A perfect example of fluent vs. non-fluent reading – that’s what I thought when testing out my brand-new Kindle 3 and the text-to-speech function. Amazon is rightfully lauded by the National Federation for the Blind for incorporating demands for accessibility features in the newest Kindle, with voice menus that allow those with print disabilities to easily access the text-to-speech functions provided in some – not all – ebooks on the ereader. The lack of voice menus on previous Kindles led the NFB and the American Council for the Blind to file suit against Arizona State University to prevent the university distributing textbooks via the Kindle DX, as this denied access to materials by the blind. I found myself very impressed with the ease of accessing my Kindle 3′s voice menus and the much-improved text-to-speech feature. I experimented with the male and female voice, switched from the default reading speed to fast and slow, and had the text-to-speech read me a bit of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – the same bit that I had just listened to in the Mockingjay audiobook.The text-to-speech kept reading while the page turn / screen refresh kept pace, and there was even an occasional raised tone when sentences ended in a question mark. The robotic effect was lessened when the speed was on slow, but there’s no comparison to the nuanced reading of a real person – let alone a professional narrator. Text-to-speech is a blessing for the blind and print disabled, but no current threat to the audiobook industry.
I was doing this cross-platform comparison in preparation for an upcoming presentation to parents in my school on resources available through my school library for students with learning disabilities. Fortunately, text-to-speech is a common function of many databases, plus I want have a demo “petting zoo” with the Kindle 3, my Sony Reader with titles downloaded for free from the public library, and iPad / iPhone text-to-speech functions for parents. Of course, I’ll be highlighting the benefits of audiobooks for all students, emphasizing how listening to a professional reader increases vocabulary, comprehension through placing words in context, and provides a path to both silent and oral fluent reading. This concept of fluent reading is second-nature to teachers and librarians, who toss around terms like “prosody” in everyday conversation – well, sometimes. But for those who have never encountered the idea of fluency as a quality of reading (not just of native language), it’s a bit hard to grasp at first.
But now I have the perfect example of fluent vs. non-fluent. When I heard the robotic text-to-speech of the Kindle 3 read a paragraph in Mockingjay that ended with “… we have no access to those records,” the word “records” was pronounced “re-CORDS,” like records a video, not “REK-ord,” like a written record. And voila! There was my comparison: the jerky tempo and out-of-context word emphasis of the text-to-speech voice perfectly illustrates how a struggling reader translates the text on a page to speech for their mental ear, while the same passage of the Mockingjay audiobook read by Carolyn McCormick is the audible example of fluent reading. Another reason to be thankful for resources that provide no-cost read-by-a-human audiobooks for students of all ages!