As educational technology has expanded in recent years with greater access to more powerful forms of technology, the options for assistive technology programs and tools for students with special needs have also multiplied (Perelmutter et al., 2017). These options have seen even greater increase with the integration of the iPad into many classroom settings. Research has demonstrated that mobile applications and built-in features such as text-to-speech functionality may have potential benefits in supporting individuals with visual impairments and literacy-related challenges (Kirkpatrick & Brown, 2017). Literature also suggests that while these apps may have advantages for students with special needs as a form of assistive technology, they may also have significant value for all students within the classroom setting as an element of the Universal Design for Learning framework (Edge-Savage & Marotta, 2019).
Voice Dream Reader is an app that was originally created to support individuals with learning disabilities or visual impairments but also has features that could support diverse learners across various classroom environments (Ok, 2018). It is one of a few assistive tech apps available from the creator, Voice Dream LLC. The basic function of the app is text-to-speech and it also includes other features.
Voice Dream Reader stands out from other text to speech apps because of its ability to access and read various content that can be downloaded from many different places. Users of the app can have PDFs, Daisy Audio, Daisy Text, Webpages, Microsoft Word documents, and more read aloud to them. The app connects with content from Bookshare, a commonly used resource for free audio books for U.S. students with reading disabilities and barriers, as well as Gutenberg, scanned paper documents, and other sources of content. A Safari web browser extension is also available so that pages can be simply transformed into a Voice Dream Reader accessible document. This wide variety of content accessibility and compatible formats makes Voice Dream Reader a more versatile screen reader that can be used for a variety of resources and reading assignments provided by teachers as well as students’ personal reading interests and needs. With this $9.99 app, students could be less likely to have to switch between various text-to-speech apps or screen readers in order to have different material read to them.
Other noteworthy features of Voice Dream Reader include a large selection of both free and premium voices, ability to change voice speed, OCR capabilities, and the capacity to highlight text and create and save annotations. This last feature especially can create more of an engaged and purposeful connection between the text-to-speech function and the user. In addition, it also encourages students to be more involved with text as reading comprehension skills and annotation have become more important and utilized across various classroom content areas in recent years. Through this feature, students are able to add annotations on their own by selecting text and then typing or dictating a note. The iOS built-in accessibility feature of VoiceOver also works with this highlighting and annotating function for those with visual impairments. The app will also read any created annotations aloud for the user to review. Annotations can be added to a single word (perhaps to expand upon or question vocabulary usage), a phrase, sentence, or larger grouping of text. These annotations can be saved and exported in a variety of ways in order for users to demonstrate and share their thoughts about the text with others.
Voice Dream Reader is well aligned with the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) Standards for Educators. ISTE has developed standards to guide educators as they assist students in becoming empowered learners with the enhancements of technology (International Society for Technology in Education, 2020). The Voice Dream Reader app aligns with three of these standards for educators: leader, designer, and analyst. This assistive tech tool allows educators to fulfill a leadership role by advocating for equal access to digital technology and learning materials for students with various reading challenges. It also addresses the standard of “designer” as the use of Voice Dream Reader can help to ensure that students’ individual needs are being met. The user-friendliness and the numerous features available for personalization even within the app itself can meet individual reading preferences and needs and promote independence for students who struggle with access of printed text. Finally, the app also relates to ISTE’s analyst standards. Sub-standards within the “analyst” role suggest that educators should find different ways for students to demonstrate and reflect upon learning through the use of technology (International Society for Technology in Education, 2020). Voice Dream Reader can help to achieve this through its ability for students to highlight and add annotations to text directly in the app, versus needing to annotate and demonstrate understanding of text on a printed version or through a separate app.
This option for students to engage with and demonstrate understanding of text through a different means than those typically provided also aligns with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines developed by the CAST organization. These guidelines are tools and suggestions that can be used across various learning settings to help educators with implementation of the UDL framework (CAST UDL Guidelines, 2018). This framework helps to ensure that options are inherently built into a classroom environment and curriculum in order for all students to be able to successfully access learning. The guidelines include that learning activities should provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. Voice Dream Reader aligns with all three of these guidelines under various sub-guidelines such as offering alternatives for visual information, minimizing distractions with its option of full-screen mode that hides all controls and buttons during reading, and optimizing access to assistive technology. The multiple ways in which Voice Dream Reader connects with CAST’s UDL Guidelines provides further evidence that it may have great potential as part of a built-in tool and option within a class or course design that all students have the choice to utilize.
Although Voice Dream Reader offers many features for personalization and meeting individual reading/visual needs and preferences, it does include some limitations. One of these limitations concerns the reading of dynamic text as plain text. Unfortunately, the app is only able to read dynamic features such as checkboxes and buttons as plain text (Leporini & Meattini, 2019). This may lessen engagement and motivation for some students and increase frustration, especially when trying to access interactive content that their classmates are working with or that teachers have provided. Voice Dream Reader also limits collaboration and co-use because only one user may access a single file within the app at a time. When working within group situations, students who utilize Voice Dream Reader have the option to access text and add their own highlights and annotations, save the file with the annotations, and easily export it to email, a printer, another app, or a storage option such as DropBox. However, other students will not be able to synchronously engage with the text within Voice Dream Reader and app their own annotations/highlights. While these features are extremely beneficial for individual assignment and assessment use, the lack of synchronous use does create challenges for collaborative work. Moving forward, this would be an important area of improvement for the Voice Dream developers in order for learners to be able to co-create and collaborate within this tech tool.
Edge-Savage, J., & Marotta, M. (2019). Spreading the word about assistive technology and universal design for learning. Universal Access Through Inclusive Instructional Design: International Perspectives on UDL, 284.
CAST. (2020, May 31). The UDL Guidelines. http://udlguidelines.cast.org/.
International Society for Technology in Education. (2020, May 31). ISTE STANDARDS FOR STUDENTS. https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students.
Kirkpatrick, L. C., & Brown, H. M. (2017). The Impact of a School Board’s One-to-One iPad Initiative on Equity and Inclusion. 29.
Leporini, B., & Meattini, C. (2019). Personalization in the Interactive EPUB 3 Reading Experience: Accessibility Issues for Screen Reader Users. Proceedings of the 16th Web For All 2019 Personalization – Personalizing the Web, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1145/3315002.3317564
Ok, M. W. (2018). Use of iPads as Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities. TechTrends, 62(1), 95–102. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-017-0199-8.
Perelmutter, B., McGregor, K. K., & Gordon, K. R. (2017). Assistive technology interventions for adolescents and adults with learning disabilities: An evidence-based systematic review and meta-analysis. Computers & Education, 114, 139–163. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2017.06.005