Stop reading PDFs and start listening to them!

Oct 11, 2006 by

I’m always amazed by the amount of features, easter eggs, and other useful tools hidden in programs that I’ve never had a chance to explore. No doubt the ability of Adobe Reader 7 to “Read Out Loud” the contents of a PDF is a feature that many special education and reading teachers have known about for awhile, but this teacher was pleasantly surprised to discover the ability yesterday.

While checking my aggregator, I found a recent posting on the Tech Recipes blog about Adobe Reader’s ability to translate text into speech. A short little post, it just explained the simple commands for listening to, pausing, and ending the read out loud feature. I had to test it for myself, so I pulled up this creative lesson plan on copyright infringement and started listening. Yes, it had the same “creepy” computer voice (officially known as Microsoft Sam) that we’ve heard since the late 80s, but it spoke in a rather fluent, natural cadence that made listening to the document fairly easy. After a bit more poking around I found that if the PDF is opened up in Adobe Reader, and not just in your web browser, you can even go into preferences, click on Reading, and change the pitch of the voice, the volume, and even alter the number of words per minute that are spoken in order to slow down or speed up the rate of speech. It even has a smart feature that allows the voice to read from left-to-right or to infer reading order from the document (quite helpful in an outlined paper). Many schools have Adobe Reader pre-installed on their machines, which makes it an economical tool as well.

While many teachers are either already using this feature, or quickly devising all kinds of uses for it in the classroom, I couldn’t help but wonder how helpful this would be for reading and speech teachers. Yeah, the voice sounds a little funny, but imagine having your students type up a story (or find a story), save it to a PDF form, and then allow the computer to read it back to them, using the cadence and pronounciation the teacher has specified. Students would be able to read more independtly by allowing the computer to read just certain pages, or read along with the student. Talking classroom libraries could be created, where students write out portions of books being read in class, or books that they feel other students might enjoy. Converting the files to PDFs would allow struggling readers to listen to those passages as often as they needed to.

I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface of what this feature would allow a teacher to do, and not being a reading or speech specialist I’m at a loss for other ideas (and if you are one of those teachers, please share your thoughts). It makes me curious though to find other programs that have built-in speech abilities that might also help disabled or struggling students.

Oh, I almost forgot, here are the shortcuts for using the read out loud feature. Or, you can just go up to the “View” menu and click on “Read Out Loud”.

  • Ctrl+Shift+b: Listen to the entire document
  • Ctrl+Shift+v: Listen to a certain page
  • Ctrl+Shift+e: Stop listening
  • Ctrl+Shift+c: Pause

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4 Comments

  1. rick

    Thank you,
    I had no clue that this was a part of Adobe 7. I have already begun to spread the information and will be discussing it with our special education teacher who has been looking for something like this. It also means that when School Board minutes are sent out in Adobe format they can be read (heard) by visually impaired residents.
    I spent too much time looking for the least expensive way to do conversions never knowing what can be done whith what is already available.

  2. Ben

    Glad it came in handy Rick! There might be a slight bug though, as I tried having the program “read” to me a PDF that had been sent out by our central office here at school and it kept telling me “warning, empty page”. Kind of fun to hear an audio warning rather than get just another silly warning dialog box, but I’m wondering what went wrong. My guess it it was a PDF with large amounts of images, and not just text, but some more experimenting should sort it out.

  3. angel

    What may be happenning is a compabablity problem of the adobe acrobat version that created the pdf file and the one being used to make it readable. What I have done with pdf like this is exported all the pages as TIF files. Then create a new PDF file with those TIF files. Then Used the OCR to make the pdf searchable. Then, the document was readable with “Read Out Loud”.

    • river

      Hi,
      Im having exactly the same problem, the same waring: ‘blank page’ and also this document was sent to me from college.
      Would you be kind enough translate your instruction above for a technophobe?
      whats a TIF file? how to create a new PDF fle? what is the OCR and how to make a pdf searchable?
      this is quite a lot to ask… I know…

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