An image of a book and headphones.

Text-To-Speech for Speed Reading & More

My job requires lots of reading. But sometimes I read very slowly. Other times my body is occupied doing something that precludes the ability to read from a book or an electronic display. So I have been looking for ways to fit in more reading and to read faster. Text-to-speech technology provides the means to do this. So I use text-to-speech for speed reading, for multi-task reading, for and a few other things. In this post, I will (a) talk you about the best PDF-to-speech app that I have found and (b) talk about how I use text-to-speech more generally.

1.  PDF-to-speech

Most computers, tablets, and smartphones can read text aloud in one way or another. However, until recently, I have not found text-to-speech software that can do both of the following:

  1. Speak the whole document start-to-finish. Every new page seems to trip up the software, so I have to restart the speech playback at the beginning of every new page.
  2. Ignore header and footer text. If the software can do 1, then it gets sidetracked by the text in the headers and footers every time it advances to the next page (e.g., copyright notices and page numbers; see figure 1 below).

Screenshot of footer text in a PDF document from Nick Byrd's "Text-to-speech for Speed Reading...".
Figure 1: footer text

The App That I Recommend

I have found only one developer that has created software that does both 1 and 2.† Their Mac app is vBookz PDF Voice Reader and their iOS app is Voyzer Voice Reader.†† I do not know if the developer has an app for Windows or Android devices.

The app can do the following:

  • convert text to speech for any text-encoded PDF (even long books)
  • (iOS only) crop out headers and footers on every page with a single function so that the app doesn’t speak page numbers, copyright notices, and other distracting text between every page (see figures 2 through 5 below)
  • speak multiple languages: English, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish
  • speak at various speeds (100-500 words per minute)
  • speak in either “male” or “female” voice
  • highlight words as they are spoken
  • retrieve PDFs from Dropbox or Google Drive
  • search for text within the PDF
  • scroll forward and backward throughout document (while maintaining original pagination)
  • (a handful of other things; see details on the App Store)

Screenshots

Verdict
I cannot recommend this app highly enough. And I cannot emphasize enough that this is the only app (that I have found) that does 1 and 2 (above).

I’ve tried other free and paid apps. None of them were any good. Here are some that I tried for iOS (that I do not recommend):

  • NaturalReader Text To Speech
  • PerfectReader Classic
  • Voice Dream Reader
  • PDF to Audio Offline
  • Voicepaper

I have not found any apps that compete with the Mac version of vBookz.

Obviously, you’re welcome to recommend other apps in the comments. If someone finds another good (or better) PDF-to-speech app, then please let me know so that I can update this post.

2.  How I Use Text-to-speech

There are a few things to say about this. First, this text-to-speech app has already allowed me to accomplish loads more reading each week. After all, I can now “read” when I otherwise couldn’t be reading — e.g., while doing chores, while commuting, and while exercising.

Second, I might sleep better because I can spend my last few waking hours “reading” in bed in the dark with my eyes closed — as opposed to reading in artificial light or reading from a backlit screen.††

Third, a disclaimer: I find that listening doesn’t confer the same comprehension as reading. After all, it isn’t as easy to reread, take notes, or annotate while listening as it is while reading. So listening cannot replace reading. Rather, it can only supplement it. There are at least two scenarios where listening is a suitable supplement for reading:

(i) when I’m doing something that prevents me from reading — as mentioned above

(ii) when in-depth analysis isn’t my highest priority — e.g., preparing for an in-depth analysis of a text, refreshing my memory of a text that I’ve already analyzed in-depth, and casual reading.

Fourth, text-to-speech is a handy proofreading tool. Proofreading my own writing is a fool’s errand. I am so focused on what I meant to write that I can only see what I meant to write and not what I actually wrote.††† But my computer isn’t so biased. It reads everything as it’s written — errors and all. So when my computer speaks my writing aloud, I quickly notice my errors. And better yet, when I hear my writing aloud, I get a better sense of whether or not my writing reflects natural language use.

 


† I have not yet found software that handles footnotes well (because footnotes make the footer of a document vary from page to page and PDF-to-speech apps haven’t yet figured out how to discern the difference between body text and footnote text). For this reason, I find footnotes to be an accessibility issue. People who need to use PDF-to-speech software to read are systematically inconvenienced by the decision to prefer footnotes to endnotes.

†† I am not receiving anything from the app developer(s) for writing this review. Actually, I’m not receiving anything from the app developers for any reason. I paid for their app (and the others).

††† Cho, Y., Ryu, S.-H., Lee, B. R., Kim, K. H., Lee, E., & Choi, J. (2015). Effects of artificial light at night on human health: A literature review of observational and experimental studies applied to exposure assessment. Chronobiology International, 32(9), 1294–1310. [HTML]

†††† This makes me think of Siegel, S. (2016). How Is Wishful Seeing Like Wishful Thinking? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 92(1). [HTML] [PDF]

Featured image:  [flickr page],  CC BY 4.0

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

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