This is a guest post by Andrew Degenholtz, CEO and Founder of eMagazines, the parent company of ReadAlong.ai. eMagazines’ technology seamlessly transforms print products into premium digital and audio experiences. Leveraging Amazon technology, ReadAlong.ai offers a simple, turn-key way for publishers to add audio to their websites with a single line of code.
eMagazines supports publishers in bringing high-quality journalism content to readers across digital platforms. Our ReadAlong.ai brand allows our customers to deepen their connection to readers by adding audio to traditional text-first publishing formats. In March 2020, we helped TIME for Kids launch a digital version of its popular magazine for school-aged kids. This premium subscription product helped their users transition to digital when the pandemic forced schools to close and families needed high-quality educational tools to supplement classroom learning materials.
In this post, we share how we created an automated way for TIME for Kids to seamlessly add audio for early readers and pre-readers through ReadAlong.ai, which uses Amazon Polly technology.
Why did TIME for Kids decide to start creating audio narration of their articles?
The addition of audio with auto scrolling and highlighting of text supports pre-readers and those students still learning to read. Listening while reading supports vocabulary development and reading comprehension, and new words are more likely to be learned when both their oral and written forms are provided. A report from the National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching, and Learning states that developing brains need to hear language even before learning to talk, and that even infants’ brains are preparing to speak months before they say their first words. Not only that, but the report also revealed that listening to stories read aloud helps expand both the volume and variety of words entering young vocabularies and fields of comprehension. Experts at Scholastic report that being read to also helps early readers “focus on the sounds of words read without interruption and provides a model of fluent reading,” and also noted that resources like audio help children learn how to listen, a prerequisite to learning to read.
What was the business challenge we addressed?
TIME for Kids originally addressed pre-reader accessibility by hiring voice actors to record their stories. The earlier iteration of their audio play button used an HTML audio player without speed variation or the option to scroll the page or highlight the text. The experience was expensive and time-consuming, and the user experience wasn’t as engaging as it could be. TIME for Kids was also unable to see even basic data around play or completion rates.
Why Amazon Polly?
We chose Amazon Polly because its APIs and web services support our goal of automating processes and making things easy for our clients.
Amazon Polly’s neural text-to-speech synthesis does the best job of voicing words within the context of a sentence, and the consistency in speech quality allows for the automation of article rendering.
Additionally, Amazon Polly offers a responsive API and powerful SSML support. This offers support for those cases where more control is needed to change inflection, and in the event that text contains challenging names (people, brands, companies) or word and phrase replacements (reading out abbreviations or acronyms in a particular way).
Amazon Polly also supports speech marks, which are crucial for highlighting the text that is currently being read out.
For TIME for Kids, the Kevin voice was a clear winner. TIME for Kids loved the approachable sound of the Kevin voice—they wanted wanting a voice that sounded like a child’s in order to help establish a sense of connection with young readers. Hear an example of a TIME for Kids article using the Kevin voice.
The technical challenge
TIME for Kids needed an educational audio solution for their website. It needed to be a one-time setup that was highly automated and very low friction. The solution also needed to process new articles as they were added dynamically, on a daily basis. And when a user listens to the audio, the page needed to scroll along with the text and highlight the sentence currently being read out loud.
Part of our challenge was to reliably and programmatically identify which content should be read aloud. In a typical publishing context, the audio player needs to read the article title and content, but avoid reading the header and footer text, navigation bars, and certain kinds of ads or captions. Our page analysis solution combines positive and negative query selectors. For each configuration, defined by a set of articles that share the same structure and layout, the http://readalong.ai solution supports a set of allow list selectors and a set of deny list selectors that together capture the appropriate content for synthesizing speech.
Furthermore, the TIME for Kids website posed many technical challenges because some pages are available only for paying subscribers, whereas some are open to the public. TIME for Kids offers four grade-specific editions, teaching materials, curriculum guides, and weekly virtual learning plans for each issue, as well as worksheets and quizzes. Therefore, each article has multiple versions for different reading levels in both English and Spanish—some with as many as seven different reading levels in both languages.
