The TalkBack Android Screen Reader

TalkBack is the built-in screen reader app that comes pre-installed on all new Android devices. Since TalkBack is separate from the Android operating system, it can be improved and updated with more regularity than the Android operating system itself.

If you obtain a new Android phone or tablet, you can start TalkBack right out of the box. Here's how.

  1. Turn your device on by finding and pressing the Power button, often located on the upper right side edge of the device.
  2. Lay two fingers on the display, spread at least an inch apart.
  3. Continue to hold them there until you hear the audible prompt asking if you would like to enable TalkBack.
  4. Continue holding your fingers against the screen until the device reports that TalkBack has been successfully initialized.

The first time you start TalkBack you will be prompted to work your way through a brief, interactive Explore by Touch tutorial, described in more detail below. You can pause this tutorial at any time and restart where you left off, or restart it from the beginning at any time using the TalkBack Settings menu option.

This tutorial will teach you nearly all of what you need to know to perform most tasks on your Android phone or tablet using TalkBack. We encourage you to make good use of this excellent, onboard resource.

TalkBack Settings Menu

You can reach the TalkBack Settings menu in two different ways:

Use the Global Context Menu. In one smooth movement, slide one finger down the left side of the screen, then, without lifting your finger, slide to the right. This gesture may take some practice to perfect, but you will know when you have it right because you will hear a series of clicks to let you know the context menu is now on screen. You will then hear instructions to "Touch the screen and explore in a circle to find an item, then lift to select." Select the TalkBack Settings menu.

Use the System Settings menu. Select Accessibility. First, check the checkbox to turn TalkBack on, if it isn't already. (Note: This is a good way to toggle TalkBack on if you are borrowing someone's device.) A bit lower, you will find the TalkBack Settings menu, the same menu you can reach via the Global Context Menu.

Here is a description of the major TalkBack settings and what they do:

  • Speech Volume: You can set this to match media volume—meaning, TalkBack will speak at the same volume level as music, videos, and such—or you can set it to speak at a percentage of the media volume.
  • Keyboard Echo: Select whether you wish to hear keyboard characters spoken as they are entered.
  • Use Pitch Changes: Speaks keyboard feedback in a lower-pitched voice.
  • Speak When Screen is Off: As various notifications appear on the screen, your phone may become a bit verbose, even when the screen is turned off. You can stop this extra speech here.
  • Use Proximity Sensor: With this option enabled, waving a hand near your device's top left corner will silence speech automatically. Tablets do not always include proximity sensors.
  • Shake to Start Continuous Reading: This is a quick way to have a screen spoken aloud. You can adjust the level of force required to activate the reading so your device won't start speaking in your pocket every time you take a step.
  • Speak Caller ID: Some people want to know who's calling. Others prefer to keep this information private.
  • Launch Explore by Touch Tutorial: If you missed the opening tutorial, or wish to run it again, double tap this option.
  • Manage Gestures: This screen lists the default L-shaped gestures and their functions. You can change these gestures to perform functions you use frequently.

Third-Party Language and Voices

The last setting we will discuss here is the ability to choose other text-to-speech voices and languages. Android comes with the Google Text to Speech Engine pre-installed. You can add new voices via download from the Google Play Store. After the new voices are installed, go to Language and Input under the System Settings menu, select Text to Speech Output, and choose a new voice. You can also change the voice rate and pitch.

Two popular publishers of Android-ready text-to-speech engines are Acapela and IVONA.

Explore by Touch Tutorial Lessons

The Explore by Touch tutorial offers invaluable practice performing the main TalkBack gestures, including real time feedback that requires you to perform each gesture successfully before you can advance to the next lesson. The tutorial includes three lessons. The gestures covered include:

1. Locating and Activating Screen Elements

When you first start up an Android phone, you are placed on one of the Home screens—you may have several. If you touch a finger to the screen TalkBack will announce the item beneath that spot on the screen. It may be a program Icon, a control button, a block of text or another screen element. Slide your finger around the screen and Talkback will continue to speak the information as your position changes.

You can also perform a one finger swipe—a quick slide to either the left or right—to move one screen element in the direction of your gesture. This will cause the focus to advance one screen element in that direction, and Talkback will announce the new icon, control or bit of text which is now in focus.

To activate the screen element that is currently in focus, simply perform a one-finger double tap anywhere on the display. Talkback will open the app or activate the program control which is in focus. It will do nothing if the last spoken item was a block of text.

2. Screen Navigation

Often apps offer choices formatted in lists. You can touch navigate or swipe your way down the list, but there is a quicker way.

The tutorial will present a list of the apps currently on your device using a list view. The list is long, and it may scroll past the bottom of your screen. To view the choices not currently displayed, place two fingers on the screen and slide them together both up or down to scroll in that direction. If your fingers reach the top or bottom of the screen, lift them up, place them higher or lower on the screen, and continue scrolling. You will receive audio feedback to help you sense how far in either direction you have traveled, and a bonk sound that will alert you that you have reached the list's end.

If you have more apps than will fit onto a single home screen, Android will automatically create a second Home screen for you. Other apps may also display their information on more than a single page. To move from page to page, slide two fingers side to side to advance one page left or right.

3. Context Menus

Talkback includes two context menus that help you access settings and controls. They are the Global Context Menu and the Local Context Menu.

The Global Context Menu

As its name suggests, the global context menu includes TalkBack options that you may wish to access, no matter what app is currently running. These include:

  • Read from top: This will read the entire screen.
  • Read from next item: This will begin reading from your point of focus, a link, control or block of text.
  • Spell last utterance: This is useful if you could not quite understand the TalkBack voice.
  • Quick Navigation Menu: Arranges screen elements in a circle, allowing you to find what you are looking for more quickly.
  • TalkBack Settings: Opens the TalkBack settings, which we will discuss in depth in the next section.

Pause feedback: Enables you to turn off TalkBack temporarily. To resume TalkBack, simple by returning to your device's lock screen.

Accessing the Global Context Menu requires a two part gesture. In one smooth movement, slide one finger down the left side of the screen, then, without lifting your finger, slide to the right. This gesture may take some practice to perfect, but you will know when you have it right because you will hear a series of clicks to let you know the context menu is now on screen.

You will now hear instructions to "Touch the screen and explore in a circle to find an item, then lift to select."

The Local Context Menu

The Local Context Menu offers choices which may change, depending on which app you are currently running. These options control what TalkBack does when you perform a one finger up or down gesture, much like the iPhone Rotor. Android refers to these as "granularity" options, and they may include:

  • Default Granularity: Moves you by the app's default unit.
  • Page Granularity: These and the next several options advance you one stated unit at a time.
  • Sentence Granularity: Moves by sentence
  • Paragraph Granularity
  • Letter Granularity

In other apps, such as a web browser, you may wish to navigate by elements, which can increase your speed and productivity. A few of the possible Navigation options include:

  • Heading Navigation
  • Control Navigation
  • List Navigation
  • Section Navigation
  • Special Content Navigation

The granularity controls are usually on the right side of the context menu circle of options. The navigation commands are usually on the left side.

To access the Local Context Menu, perform an upside-down "L" gesture. Slide one finger upward along the left side of the screen, then, without lifting the finger, slide it to the right. This gesture may also require some practice, but again, you will receive audible feedback to let you know you have succeeded.

There are several more of these two part gestures, and you can customize others to perform commands you use frequently.