Kindle 3 text-to-speech vs. Audiobook

A perfect example of fluent vs. non-fluent reading – that’s what I thought when testing out my brand-new Kindle 3 and the text-to-speech function. Amazon is rightfully lauded by the National Federation for the Blind for incorporating demands for accessibility features in the newest Kindle, with voice menus that allow those with print disabilities to easily access the text-to-speech functions provided in some – not all – ebooks on the ereader. The lack of voice menus on previous Kindles led the NFB and the American Council for the Blind to file suit against Arizona State University to prevent the university distributing textbooks via the Kindle DX, as this denied access to materials by the blind. I found myself very impressed with the ease of accessing my Kindle 3’s voice menus and the much-improved text-to-speech feature. I experimented with the male and female voice, switched from the default reading speed to fast and slow, and had the text-to-speech read me a bit of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – the same bit that I had just listened to in the Mockingjay audiobook.The text-to-speech kept reading while the page turn / screen refresh kept pace, and there was even an occasional raised tone when sentences ended in a question mark. The robotic effect was lessened when the speed was on slow, but there’s no comparison to the nuanced reading of a real person – let alone a professional narrator. Text-to-speech is a blessing for the blind and print disabled, but no current threat to the audiobook industry.

I was doing this cross-platform comparison in preparation for an upcoming presentation to parents in my school on resources available through my school library for students with learning disabilities. Fortunately, text-to-speech is a common function of many databases, plus I want have a demo “petting zoo” with the Kindle 3, my Sony Reader with titles downloaded for free from the public library, and iPad / iPhone text-to-speech functions for parents. Of course, I’ll be highlighting the benefits of audiobooks for all students, emphasizing how listening to a professional reader increases vocabulary, comprehension through placing words in context, and  provides a path to both silent and oral fluent reading. This concept of fluent reading is second-nature to teachers and librarians, who toss around terms like “prosody” in everyday conversation – well, sometimes. But for those who have never encountered the idea of fluency as a quality of reading (not just of native language), it’s a bit hard to grasp at first.

But now I have the perfect example of fluent vs. non-fluent. When I heard the robotic text-to-speech of the Kindle 3 read a paragraph in Mockingjay that ended with “… we have no access to those records,” the word “records” was pronounced “re-CORDS,” like records a video, not “REK-ord,” like a written record. And voila! There was my comparison: the jerky tempo and out-of-context word emphasis of the text-to-speech voice perfectly illustrates how a struggling reader translates the text on a page to speech for their mental ear, while the same passage of the Mockingjay audiobook read by Carolyn McCormick is the audible example of fluent reading. Another reason to be thankful for resources that provide no-cost read-by-a-human audiobooks for students of all ages!



About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

12 Comments on "Kindle 3 text-to-speech vs. Audiobook"

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  1.' Maida says:

    Do you have a Sony ebook reader with text-to-speech? I thought they didn’t exist, but you mention it in the sentence “…have a demo “petting zoo” with the Kindle3 3, my Sony Reader…”
    If not, I am looking for an ebook reader that has text-to-speech and also gets the Overdrive books. Samsung was supposed to put one out this summer, but decided not to offer it in the US.
    Any ideas on this would be much appreciated, thanks.

  2.' christmylord says:

    the text to speech is nothing compaired to the audiobook version. i just wish the kindle supported playing a audiobook while reading the actual book. for me the text to speech just does not do it i find myself trying to understand what they are saying and not what they are talking about.

  3. Mary Burkey says:

    Luckily, my Nook Color allows a human-read audiobook to be played while the ebook is read on screen. A great way to toggle between in-hand reading and in-the-driver’s-seat listening!

  4.' Fred says:

    Does anyone know if it possible to add text-to-speech to eBooks that are not enabled? I have a Kindle 3 and would love to be able to “convert” non-T2S book…

    Thanks for any help you might have!


  5.' Donya says:

    Mary, how do you get audio books on your nook?

    • Mary Burkey says:

      The Nook Color or Nook Table can store and play mp3 files. If you have an audiobook that is in mp3 format, the Nook will play it. Just connect your Nook to your computer and drag & drop the MP3 audiobook file onto the Nook. There is a built in speaker or you can use the headphone jack.

  6.' T Reedy says:

    AS an avid reader, I would have never considered audio books prior to using the Kindle text-to-speech. Since then, I have ventured into the audio book world . . . and I found out something unexpected.

    I prefer to use Kindle text-to-speech over listening to fluent Audio book readers. Why? because the reader’s text interpretation interferes with my own imagination which is what brings a book to life.

    Yes, Kindle’s attempt at phonetics can be annoying at times but at least I know a charecter’s being whiny and annoying without have to listen to it myself.

  7.' Paul says:

    I’ve tested this many ways and an audiobook is MUCH better than a text to speech, without a doubt.

    Text to speech is better than no audio, but not by much.

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