Learn Your Special Education Laws, Special Education Rights, and Share IEP Goal Ideas

Jun 05
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by Jess

I am dictating this blog post using a Jawbone bluetooth headset and Windows Seven Speech Recognition. This is a very easy way for your students to begin the writing process, eliminating the struggles with holding a pen, or keyboarding, or spelling, or just the mechanical transfer from brain to hand.

One of the biggest issues I see in student writing is all the things which block students from effectively telling their stories, all the things which burn up cognitive effort and leave nothing left over for communication.

Holding a "writing implement" is very hard for many children, especially left-handers and, of course, boys in general. Keyboarding can also be quite difficult - especially on the anti-ergonomic full-size QWERTY keyboards, whether "real" on laptops or desktops, or "virtual" on touchscreens (keyboards injure more people each year than any other workplace tool, the awful stress placed on the wrists and blood vessels in the wrists by the "touch typing" hand position is a massive issue). Troubles with spelling - typically caused by a lack of phonological awareness - makes the writing of every word, via keyboard, pen, or pencil, a deeply troubling task. And any or all of this robs students of their voice, and their active participation in the world.

Solving this was once difficult and expensive. Now, however, it is free and easy. Every Windows computer running Windows 7 or Windows Vista comes equipped with a top performing Speech Recognition/Voice-To-Text system, free, included.

You may not have seen it yet. You need to look in your Programs menu, under "Accessories" and then "Ease of Access." Right click on "Speech Recognition" and pin that shortcut to your start menu, and send it your desktop.

People with iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads can install Dragon Naturally Speaking free from the App Store.

Both software packages do the same thing. They listen to you, and write down what you say. Both require some patience and training (though Dragon likes to deny this), but the more you use either program the more accurate they become, especially if you actively correct mistakes within the program, as the software learns to match your pronunciations with correct words. Setting up Windows Speech Recognition Getting best results from Dragon Speech recognition will never misspell a word, but it will get the words wrong, so students should use a grammar checker, with appropriate settings, whenever writing with SR.  But there's a touch of magic in the "no misspellings," when kids consistently see their spoken words turn into correctly spelled words, their sightword recognition grows and their spelling often improves.

Why the Jawbone headset? For two reasons. The bluetooth connection allows students to move as they want without being tethered, and bluetooth digital transmission is far more accurate than using audio plug-connected headsets (USB headsets are the best wired solution). But most importantly because Jawbone's technology relies primarily on the vibration of the jaw, and combined with remarkable noise and wind suppression (originally a defense department solution for tank command), allows the lowest volume speaking with the least environmental (classroom noise) interference.

My Jawbone headset came free about 18 months ago with a phone, but you can buy basic models for under $60. You'll want to use the ear loop for kids, the earbud will not stay in small ears by itself.

Try this in your classrooms. Liberate students from the cognitive waste going to mechanical issues which have nothing to do with effective communication. Help them to become communicators and storytellers, and let your teaching focus on construction of effective writing, and what separates "writing" from "talking" in our culture.

Remember: Pens, pencils, typewriters, keyboards... these are all tools for getting words from your brain to "paper." These tools have no particular value in and of themselves, they are simply a means to an end. If there is a better tool for many of your students - and now there is - you are doing nothing but holding your students back by not using it.


Ira David Socol is an educational consultant and advocate, and a researcher and instructor in the College of Education at Michigan State University. He works with schools and school districts/divisions/LEAs who are seeking the rethink the total educational environment in which their students learn.

Beginning with a view from Special Education, and a focus on traditionally unsuccessful groups in education, Socol pursues questions of education reform from historical and Universal Design perspectives.

He is the author of a novel, The Drool Room, and a microfiction collection, A Certain Place of Dreams.

Ira David Socol http://speedchange.blogspot.com/


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8 Responses to “Writing without the Blocks”

  1. Mr. Socol,

    I have quoted you on the blog I’ve just begun creating for the thesis I am currently writing, “Using Speech Recognition in College Writing.”

    I like your idea about using a wireless device so that writers can move around while composing.

    Thank you for advocating that students use what works!

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  2. I say the following with no disrespect intended, but have you actually tried your above method?

    I ask because every student I’ve ever had who has so much difficulty writing that they need speech recognition also has the same degree of difficulty articulating a sentence.

    In other words (no pun intended) there are so many pauses, placeholders (hmm, uhh, ahh), incorrect verb tense uses, bizarre noun use, etc. that there’s absolutely no way the software can make heads or tails of what the student is saying.

    Then factor in any kind of articulation errors and speech recgonition software quickly becomes useless.

    So it’s worth the try, no doubt. But I suspect the student who 1) Can’t write but, 2) Has a command of language and elocution is very few and far between.

    It’s worth noting I’ve tried PC, Mac, and iOS speech recognition apps with many students and have had no success whatsoever.

    Good luck!

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  3. Lorna,

    Thank you for spreading the word. Too many kids don’t get the chance to communicate because easily available tech is not made available to them.


    As I pointed out in the beginning of the post, the post itself was dictated using the tools described, as were – to a great extent – the books I have written http://www.amazon.com/The-Drool-Room-Ira-Socol/dp/0615165443/ (well, they were dictated with older, less capable, tools).