We created a simple drop-in script that allowed TIME for Kids to only add one line of code to the header of any page where they wanted to offer audio. The script automated everything from page content delivery to audio-synthesis to webpage integration. Since the start of the school year, we’ve added the Kevin and Lupe voices (for English and Spanish content, respectively) to thousands of articles on timeforkids.com.
Our solution allowed for automated content delivery and audio synthesizing, which meant no need to sign into a dashboard, FTP, Dropbox, or otherwise send new article content to ReadAlong.ai each time a new page was added. The user-friendly backend of the solution also allows TIME for Kids to easily make word replacements, including global rules, to give the audio synthesizer engine lexicon hints for context-based pronunciations and difficult names, brands, or acronyms.
In addition to positioning and styling the launcher and player to match the TIME for Kids site design, as part of the customization, we added functionality to highlight and scroll the text as the article is read aloud, which is another helpful tool to support children in learning to recognize words and connect them to sounds. We customized this feature to be visible but not distracting, so the audio and visual elements could work in tandem to aid young readers. To support this enhanced feature, we implemented the detailed word- and sentence-level metadata available in Amazon Polly to provide a fluid highlighting experience that helps readers follow along as they encounter new words and concepts. This allows the listener to identify what they’re hearing as they view the content as it’s highlighted on the browser.
We also created a default for the Amazon Polly Kevin and Lupe voices to start at a slower speed, so the default pacing is at .9x, rather than at 1x, as another way to help early readers and pre-readers better access the content. Listeners have the ability to lower the default voice speed to .75x or increase to 1.5x, in order to accommodate more reading levels.
Business benefits for the customer
With our product in place on their site, TIME for Kids was able to voice their content in a scalable way. They deliver content on an article-by-article basis in two different languages (English and Spanish) and in seven different reading levels.
They’re also now able to easily collect and analyze data in real time, including both play and completion rates, and view most popular articles as well as articles with the most audio engagement.
We now know that 55% of kids that click to listen to an article complete 100% of the article, and 66% of kids that listen to an article complete more than half of the article. These significant completion rates reinforce the benefit and confirm that listeners are comfortable with the technology and the voice is relatable. The ReadAlong.ai audio also helped TIME for Kids promote its advanced accessibility features, including key articles with Spanish translation and read-aloud functionality, because the presence of the audio is featured prominently on the preview of each article along with other benefits (such as Spanish translation).
Stacy Bien, Director of Curriculum for TIME for Kids, was impressed with both the solution and the engagement data, saying,
“This is really a thing of beauty. This solution will help so many early readers develop their reading skills and easily consume more content. For us, we’ve seen a huge lift in engagement. That, coupled with the ease of use and cost-effectiveness, makes this a slam dunk.”
ReadAlong.ai used Amazon Polly to help TIME for Kids streamline the process of adding high-quality audio voiceover content to its premium subscription product. Our solution enabled the customer to significantly improve product time, precision, and cost. For example, a voiceover artist typically spends 1 hour or more to record an article, edit the audio, and master the final audio output. Now, once the ReadAlong.ai script has been added to the site, when new articles are created, the content is automatically processed without any time spent by a voiceover artist, audio editor, or administrator. The audio reads articles precisely and rarely requires adjustments, creating a valuable and immeasurable savings of both time and cost.
Collected KPIs tell us that not only did this become an easy way for the TIME for Kids team to manage audio functionality, but that the end-users—children early in the development of their reading abilities—take to the functionality as another tool on their reading path.
About the Author
Andrew Degenholtz is CEO and Founder of eMagazines and ReadAlong.ai, and is President of ValueMags, which he founded in 1999. Degenholtz holds a master’s in marketing from Northwestern University and a B.A. from Muhlenberg College. Previously, he was a member of the Alliance for Audited Media digital edition task force, created to develop best practices for acquisition of digital magazine subscribers.