Text to speech software has come a long way. Many people's idea of speech simulation is Stephen Hawking style: a touch robotic and at times irritatingly slow (no offence here: Stephen has chosen to stick with his 1970s software, including the American accent, because he considers it to be his voice). But there are now a number of sites that provide good- quality text to speech functionality that can be a huge help to teachers in providing quirky approaches to well-worn topics, and in saving time for weary readers of hefty documents.
If you think your pupils may be getting tired of the sound of your voice have a look at www.voki.com. This is a site that enables you to create a speaking avatar, or "voki". Once you have registered (free) click on "create" and select buttons to customise appearance, accessories and background for your voki. The text to speech bit happens when you go to the "give it a voice" section. Click on the keyboard icon to type in a short text (several languages are supported). Then select a speaker and listen to the results.
While the software is impressive, you may need to tweak it a little and spell some words phonetically if you're not getting the result you want. When complete, click on "publish" and give your character a name. It is easy to come back to the site and change what your character is saying, give them a new hairdo or a suntan after the summer holidays.
It's possible to embed your virtual alter-ego in a blog or other website, or you can project it on to a large screen and use it to give instructions or reminders (think: Einstein reminding pupils of a key equation, a newsreader reading out dates in a history lesson).
You may not grab pupils' attention with the words "don't forget to check the key terms in the glossary" but they will find it irresistible to click and listen to a weird or wonderful voki. Alternatively, get pupils to create their own vokis as an alternative way of hot-seating in English or PSHE, or giving personal information (netsafe of course) in language lessons.
Text to speech can also be a great time saver, if you want an alternative way of absorbing information from, say, a new specification or a government document. Registering with a site such as www.readthewords.com (free) allows you to convert printed text to audio, thus enabling you to listen to the contents on the move (for example during a journey, playground supervision or ironing). Once you are logged in, ensure you are looking at "my recordings" and click on the red "create a new reading" button.
If you are typing or copying in text, simply go ahead in the box provided. If you are uploading a document, click on the appropriate button (for example, the Word icon), enter a title, and then browse for your document. It is also possible to take your text directly from a website or RSS feed.
Remember your school photocopier may be able to scan text and convert it into a PDF if you only have a hard copy of the document you want to listen to. Select the speed of speech and a speaker and then click on the white button beneath. You will be directed to "my recordings", and once processing is complete you can listen, download or grab some code to embed your audio.
As well as a time-saving tactic for you, consider using this site to convert revision notes, topical articles or other subject content into audio so that pupils can listen to material on their mp3 players. Pupils gain the benefits of learning on the move, plus it is cooler to be seen absorbed in your mp3 than slaving over a hot textbook.
Text to speech can perk up your teaching approaches, enthuse pupils, and make it easier for you to keep on top of your own workload.
Gail Haythorne teaches at Woldingham School in Surrey and is a teacher trainer in technology.