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Giving Words a Voice

EAP courses frequently give precedence to reading and writing skills over listening and speaking, but what I find most surprising is that reams of text are even presented in sections that are supposed to teach speaking skills! Students soon get tired and switch off and, as a teacher, you sometimes feel you desperately want to add some ‘voices’ to the text. I was delighted when my colleague told me about Voki, which describes itself as ‘a free service that lets you create customized speaking characters’. That says it all, really: it is an online text-to-speech program with different voice options. Most importantly, it is free of charge!

To start creating your own text-to-speech material, go to the Voki homepage (www.voki.com)

Different characters I made use of Voki’s different voices and accents to create a listening activity for my students. In our coursebook, two men and two women of different ages and ethnic backgrounds each give a sentence or two about their life experiences. First, I put the pictures of the four people on a PowerPoint slide to be projected in class. Then, using Voki’s Text-to-Speech function, I entered the words of each character and chose a different voice from the drop-down menu for each one. During the lesson, I just hit Play in random order and asked the students to listen and match what was said with the people. I had made the lesson come to life with apparently real talking characters. In addition, the students had the opportunity to practice listening to different accents and voices.  When the two texts are entered and played on Voki, the effects of chunking and non-chunking are clearly demonstrated.

Voki is undoubtedly a convenient and useful online text-to-speech program. It is free to use and comes with cute animated characters plus various languages, voices and accents. Having said that, current text-to-speech technology (including Voki) still has a long way to go. It can sound a bit choppy, flat and unnatural, which makes it not as good as a real human voice.

© Ee Loon Chwa

He is currently an ESP teacher in Sydney, Australia. He has over ten years of EFL/ESL teaching experience in Malaysia, China and Australia. He has an MA in English for Specific Purposes from the UK. His main professional interests include ESP/EAP, discourse analysis and professional communication.

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