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 $50. 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.
Rememver: 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 Socol