with freeware or shareware versions such as ReadPlease 2003. The latest versions of the Windows and Apple Mac systems come with their own machine readable text-to-speech software, but these programs on work with certain applications. It should be noted that all these programs require a sound card and speakers.

Scanning text

If independent reading is very slow it may be beneficial to use a scanner for the complex sections of text along with a program such as Kurzweil 3000, Wynn, Read and Write Gold or Wordsmith. These optical character recognition (OCR) programs are designed to take in multiple pages and save them as single files for reading later. They can also save the graphics while allowing for background and font changes. Many other features are available besides text-to-speech in these applications, including magnification, highlighting key points and note-taking. A cheaper option is to use the scanner with its own OCR software, which tends to be a light version of a more expensive program such as Abby FineReader or ScanSoft’s OmniPage Pro , and then a text-to-speech program such as ReadPlease 2003 or TextHELP Screen reader. In fact OmniPage Pro has its own text reader.

There are times when it is easy to miss the humour or irony in written text because it does not have the back up of verbal intonation patterns and body language. This means that long pieces of writing can appear boring. Misunderstanding the function of certain punctuation marks can further exacerbate the problem. Text-to-speech software is not very good at helping with this type of difficulty although many of the programs pick up on the more obvious things like question marks and full stops. Despite the changes that can be made to the choice of voices, range of pitch, speed and pausing, synthetic voices are still rather uncomfortable to listen to over time.

Electronic books

Electronic books (or ‘E-books’) can be read on-line in a web browser on a computer without any specialist software other than a text-to-speech program, if required. There is the advantage of being able to change the background colours and visual appearance of the text. E-books can be downloaded from many websites and stored on pocket organisers or tablets. Microsoft Reader software will work with Windows Mobile Pocket PC devices along with ClearType, which enhances the fonts and clarity of the text, Text can be highlighted and the font size can be enlarged to assist reading and the Pocket PC offers basic text to speech feedback. The screen size is small so the amount of text that can be read at any one time is limited but this may help those who find large amounts of text daunting.

Pre-recorded readings

Prerecorded readings are available on tapes, disks, CDs and the internet Well-known fiction books have often been read by famous actors and recorded onto standard analogue cassette tapes that can be used in small hand-held tape machines, standard cassette track recorders or in hi-fi equipment. This means that the text on the page can be followed whilst a pleasant voice reads it aloud. Listening Books have special tape-playing machines and a large lending library. Membership costs around £50 per year but includes the loan of a machine and all the postage for the tapes and catalogues. Local libraries often have a reasonable stock of both tapes and videos of classics.

Audio-text synchronisation (as found in digital talking books) with the use of real voices whilst the text is highlighted, so that the phrasing can be followed as the story unfolds, would seem to be an ideal solution for some readers. However, there are still many discussions taking place with publishers as it means that all books would be available electronically causing concerns about copyright.

The latest minidisk players and MP3 machines will record speech in digitised form, which is highly compressed so that much can be made of very little memory or disk space. Recordings have to be made via a good quality external microphone or downloaded from the Internet. More and more recordings are being made onto Compact Disks (CDs) and Digital Versatile Disks (DVDs). The Daisy Consortium has been working with the Royal National Institute for the Blind to ensure an international standard for digital talking books. The software provided for this purpose has been designed by Labyrinten Data AB in Sweden, who are linked with Dolphin UK.

There is also the LPStudio or IsSpound technology for recording the chosen text while incorporating navigational aids such as indexing, bookmarking, searching and skimming facilities. Downloadable editions of LpPlayer, Playback 2000 or Microsoft Reader can be used as reading programs for audio books on the computer. Portable players are available for the CDs such as the Victor Reader and Plextalk originally designed for the blind. The controls are backed up with audible commands but it is not possible to see text on these machines.

Aids for visual discomfort

People who suffer from visual discomfort when reading (also known as ‘visual stress’, ‘Irlen syndrome’ or ‘Meares-Irlen syndrome’) experience unpleasant visual symptoms when reading. These symptoms include illusions of colour and movement in the text, loss of clarity and difficulty focusing on the text, headaches and eyestrain. This condition, which affects 15-20% of the population, is independent of dyslexia but because people with dyslexia typically have to focus more intently on each individual word in order to decode it, they become more susceptible to the effects of visual stress. Visual stress is believed to be related to migraine, but can generally be alleviated by use of coloured lenses or use of coloured plastic overlays when reading, which reduce glare from the page (see Evans, 2001; Singleton & Henderson, 2006; Wilkins, 2003). For further information on visual stress and details of suppliers of overlays and tinted lenses visit www.visual-stress.com and www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/overlays. Adults with visual stress can also be supported with several different technologies. Magnification of print size and elimination of the visual impact of surrounding text both help to reduce visual discomfort effects. The Visual Tracking Magnifier is a small dome magnifier with a tracking window that encourages the reader to keep the eyes steady across a line. This helps to avoid line jumping and reduces the distractions caused by surrounding text. The Optim-Eyes lamp has 60 different hues, so that light-emitting displays of various colours can be beamed onto the paper and changed to suit the environment and the users’ eyes at whatever time of day. These items should only be tried after an initial assessment by an expert in the field.