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An App for the Future of Reading

Brown alum Cliff Weitzman has reimagined reading and technology software for students with learning differences

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“This sucks – how can I fix it?” Brown University alumnus and Visiting Scholar Cliff Weitzman asks himself this question all the time, according to his 2014 TEDx talk. His answers have included inventions like BoardBrake (a braking device for longboards) and mobile apps like WeMap (a discovery engine that helps users find fun local activities).

But it is Weitzman’s latest venture, Speechify, which has garnered him the most attention, granting him a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list which includes 600 young business and industry leaders in 20 different fields. While Speechify solves a personal problem for Weitzman, it has broad applications for people in many different fields and situations.

Most college students will tell you that they have a lot of reading – sometimes more than they can keep up with. For students like Weitzman with diagnosed learning differences such as dyslexia, staying on top of all the reading can become even more of a problem. Many of these students have turned to text-to-speech (TTS) technology, which reads digital text aloud.

Unfortunately, the majority of the TTS software and apps available have limitations: they may only work with certain operating systems or devices, they may not be able to read at different speeds, and they can be difficult to set up or use. Weitzman sought to develop something that worked better. The result, whose unique properties set it apart from other TTS tools, was Speechify.

The app lets users control the speed of the reading, going as quickly or as slowly as they want. Users can listen to virtually anything online, simply by highlighting the text to be read aloud. And Speechify works with any application: email, social media, PDFs. In addition, any highlighted text can be selected and easily sent to a mobile device to be listened to on the go. It even works across platforms, enabling users to move seamlessly from their computers to their phones.

Interestingly, Speechify also displays the text as it reads. This function makes it especially valuable for children learning to read or for anyone who prefers to combine visual and auditory information. In addition, Speechify gives listeners a choice of voices, including American male or female and Australian, and one that reads Spanish.

After he created Speechify, Weitzman uploaded a YouTube video explaining the use of the software that quickly amassed 40,000 views and 200+ comments. Administrators at 15 different schools contacted him offering to fly him in for a visit to teach their students to use Speechify, which convinced him to conduct a pilot project in education.

The Hamilton School at Wheeler is piloting the use of Speechify with its students. Although the school has used audio-assisted reading for many years, Director Jon Green says that the technology has made great advances in the past decade. “Speed matters,” he says. “Many times, students like to listen at a faster pace, even faster than you or I might like it. That’s significant.”

The fact that Speechify flashes words as the software reads aloud is also an asset, in Green’s opinion. “Normally, if you are reading something online and you decide to have it read aloud, [the software] highlights the sentence or a group of words as it reads. There is some research that suggests that one of the problems dyslexics sometimes have is the size of the field they’re looking at – how many words are on a page, for example, can bother them – and there is some research that suggests that the single word is better.”

Green has found that, if he listens to Speechify at a rate of about 140 words per minute, which is the average speed at which many of his older students read, it seems so slow that it is hard to imagine anyone sustaining their attention to it or grasping the content. The students report that they prefer to listen to it much faster – up to 350 words per minute. In other words, they are able to make it through their reading at least twice as fast as they can without Speechify. “That’s a pretty big argument for using it – you can get this done in half the time,” says Green.

In the schools where the software is being piloted, Weitzman has found that students aren’t using Speechify just in the classroom, but also at home and for tests. Students have told him that without Speechify, they have to read assignments or informational text up to five times to understand and retain it; with Speechify, they only need to listen to it once.

Weitzman believes that users can learn to listen faster, retain more information and accomplish other tasks while listening. “Within the first week of using Speechify, people generally succeed in doubling or tripling the speed at which they can listen,” he says. Weitzman himself listens to over 100 audiobooks per year, because he listens quickly – something he says anyone can learn how to do, with practice.

“In addition, as you listen, you get better at retaining,” he says. “You are able to drive your car, ride a bicycle or a skateboard, go play basketball or cook dinner, and still listen and have full retention. And that is a really cool thing that we’ve noticed in the pilot program so far.”

Weitzman is planning to launch Speechify and make it available to the public very soon. While he initially developed the software to benefit students like himself, he now sees Speechify as something that can help all kinds of people: students, busy professionals with long commutes, people with learning differences or visual impairment, or anyone who’d like to be more productive by multitasking or learning to absorb information more quickly. Soon, everyone will be able to download the software to their computers or the application to their mobile phones and devices.