10 March 2011

Writing without the Blocks

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 $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


AprilS said...

I have to admit I am torn by this. The writer in me is excited by the idea of replacing a tape recorder with a headset and some software to dictate. I know there are times when it is easier to speak what's in your mind than type it. Sometimes, just changing your writing pattern helps keep things flowing.
However, one of the important things about writing either on the computer or with a pen and paper, is the fact that kids can make mistakes and learn from them. It's the best way for them to improve their spelling and grammar. It's also much more effective for teaching as they can see the error and you can teach them what is actually wrong.
And yet, I can see many kids being able to express themselves better verbally than trying to write it out. This could be useful for journalling and even writing assignments out in public, walking around reacting to the world around them.
Thanks for the thoughtful piece. I definitely have quite a bit to think about now!

Dan McGuire said...

But, Ira, during the 55 minute 'prescribed' (pun intended) Writing Workshop time of our daily schedule students must be writing and not talking.
You may think I'm being silly but I know of a 3rd and 4th grade teacher who was recently told by an Asst. Principal that students must be 'reading' during Reader's Workshop and could not have a laptop on their desk or table. I am quite confident in the veracity of this report, as unbelievable as it may seem in the year 2011.

Seriously, this is a huge contribution you're making to teachers and learners everywhere. I think, though, that you'll need to repeat it at least once a month for the next couple of years because the simplicity of the technique will make too many doubt that it can be for real.

And to April's point, students still make mistakes and teachers still need to teach, guide, prompt, correct, motivate, etc.; it's just that the level of interaction will be elevated. We can do this.

Bill Genereux said...

They this is pretty cool. I've had windows seven for a year and I didn't know it could do this. I've only been playing with this for 20 minutes or so. I'm already getting good art I? Who my kids want me to let them do this. But I won't let them because this is my computer. Now all have to give them a microphone on their computer. They keep bugging me. They don't understand you have to train the computer. OK I'll let my son talk now. You say some Thomas.

Go ahead and east is direct SB and period.

Try again, thomas.

DUEA rules A pounds

Well… I guess it will take some more practice.

Anonymous said...

How does the accuracy of the jawbone compare for you to a wired usb headset? I have both. Thinking the bluetooth would be nice for the reasons you stated. Was it hard to get it configured on your system with windows speech recognition?

Harold said...

Ira - sadly Speech-to-text component has been in M/S since XP. We were using it in my school back in 2002, very successfully. When I am on a PC I use it quite a bit, I have always liked the capabilities. Even got to dictating my IEPs.

However since moving to the Mac, I can not bring myself to pay almost $200 for Dragon's version. It is unfortunate that it is so expensive and out of reach for most students.

When Maine went to the Mac, unless this tool is listed as necessary in an IEP, students do not have this capability.


speech to text said...

so much great info on here .

Kathy said...

I love this idea, but how do you teach kids sentence structure? And I could use some suggestions on how to teach the student to write a proper paragraph (ya know, topic sentence,supporting sentences and conclusion sentence) vs. telling a story?