Writing Without the Blocks

Help with Listen Feature Help with Listen Feature

by Ira David Socol
Adapted and reposted with permission from our friends at Special Education Advisor.

Ira David Socol is an educational consultant, advocate, researcher, and instructor in the College of Education at Michigan State University. He works with schools and school districts seeking to rethink the total educational environment in which their students learn. http://speedchange.blogspot.com/


I am dictating this blog post using a Jawbone bluetooth headset and Windows 7 Speech Recognition. This is a very easy way for your students to begin the writing process, eliminating the struggles with holding a pen, keyboarding, spelling, or just the mechanical transfer from brain to hand.

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

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Tools can get in the way

Holding a “writing implement” is very hard for many children, especially left-handers and 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, because of the awful stress placed on the wrists and blood vessels in the wrists by the “touch typing” hand position). Troubles with spelling – typically caused by a lack of phonological awareness – can make the writing of every word quite a challenging task, whether it’s via keyboard, pen, or pencil. Any or all of these obstacles rob students of their voice and their active participation in the world.

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Helping students find their voice

Removing such obstacles to writing 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, free Speech Recognition/Voice-To-Text system.

You may not have noticed this functionality before. You need to look in your Programs menu, under “Accessories” and then “Ease of Access.” Right-click on “Speech Recognition,” 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. That software gives students the same ability to use their speech to generate text on the computer.

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Writing software that works

Amazing, isn’t it? Both software packages 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 the program becomes, especially if you actively correct mistakes the program makes as it learns to match your pronunciations with correct words.

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 sight word recognition grows, and their spelling often improves.

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Why use 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 combines remarkable noise and wind suppression (originally a defense department solution for tank command). The result? The lowest volume of speech can be captured with the least environmental interference (e.g., classroom noise).

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.

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Test it out

Try this approach to student writing in your classroom. Liberate students from the cognitive waste of overcoming writing obstacles that 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 – use it!

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