In today’s schools, many text-based learning materials are provided to students in a digital format. Administrations are investing in laptop and tablet programs, and an increasing number of students own personal computers and mobile devices.
On top of that, the prevalent use of email and cloud-sharing services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, makes it easier for teachers to distribute and collect electronic assignments. For students with language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, this is an important educational development. After all, materials need to be in a digital format before they can be used with text-to-speech and other assistive technology (AT).
Learning can be difficult when materials are not provided electronically to students with dyslexia, either because teachers have difficulty creating or finding digital versions, or because digital versions do not exist. Fortunately, there is a specific type of AT called optical character recognition (OCR) that converts the text on a piece of paper into electronic text, thus making it accessible to students with dyslexia.
What is OCR?
To put it simply, OCR technology analyzes a picture of text, looks for letters, numbers, and punctuation, and converts that text into an electronic format that can be edited and read aloud using text-to-speech. The picture can be taken with a scanner connected to a desktop computer, or with the camera on a mobile device, such as an iPhone or iPad. These days, there are many options with which to perform OCR on hard-copy text, all with varying degrees of functionality and ease of use.
Desktop OCR Software
The most robust OCR technology can be found in desktop software. Programs like OmniPage and Readiris are full-featured and can perform such functions as multi-page recognition, de-skewing of images, and conversion of digital camera images to electronic text. These products can also convert scanned documents to the e-pub format, allowing them to be read on e-book readers, such as the Amazon Kindle.
Desktop OCR software does have a learning curve, however, and younger students will likely need help from teachers or parents to convert hard-copy text to digital text that can be read aloud with their computer or mobile device.
One desktop program in which the OCR function is simple to use is Kurzweil 3000. In addition to its myriad text-to-speech and study skills tools, Kurzweil can convert scanned text images to readable text with one click of a mouse or track pad. The software also makes it easy to do “zone editing,” i.e., to edit out text that a student doesn’t want read aloud, such as image captions or sidebars commonly found in many textbooks.
A more economical option for OCR can be found in Web-based services. Websites like Online OCR and Free OCR convert scanned and uploaded text images to editable text, but these tools have some restrictions, such as limiting the number of hourly image uploads for users who have not registered with the service. Another online option for converting image files to text files is the built-in OCR of Google Drive. Uploaded image files can be converted to Google documents, but users are limited to a certain file size and page count. Even with the limitations of online OCR, a Web-based service can be a good option for students who already receive most of their learning materials in digital format.
OCR on iOS Devices
The easiest, most portable option for OCR is found in mobile apps that take advantage of the high-quality cameras found in iPhones and iPads. For example, Prizmo is a full-featured OCR app that performs basic text conversion. It also allows users to edit text and images before applying the built-in text-to-speech tool with synchronized highlighting. It can even translate the converted text to other languages. Another OCR option for iOS devices is the ClaroSpeak app. It allows for basic editing of captured text before converting it to editable text, which can be read aloud with the integrated text-to-speech feature. In addition, the user can save converted text as an audio file that can be emailed to another device. Separate from OCR, ClaroSpeak can also be used as a talking word processor with built-in word prediction.
Ideally, students with dyslexia will soon receive all of their learning materials in an accessible electronic form. Until then, they are fortunate to have various OCR options to help them read.