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Tip: How to Make Siri’s Twin, VoiceOver, Read Your Email on iPhone

When Siri was released on the iPhone 4S I was excited about being able to use the personal assistant while traveling. My mobile office (a.k.a. Saturn Outlook) has a plethora of cords, cables, and speakers and having Siri read a text message from iMessage has been extremely convenient. So when I asked Siri to read me an email, I was startled by her response, “Sorry, I can’t do that Jay.”

That’s odd, I thought, I know I could get my 3GS to read my emails to me! You may be curious how. It’s an Accessibility setting called VoiceOver. So what I tried today is a possible way, though not perfect, to have emails read aloud.

Turn VoiceOver On

You can find the VoiceOver menu and toggle under the Settings > General > Accessibility menu. Instead of turning it on permanently, however, I recommend scrolling to the bottom of that Accessibility menu to Triple-click Home and set it to Toggle VoiceOver as a way to toggle it off and on.


What does it do?

VoiceOver is a tool used for those with impaired vision and who need to have the screen read to them. Once active, touch any item on the screen (say a paragraph in an email) and VoiceOver will read aloud, in Siri’s voice, what is boxed in on the screen. A single finger scroll to the right will move the box to the next paragraph which will be read aloud. A single finger flick to the left will move the box to a previous paragraph.

Putting it together on iPhone 4S

Once the Triple-click Home is set as the toggle to turn VoiceOver on and off, here’s how you can both read and reply to an email aloud:

  • Activate Siri by press and holding the home button, then ask for emails, “Siri check email”
  • When the new emails are displayed on the Siri screen, tap one to open the Mail app and go straight to that message
  • Triple-click the Home button to toggle VoiceOver on
  • Scroll through the paragraphs and have VoiceOver read the email aloud (one finger flick to the right for multiple paragraphs)
  • Triple-click the Home button to toggle VoiceOver off
  • Activate Siri and say Reply to compose a new email by dictating to Siri

There are additional instructions and settings for VoiceOver in the Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver menu (such as rate, pitch, etc.) to personalize this Siri twin to your liking.

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  • Renkman

    Jay, did you work this compromise out on your own?

    • Jay

      Scary, huh? 😀

      Actually Patrick introduced me to VoiceOver over a year ago.

  • Sandra

    Instead of flicking right to read each paragraph, try flicking down with two fingers to have VoiceOver read the entire Email.

    • Jay

      Great tip, thanks!

      I find if I’m “working in my mobile office” at the time, I can only use my thumb, so two fingers wouldn’t have occurred to me. Good suggestions otherwise!

  • Snake Eyes

    Sounds like a lot of distraction while your driving… probably why most states will end up banning all cell phone use while driving. To many people abuse what they do with their phones while driving. Talking distracts enough but outside of that pullover if you have to send an email. I mean come on it can’t be that important to risk lives to send your email while driving.

    • Jay

      I agree that driving while distracted can contribute to driver error. And perhaps there will be future laws that prohibit complete cell phone while driving.

      My hunch is, however, that the technology that currently resides in a smart phone will eventually migrate to the vehicle itself, and we will be talking aloud to our smart cars instead of our smart phones. Ironically, this article was intended to show how to have an email read to you, not about composing an email. And since talk radio hasn’t been banned yet, it’s unlikely that having something read aloud to the driver (by a passenger, for instance) is going to be illegal in the near future.

    • Jack McCracken

      Why this tirade about risking lives? Did you miss the entire concept? It’s not illegal or necessarily unsafe to talk aloud in your car. And if you hate distraction so much, you better outlaw billboards, radios, and sunsets.

      I personally think cell phones should deactivate themselves while in motion by law, unless in hands free mode. Or make people get a cell phone drivers license endorsement, like needed for motorcycles.

      But I dictate in the car all the time, with no problem. It’s completely different.

  • I am totally blind and rely on Voice Over to use the iPod Touch and the iPhone. I just upgraded from the 3GS to the 4S and Voice Over works on all of these. It doesn’t work on any iPhone older than the 3GS and any iPod lower than the 3rd generation. When Voice Over is enabled, touching the screen once only voices what that item is. To enable that item, you quickly double-[tab with one finger. So think of Voice Over like that sighted assistant which confirms what you are touching before actually activating it. Doing one finger swipe left or right is sort of like pressing tab through a dialog box in Windows where it places focus on each next and prior item so that you can double tap it to activate it. This is just the tip of the ice though since there are many gestures which make using Voice Over and the iOS devices a breeze. a 2-finger swipe down reads from your current position to the end while a 2-finger swipe up reads from the top of the screen to your current position. If Voice Over is on, you can do a 2-finger single tap to start and stop something. I.E. Answer a call, hang up a call, start music, stop music, take a picture. In fact, speaking of pictures, with Voice Over it has face recognition so that a pic taken by a blind person will be possible. It tells you if it finds a face and if it’s centered or to the left, etc. I could go on and on, but it’s just a neat thing. And yes, I am very good at taking pics of people and things even if I can’t see anything. Happy iOSing.

    • Jay

      Raul, thanks for the valuable perspective and information! I didn’t know some of those uses existed!

  • Thanks Raul, many of the students at the school where I teach I.T. have found the accessibility of their Apple products suits them very well indeed. I’ve been trialling the iPad2 recently for music, art and writing.
    Your comment about photography pleased me because I have also taught some blind students to use digital photography to communicate their ideas successfully.

  • Thanks Raul.
    Many of the students at the school where I teach I.T. have found the accessibility of their Apple products suits them very well indeed. I’ve been trialling the iPad2 recently for music, art and writing.
    Your comment about photography interested me because I have also taught some blind students to use digital photography to communicate their ideas successfully.
    Peter Bryenton
    IT Teacher & Trainer
    New College Worcester

    • Thanks for the great post. This will definitely help with productivity. I have been wanting this for a while and had very limited knowledge of the iPhone VoiceOver. Much appreciated! It should also be noted that Siri is actually in beta, so perhaps they’ll actually integrate these reading features as part of the core of Siri.

  • Kerry D

    I found this free iPhone app called Talkler that DOES read emails aloud, the way that Siri won’t. I think it even understands spoken commands for hands-free. They call themselves ’email for your ears.’ Here’s the page for them: Facebook.com/Talkler Hope that helps!

    • Jay

      I took a quick look and signed up to beta test. Their iPhone app doesn’t appear to be available yet.