AT Tip (Question) of the Week: Can We Speed Up Text To Speech?

Image of a turtle typing

When someone uses AAC, it is important that they learn to be proficient with their device so they can communicate quickly. Speed is relative, but AAC use is slower than spoken language. This can make it hard to keep up during conversations, or social situations.  The topic may have changed by the time you get your message out. I can imagine this must be very frustrating!

One way we ‘speed up’ AAC use is by maintaining static icon placement when using a symbol-supported AAC app or device.  We want to be able to take advantage of consistent motor plans to help us search for the words we need.

How can we speed up AAC use for those who rely on text to speech (TTS)?  Most of us have the experience of sending text messages, and wishing that our typing were faster, or more accurate. We use emojis and acronyms to convey messages in large part because it is faster (IMHO). In text to speech apps, we can also save sentence starters, or frequently used messages.  

Image of someone using text to speech on iPad

But can we make the act of typing faster?  For some TTS users, lifting their finger off the keyboard to select the next letter may be difficult.  Tremors are common with a number of different disorders and can make fine motor tasks more challenging. For some people, would it be easier if they could maintain contact with the onscreen keyboard, or use a stylus to stabilize their hand.

Can we avoid some of this “heavy lifting” if we use a flow keyboard?

What is a flow keyboard?  It is a third party keyboard that allows you to drag your finger (or stylus) from letter to letter. Two examples of flow keyboards are Swiftkey and Gboard. We can use these in place of the Apple keyboard for some TTS apps.

First, download the app from the app store. These keyboards can then be added to an Apple device (or Android) within Settings.

Image of Swiftkey icon           Image of Gboard icon

Settings → General → Keyboard → Add New Keyboard

After adding the keyboard, you need to tap on it and “Allow Full Access”.  The next time you need to type, tap and hold the globe on the built in Apple keyboard. You can then select the keyboard you wish to use.  Flow typing does take a little practice, but has really made a difference in the speed of my typing (I am NOT an accurate texter).

Can this benefit someone who uses text to speech? As with everything, it will depend on the individual.  I have tried using both of these keyboards with Proloquo4Text and they both work. One question I had was; how slowly I would be able to flow type?  It sounds like a paradox: slowing down in order to speed up. With both keyboards, I was able to slow my rate and still use flow typing. It isn’t perfect.  Too hard a press on a key, and alternate letters for different languages would appear. Woops!

Both keyboards worked with the Proloquo4Text and Flip Writer apps. Other text to speech apps don’t necessarily use the Apple keyboard. It also worked with Speak For Yourself. Using a stylus worked fine as well.  

I don’t know anyone who uses an alternate keyboard for text to speech and flow typing.  If you have tried this, I would love hear how it went! It is one more possible tool for your assistive technology tool belt.

Kathryn Helland

Kathryn is a certified speech-language pathologist and works with children and adults with complex communication needs. She has been with the TechOWL team since 2015 and is currently working on her doctorate. She would like to examine how to best support AAC users in higher education.

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