Lean back and listen: let your PC do the reading.
Whether you generally dislike reading yourself or simply want to multitask from time to time, letting your computer read documents to you out loud can make life better. Windows comes, built in, with the ability to read text – it’s how anyone blind makes use of the operating system. The computerized voices won’t win awards for their dramatic performances, but they’re perfectly fine if you want a break from reading yourself.
Sadly, how to use this functionality isn’t altogether obvious. Don’t worry, though, because a simple trick can turn Microsoft Word into the ultimate document reader, and a bunch of third-party apps can read any text you paste into them. Let’s take a tour.
Make Microsoft Word Read to You
Here’s something you might not know: the ability to read text back to you is actually built into Microsoft Word itself. The problem: it’s not included in the ribbon interface you’re used to. No matter: here’s how to add a “Speak” button to the top of every Word window.
Above the ribbon you should see a small toolbar, by default containing only the Save, Undo and Redo buttons. This is called the Quick Access Toolbar, and you can add more buttons to it – including one for speaking highlighted text. Click the arrow to the right of the toolbar to get started:
Click the “More Commands” button to begin exploring the vast world of Microsoft Word functions. Explore the “Commands Not In The Ribbon” section and you’ll find the “Speak” option:
Click the “Add” button between the two columns, then click “Okay”. There is now a “Speak” button in your Quick Access Toolbar:
Click this button and Word will read, out loud, whatever word your cursor is next to. Highlight a block of text before hitting the button and you’ll hear every word in that selection. If most of the reading you need to do is in Word, congratulations: you probably don’t need any other program. Just hit CTRL+A to highlight your entire document, then press play.
Narrator: Built Into Windows
Windows also comes with built-in screen reading technology. It’s called Narrator, and it’s mostly intended for the blind. Start it up and Narrator will immediately begin reading every bit of text on every window that you open – which is great if you’re blind, but annoying if you just wanted Windows to read a bit of text for you.
Happily, Microsoft offers a list of keyboard shortcuts for the software. Check this out if you want to become familiar with it, but honestly, it’s probably better to try some third party software instead. It’s just easier.
If you’re not afraid of a few extra features, check out Balabolka. It’s interface is less straight-forward than other options, but you gain control over things like speed and pitch:
Balboka is notable for being able to open DOC/DOCX, TXT, PDF, EPUB and ODT files directly – meaning you can open your favorites in moments. It can also convert files to MP3, making it easy to listen to a document on your phone or MP3 player. There’s even batch conversion, if you want audio copies of multiple documents.
Read more about Balabolka for Windows, because it’s probably the app you will want to use.
With a simple interface and the ability to export your writing to a text or WAV file, TypeIt ReadIt is a great free program. Paste any text into its window, or open a TXT file directly. If you want something read to you quickly, this is a great app to try.
The interface is simple yet functional, though it is a little odd how the buttons scale if you make the window bigger. The software uses the voices that come with Windows. Use this app if you want something simple and free.
Natural Reader Free (Windows, Mac) [No Longer Available]
The free version of Natural Reader can’t export to MP3, but if you want a simpler interface for pasting and hearing text you’re going to like it. Paste any text into this window, then hit the clearly-visible play button:
It doesn’t get easier than that, right? If you like the program, but need more features, the Personal version starts at $69. Additional features include exporting to MP3 and additional voices – but it’s probably worth checking out Balabolka before you spend your cash. Still, the free version is attractive and functional so check it out.
eSpeak (Windows, Linux, Mac)
Do you want voices entirely different from those included with Windows? Try eSpeak. This program employs its own engine, and is worth checking out if you dislike Microsoft’s voices:
The program can open TXT files and export to WAV. It’s also got creepy lips that move, so if you like that sort of thing this is perfect I guess. It’s primarily a Linux program, but the Windows version comes with a unique GUI seen above. Read more about eSpeak, if you’re curious.
What’s the Best Option?
If you plan on mostly using this for Word documents, I’d recommend you stick with Word’s built-in solution. Once you’ve set it up it’s always there for you. But if you want a dedicated program to paste text into or open files directly, you probably want to try Balabolka first. It can handle a bunch of different files and can export to MP3.
But, of course, I could be wrong. What program do you use to make your computer talk to you? Share your best apps for the job in the comments below.
Image Credits: Closeup rear view Via Shutterstock