Archive for November, 2007

Disability and "Voz Me"

I found a really interesting tool yesterday called Voz Me.

It’s basically a simple text to voice synthesizer that you can plug into your blog so that it “speaks.” I was a little sceptical when I found it, as the speech it produces sounds pretty artificial, although admittedly it does sound bit better than Microsoft’s own brand voice synthesizer included in Windows.

I now think it’s interesting not so much as a language teaching tool, though it might also be interesting also for language students to listen to their writing read by a computer, but more as a tool to aid user-accessibility.

A good friend of mine teaches a severely autistic boy, who cannot speak except to copy mono-syllabic sounds one by one. He is, however, an exceptionally talented writer, whose prose I could never match in a million years. This boy can express himself in such fantastic, imaginative ways that you would never guess that he has any sort of disability at all. In actual fact he finds writing quite difficult and needs the help of an assistant when he types as he cannot withdraw his arms from the keyboard easily.

We were talking together the other day about blogs, as I thought that it might be a good way for this boy to anonymously publish his work and get a readership for it without the stigma of “disability.” He is fully concious of his disability and often tells people, via his keyboard, “Even though I make look like this, I’m not stupid.”

Then I started thinking, this Voz Me tool could really work wonders for this boy. He would not only be able to write his amazing stories and share them with people, but he would also be able to hear them read by someone. This would be surely be really interesting and stimulating for him.

So I went about setting up a blog and including the Voz Me tool in its template. It works very well actually, but unfortunately it only has an English and a Spanish version at the moment. When reading Italian text (my friend’s autistic boy is Italian) the voice sounds awful. It’s got a real comedy English accent!

So, now I’m going to look around for an Italian equivalent of Voz Me for this boy’s blog. I think it would be wonderful for him to be able to “Hear” his own stories being read out loud, even if it sounds quite artificial. In the meantime, have a listen to this post for yourself. It’s not bad sounding is it? If you want to try this tool out on your blog or website, you can download the script from:

The tool itself is very clever. It allows you to both listen to the text from a blog posting as well as download the voice recording as an mp3. ( you can see the small “Hear this post” link at the bottom of this posting here – give it a try.)

So the verdict: Voz Me is perhaps too limited for teaching languages, but certainly would be very useful to some teachers. As with all these web 2.0 tools, the only thing holding us back are our imaginations. I’m sure there will be some clever uses we can put this tool to in our classrooms as well.


6 Billion Others

Yesterday I came across one of the most moving and beautiful sites I’ve ever, ever found on the internet: 6 Billion Others.

6 Billion Others is a site which puts the same simple but meaningful questions to people from all over the world and films their responses. The result is an awe-inspiring portrait of the human condition. The first thing I thought when I saw this site was “I’ve got to use this in my teaching somehow.” I tell a lie, the first thing I thought was “This is an incredibly profound, unique moment” the second thing I thought was “How can I share this” so I thought of how to use it in class.

Attentive Listening – Good For Students!

The interviews are mostly shot in the person’s mother tongue, though there are three language versions of the site and all the videos are subtitled in either English, French or Italian. This gives them a wonderful scope for a humanistic slant on teaching languages. The videos present these wonderfully diverse people to the language learner in a full frame shot, which grabs the listener’s attention. As the 6 Billion Others website so succinctly put it, “The closeness of the interviewee’s face generates an intimacy conducive to attentive listening. The viewer concentrates on the words and facial expressions and can thus identify with people of very different origins.”

Uses In The Classroom

So how can we use this amazing resource with our learners? Here are a few ideas I came up with:

Start a discussion with your learners on “5 questions that they would like to ask people from all around the world.” This will create a nice lead-in to, and interest in, the subject. You could also see if your students would like to predict the type of answers they expect people from different countries and continents to give to their questions.

Next, I would suggest you go to the website yourself and choose a link to follow, or if you are teaching online specify a video for your students to watch. This way you can teach a few bits of necessary vocabulary, write a few gist and comprehension questions or any of the other exercises you would like to do with the videos.

Selecting One Video For Your Students

Because the videos are all made in flash, it’s difficult to send online students to a specific video, which you might like to do for your language based questions. To get round this, take a screenshot (press shift + the Print screen button) and write on the screenshot which video you want your students to watch first. Here’s an example (click to see a higher definition version)

Considering the wonderful, absorbing nature of the videos, I would then really wish to give my students a bit of freedom to explore the videos further. To do this, you could ask them to watch another 2 or 3 videos which are each about 5 or 6 minutes long. The videos are also repeated cyclically, which is useful for language learners because if they miss something a speaker says the first time round they, will hopefully catch it the second time round.

Follow Up Activities

While they are watching, I will ask my students to take notes about anything the speakers say that really interests them and the country the person was from. I’d then ask the students to discuss their notes together and compare what they found most interesting about the videos. I would also talk with my students to see if the videos had asked any of the questions the students had thought of at the beginning of the lesson.

From reading the website, It seems like the plan of the project is to eventually allow their internet viewers to upload their own answers to the questions on the site, which would be a wonderful in-class project. I don’t think this is going to be available until 2008 though.

Your Class’ Own Interviews

A wonderful way you could exploit the ideas and concepts from the site before they allow users to upload videos would be to ask your students to each write one question they would love to ask everyone in the class. Try to encourage them to ask “deeper” questions like: “What makes you happy” rather than “who is your favourite pop singer?” Then compile these questions together into a list, give a copy to each student and ask each them to record an answer using a webcam.

YouTube would be a perfect place to record the answers to the list of questions your students write. There is a clever little tool they have now, which would also work very well for this type project, called “Quick Capture.” This allows anyone with a webcam attached to their computer to record a video message and upload it directly to YouTube. You could start an account at YouTube for your students, give them all the username and password for the account and ask them to upload their video answers to the site. Below is a photo of the “Quick Capture” facility (click for high resolution version) , or otherwise here’s a demo video that a YouTube user made.

Finally, when they have all uploaded an answer to their questions, ask the students to watch each other’s videos on YouTube and leave a video response to them.

If you have any other ideas of how to use this wonderful site with your students, please feel free to post them as a comment below as I’m definitely interested in using this site and would love to know any other ways of using it.


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