Designing for Inclusive Learning: 3 Text-to-Speech Strategies to Make Accessibility More Than an Add-On

Designing for Inclusive Learning: 3 Text-to-Speech Strategies to Make Accessibility More Than an Add-On

By Amy Foxwell, originally published in Equity & Access

Meeting the needs of learners who need accommodations takes more than tacking a plug-in onto a website or LMS. Making content truly accessible takes holistic, intentional efforts by everyone from the IT team to the teachers and faculty members who create the content. But this isn’t just about learners who need accommodations. Approaching accessibility as more than a quick fix or an add-on supports all learners. Why? The same tools that make a site accessible also improve engagement so that students of all abilities and learning styles have an equal opportunity to engage and succeed with the content.

This is the mission of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) construct, an instructional framework giving learners who need accommodations and those who don’t, multiple ways to engage. At its most basic level, UDL embraces the perspective not of add-ons and afterthoughts, but rather of intentional design and structuring of learning materials and the environment to support everybody.

How can every educator begin to design for inclusive learning?

Educators and planning teams looking to make their learning content truly accessible can take a few straightforward steps.

Adopt text-to-speech (TTS) as more than an accommodation.

The advantage of having a text-to-speech tool in all content a school offers is more than turning the written word into speech. Many low-cost and free plug-ins can make this happen, but quality really matters. The synthetic, tinny voices devoid of emotion reading off a page that are part of many TTS tools cause users to tune out. But if the voice “sparkles” and is interesting, then attention and focus increase. It is a similar idea with high-contrast, visually appealing websites; make it a clear and pleasant experience and users will adopt the options presented to them and spend more time with the content.

Furthermore, today’s text-to-speech tools do far more than simply read text. The best ones mask unwanted distractions on a page, highlight text while the voice reads, offer multiple languages and allow for speech-enabled dictionary lookup. They give options for fonts, size, and variations in reading speed. They allow for an interactive and personalized experience with the learning content.

George Hanshaw is the director of eLearning Operations at Los Angeles Pacific University (LAPU) and recently developed a master’s program in Instructional Design. The degree teaches educators how to design and build fully accessible courses, which LAPU embodies from top to bottom. “For us, accessibility isn’t just bolted onto instruction; it’s part of the actual build process when we design new courses and programs.”

LAPU has integrated text-to-speech technology into its LMS, and when embedded at that level rather than enabled for individual web pages or curriculum tools, there is consistency throughout the learning environment. Students become familiar with how the tools function and use them again and again. Conversely, if TTS is embedded into just one asset, then the learner will only have the tools they need for part of their coursework. In theory, a TTS-enabled browser can support a student on a webpage, but if that same student needs to hear an assessment, an ePUB or a PDF read out loud, the capabilities are lacking. By having the LMS fully accessible, the student has uniform tools no matter what kind of content, website or learning resource they are using, and without needing to exit the LMS or download extra tools.

Structure content properly so text-to-speech tools can work.

For text readers to work properly, the content needs to be created in a way that screen readers, magnifiers, braille printers and text-to-speech tools can interact with the page coherently. If a page is organized with blocks of text, unless tagged properly, the text reader will skip around the page without following its intended progression.

Hanshaw notes that educators can learn how to craft documents so readers work effectively. For example, when creating content for a web designer, educators can make it clear how the blocks of content should flow. This easy-to-follow guide for making documents accessible to readers from Adobe Acrobat can help educators set the right structure.

Give images rich descriptions and tags.

Images without tags or descriptions in the alt-text field are described by screen readers as “image” or by the file name — which is unhelpful or sometimes downright confusing.

Notice this image description for the Duke Disability Alliance webpage. The Alt Text field should contain as much description if not more than the photo caption itself like this one.

Another way to improve alt text? Avoid the phrases “image of” or “photo of” in the description. Alt text is best when it is brief, avoids repeating information, and focuses on the purpose of the image instead of its description. A poor description, in this case, would have been “Duke Disability Alliance participants.” Instead, the description of what is happening and what needs to be conveyed is essential for the image to be of any value.

Some final points to consider. Students of all learning abilities and styles need options on how they engage with content, but we must be vigilant that the very accommodations offered don’t end up being what labels someone as being different. When schools and districts fully embrace UDL that issue just about disappears. Not only that, but TTS features can make information in quizzes, assessments, reading assignments or any other text-based content more understandable. The combination of robust accessibility tools anchored to a plan for UDL gives control back to the learner and changes accessibility from  a peripheral to a standard of learning.

Amy Foxwell ReadSpeaker


Amy Foxwell is an author and expert in education, edtech and innovative technologies that increase accessibility and student engagement. She works at ReadSpeaker and helps schools and districts implement text-to-speech solutions.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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