Reading List and Speak Screen

For some time now I’ve been a big proponent of the default iOS apps. By and large these apps are fairly basic, at least in comparison to specialist third party offerings (think Mail.app vs Spark Mail for example). Shortcomings like this, however, are easily overlooked because of the unparalleled integration many of these apps and services enjoy in comparison to their third party cousins.

I still use Mail.app, Calendar.app and Notes.app, for example, though I do still greatly enjoy third party apps to cover holes where integration with the OS isn’t as important. One such area is, or at least was a Read Later service. I’ve used Instapaper a lot in the past, but recently Pocket releases a killer new feature. This feature allows you to setup Pocket to read the articles you save there aloud to you. At first glance, this seemed like a feature I could really get behind. I’m a big podcast listener so I already enjoy a lot of audio content, so this felt like it would fit right into my way of consuming content. For all intents and purposes it does a good job. I’m not, however, using it anymore.

In keeping with my aim of staying first party when I’m able to, I did find it difficult to move away from Reading List which is, again, just so nicely integrated into the system.

The 233 words above, essentially, a largely redundant preamble just to, essentially say:

Hey, did you know you can replicate the Pocket ‘read aloud’ functionality within Reading List?

Allow me to, finally, cut to the chase. This isn’t a feature so much as it’s a simple utilisation of a fairly hidden away part of iOS. This utilises an Accessibility setting called ‘Speak Screen’. You can replicate Pockets Read Aloud service with Reading List by following these simple steps:

  1. Firstly you’ll need to activate the ‘Speak Screen’ function by navigating to General > Accessibility > Speech and toggle on ‘Speak Screen’

  2. Once activated, open up your Reading List and pick an article to open up.

  3. Once this is done, press the button on the top right of the screen to turn on Reader Mode, which strips out most of the formatting and leaves you with a basic fact article.
  4. Now, all you need to do is swipe down from the top of your device screen with two fingers to activate the iPhones own Read Aloud service. Upon doing so you will see a great little floating control panel that allows you to change the pace of the speech and pause it etc.

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The nice thing about this UI item is that it collapses when not in use and floats on top of the screen, ready for you to tap when needed. The UI element allows you to pause, resume and change the speed of the narration. The audio playback also remains active across the device, in that you can close Safari and open another app whilst the narration continues in the background.

Don’t get me wrong, the feature on Pocket has obviously been designed with this specific use case in mind, so the voice itself it arguably better there but, for me at least, this is a far more flexible solution. You can utilise this on the fly as well, so you don’t need to send an article to Reading List, of course, prior to firing off the Speak Screen feature.

If you enjoy reading various articles, particularly long form, but often find yourself without time to actually read it, this is a really great option for when you’d usually tackle your podcast queue.

I Wrote A Book … Sort Of

My daughter started school back in September and, since doing so, her love of reading has grown exponentially. Now that she has started learning to read to herself, there’s no stopping her. Her school has started sending some simple books home for her, and her classmates, to learn with. The problem is, these books are a little too basic for her, because currently they only have one word per page, and she was keen to try more.

As is always the case when I need something, my first port of call was Amazon, but this proved to be a fruitless exercise. Given that Amazon started life as a book store, it’s surprisingly bad to use when trying to find a book in 2018. I quickly gave up on this idea.

I moved onto Plan B.

This will likely come as a shock to you, but I adore my iPad and when I get a chance to use it for yet another task I’m a happy camper so I thought that it may just be easier to try and make something myself …

Now, I should start by saying that J.K.Rowling has nothing to worry about when it comes to my book writing ability. This isn’t a post to brag about how I’ve become a skilled novel writer overnight, it’s more about highlighting another fun thing you might enjoy using your iPad (or iPhone for that matter) for.

There are multiple ways of achieving the end result here, I’m sure, but when creating my master piece I took advantage of the following apps:

First things first, I used Pages as a basic tool for creating the basic design of the book. I’m not entirely sure how long they’ve been there, but the current version of Pages on iOS already has nine basic book templates to choose from. One of them, simply called ‘Story’, is already a basic children’s book, which is useful!

After loading up the Story template, I removed the placeholder text and began crafting my manuscript. This was, again, made for a four year old, so it’s no War and Peace …

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I duplicated each page, to keep the formatting the same, and just updated the content. All simple stuff so far, though it was obviously looking pretty bland. Given the target audience for the book, a bit of art was needed. I included the disclaimer above regarding my lack of novel writing prowess, but I’m afraid I am now going to have to include another. I cannot draw to save my life. This will be clear once you see what comes next.

A quick search on DuckDuckGo (yep, I’m a search engine hipster) and I’d found some great images to be the star of my book, Poppy. Given I will, clearly, not be selling the finished article, I was essentially free to grab a few images that I needed.

Once I had my images, I imported them into the excellent Pixelmator for the simple task of cropping out the background, leaving me with a clean image ready to use.

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Next up, the newly cropped image was copied to my iPad clipboard and I moved onto Linea Sketch to paste it into a new canvas to create the scene for the book. Linea is a really great app which is both simple, and powerful, at the same time. It’s in no way as powerful as something like Photoshop, but it’s not trying to be. Its main function is for drawing, but it does also include some basic laying functionality which was ideal for my needs. The panda images, which you can see below, were simply pasted from Pixelmator into a Linea canvas and I then added new layers for the background colour and then more for other things I needed to either also copy in, or draw, like the microphone (which was pasted in) or the expertly drawn hat.

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Once done, I had a selection of images that fit with the text I wrote early so I, once again, jumped back over to Pages to finalise things. I opened both Pages, and Linea, in a multitasking view and copied each separate Linea canvas and simply pasted the image directly into each page of the book. After a little dragging around to line things up, it was essentially done.

As a final little cherry on the top, I exported my creation out of Pages, into Apple Books, as an ePub for my daughter and I to enjoy at bed time.

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Generally speaking, my daughter doesn’t use an iPad much, especially at bed time, but on this occasion we did take the new story for a spin and it went down very well. She was able to read something herself that stretched her more and I had the satisfaction of both being able to give her what she wanted, whilst also getting even more use out of my iPad. The above process took about thirty to forty minutes to complete, at most, yet I’m pleased with the results. The book itself, on it’s own, looks pretty hideous, I know, but the fact I was able to make it so quickly was great, and the actual look was largely irrelevant to a child that just wanted to have some fun reading.

I can see a lot of potential for taking this idea further down the road, where we can maybe write and illustrate the book together next time. I’ll be sure to share some details of our next best seller as and when the big launch comes around next!

For now, however, you can breath easy J.K. your crown is safe.