Better proofreading through robots

Read your paper aloud, and you will catch more errors. Almost everyone of my high school English teachers recommended that strategy, and for the most part, it works wonders. It has its limitations though.

For starters, if spellchecker suggests “defiantly” after I misspell “definitely,” I still read out “definitely” because that’s what I meant to say. Additionally, I have a habit of reading out the word or phrase I meant to type rather than the word or phrase that is actually on the page. Finally, I can put my own inflection into my reading, which means that sentences sound fine to me even if other readers may have difficulty parsing out what I meant.


Photo credit – Flickr user Logan Ingalls

For those reasons, I think the better way of hearing errors is to bring in a robot, specifically the one that lives inside your computer’s text-to-speech program.

Text-to-speech programs read text from your screen aloud in a robotic-sounding voice with little inflection. They are great tools for proofreading because they solve all three of the shortcomings listed above. The computer reads what is on the screen no matter what you meant to type, and errors become a lot more apparent. Further, the relative monotone of the computer-generated voice also means that wordy or awkward sections sound wordy and awkward.

Recent versions of Mac and Windows operating systems have the capability to read whatever is on your screen back to you in an assortment of computer voices. Follow these links for instructions on how to use them: Mac OS X Yosemite and Windows 7) Both programs, however, leave a little to be desired. The text-to-speech program on my Mac works fine to read text that I have highlighted, but it is inconsistent in reading exactly the text that I want it to read. I have not used the Windows program successfully yet because every time I try to turn it on, it reads whatever text is on the screen, including all of the menu bar options. (That makes sense of course if you were using it as an accessibility feature, which is its intended purpose, but it is just frustrating for proofreading.)

A more consistent option for me is to use Read&Write for Google, which is a Chrome plug-in similar to Read&Write Gold, a standalone program targeted at helping individuals with learning differences. While Read&Write for Google offers a number of features, many of them require paying a fee. However, the text-to-speech feature is always free to use.

Read&Write for Google runs right in the Google Chrome browser. (If you are using a different browser besides Chrome, you should be able to find a similar program by just searching for “text to speech program” in Google.) A purple puzzle piece appears in the address bar of any page where its features can be used. Clicking the puzzle piece brings up a toolbar with buttons to activate each of the available features.

Using the text to speech program to proofread my writing is relatively simple. If I am writing in Microsoft Word, I copy and paste my text into a Google Doc and place my cursor at the start of the text that I want to hear read aloud. (You can use the program on other webpages, but Google Docs is where I have found it to perform most reliably.) Then it’s as simple as pulling up the tool bar and pressing the play button. The program highlights the sentence being read, and a computerized voice reads each word as a darker highlight helps me follow along. If I need to make a correction, I pause the program, and generally, it will go back and reread the sentence I corrected when I hit play again.

The program can be a bit buggy at times. (Or at least, it feels buggy to me. Perhaps it’s doing exactly what it was meant to do, but if I am using it to proofread, it sometimes jumps back to the beginning of the page when I don’t want it to.) Still it’s the best I have found so far, and I catch a lot more errors using it than I do on my own.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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