    I’ve used speech recognition all the way down to five-year-olds. Sure there are many pauses, interjections, etc. But who cares? It is a great part of the writing process to move through the text clearing those out and editing.

    Of course students must learn how to use a tool. I am endlessly amazed at both educators and researchers who want to compare something which has been taught for years – say, writing with a pencil or decoding printed text – to something introduced yesterday – say, speech-to-text or text-to-speech. Any tool has a learning curve, and every tool user needs support when beginning.

    Anyway, believe me, this “theory” is based on thousands of experiences and observations since 1997 when we first began testing IBM’s ViaVoice at Grand Valley State University, and then in area K-12 schools, originally on Pentium PCs and the first “bubble” iMacs. So, over 15 years, as I’ve said, with ages 5 to adult.

    Does it work for everyone? Of course not. There is nothing which works for everyone. But it has changed lives in amazing ways. The first K-12 student I worked with with this – using WYNN for TTS and ViaVoice was a high school sophomore with no reading or writing capability at all. In 3 months he had dictated a history paper based on the transcripts of Galileo’s Inquisition he read via WYNN from Fordham University’s website. That was the fall of 1998. Last I heard he was working on his doctorate in history.

    The second was a second grader with a neuromuscular disorder which prevented him from moving his fingers independently. He could not hold a pencil or type. In two weeks he was dictating volumes via ViaVoice into an iMac. I have no idea where he is now, but I know the difference it made.

    I have another young man, no ability to write, who is now a National Parks Police Officer, dictating all his reports, after dictating all his work at university (into a rather aged laptop).

    I could go on, but I think the point is clear. This is worth pursuing.

    Ira David Socol

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  4. For Brian: and others having problems:

    I do not believe that any of this works “out of the box” except, in limited ways, the “Light” Dragon for iOS or VLingo or the native app for Android.

    Since the very beginning we’ve done “supported training.” We don’t ask dyslexics to read the training sentences. We sometimes record them so kids can “listen and repeat” (we originally did this with Walkmen!) or we sit next to younger kids and whisper so they can repeat.

    We go through ALL the training (Windows is better than Dragon for this because you can break infinite times without losing anything) because we want the most trained software possible. Its time consuming, but the payoff is huge.

    I will also point out again that microphone quality matters. If you are having problems be sure to use Bluetooth or USB – NOT audio plugs – because the digital signal is much better. Also, though you can get almost anyone set up with speech recognition with effort, it is easiest if you can coach distinct – clear word endings. I always remind kids that we’re “writing” not just “speaking”

    Ira David Socol

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  5. “Sure there are many pauses, interjections, etc. But who cares?”

    Because it literally “breaks down” the software. That seems a pretty substantial objection.

    I don’t think we’re remotely talking about the same audience. You’re citing you post, written by an adult with typical intelligence and typical/above average verbal ability, as an example.

    I’m saying that my 8th graders, reading at a 2nd grade level, with IQs under 70, do not benefit from this technology because of all the syntax and elocution stumbling blocks that the software can’t handle.

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    • Hi Brian,

      I hear your frustration. Is it possible for you to help students record their writing/stories/essays using multimedia? Video in which they tell rather than write, narrated essays in which they tell a story about a picture (using Jing or some free service).

      I am not a K-12 teacher, but it seems like there might be avenues for your students to express their thoughts and ideas by recording their voices–with support and a step-by-step process. What do you think? Digital writing is writing and it includes many ways to tell the story . . .

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  6. Brian,

    Actually, I think I gave at least one clear example of a second grade student, and noted that I have used this with 5-year-olds, so, while I hear your frustration, I ask that you hear me as well.

    Lorna does suggest an effective alternative, using audio or audio and video to capture students “writing.” We do that a great deal. Just this year, in Virginia, we had tremendous success with Special Needs 7th graders using a variety of technologies – Windows Speech Recognition, Audacity, Video to get them writing. Did it cure all the issues you describe? No, but we worked as creatively as possible to get the writing process started. One group of three 7th graders created a magnificent “silent movie” for example.

    But, I’m unsure of what you mean when you say “the software can’t handle.” I have found the software capable of handling most anything with effort. I have worked with people with speech unintelligible to other humans who, with work in both Dragon or Windows SR, became effective communicators – even effective employees down the line. Yes, you often have to work hard in “correction mode” to get it all right. Yes, you need to employ other Windows Ease of Access settings, yes you may have to employ other Microsoft Word (or Open Office Writer) “tricks” – such as Auto-Correct – to make it all work, but if other forms of writing are not working – and if I hear you correctly, they are not, then we try whatever might get us to where we want to go.

    Remember that when you are “training” you are really not training the student, but literally training the software to match sounds to English language words – or – if you choose – to match sounds to inserting no word at all.

    As I suggested earlier, no tools provide automatic success. The first time you hand a child a crayon or a pencil you do not expect them to write a New Yorker piece. We accept that this takes years of development to go from the first scribbles to writing coherent sentences of any kind. What time period is being invested in Speech-To-Text? I am not suggesting years… but with many students it will take significant time.

    Ira David Socol

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