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Dictation Technology Will Change Writing Instruction

Robert Rosenberger

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Georgia Institute of Technology
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A conversation is emerging over the potential for dictation technologies -- devices that translate voice into text -- to improve classroom learning. For example, it has been suggested that dictation technologies can be used to enhance reading instruction support, assist students with dyslexia, and make the chore of providing student feedback less cumbersome.

However, I suggest that soon the main question will no longer be how to creatively use dictation technologies for educational purposes, but instead, how much teachers should allow students to use these devices. My prediction is that if dictation technologies become less expensive and more widely available, and if it becomes normal to use them for everyday writing (such as email and text messaging), then students will grow disinclined to type their writing assignments, preferring instead to rattle off their compositions by voice. Educators will thus be confronting inescapable decisions about how they should respond to students' inclinations to write with dictation technologies.

Adapting to Technology

These choices are similar to those which educators already face about a number of what are now everyday technologies, from calculators to Internet research tools. The emergence of these technologies has required us to reassess the value of traditional curricula, and devise new pedagogical strategies that retain important lessons in the face of technological change.

The time is long past when math teachers could simply ignore the existence of calculators. Now they must develop thoughtful relationships with these technologies. They must decide when and to what extent they will allow calculators, and devise assignments that either integrate or prohibit them. This has all become a standard part of math curriculum development.

For example, calculators make it possible for students to solve a long division problem without performing various steps of the calculation. Teachers have of course adapted -- students performing long division exercises are often required to "show their work," not only to demonstrate their understanding of the steps in calculation, but also to confirm that a standard calculator was not used. For more advanced students that have already mastered long division, teachers instead allow calculators in attending to the steps of more complicated math problems.

Internet research tools have an analogous place in the classroom. For students working on research papers, teachers can limit the number of websites that may be used as source material, thus requiring students to utilize a minimum number of traditional print sources. This enforces a lesson that research itself cannot be reduced to a Google search.

The Questions We Face

Similarly, teachers will soon be forced to determine how much or how little writing via computerized dictation they prefer in their classes.

At issue, ultimately, is the value we see in more traditional means of writing, especially typing. One effect of dictation software's rise to prominence would be the disaggregation of typing and computerized writing. Soon we will no longer assume that a writing assignment composed on a computer actually involved typing skills. Thus, questions for curriculum developers will be:

  • To what degree should we value the skill of typing in itself?
  • Should typing be understood as a valuable means of composition for its own sake, or as essentially interchangeable with any other means of producing text on a screen?
  • How important should it be for students to develop typing skills in a world where dictation technologies have become a widely-used alternative?
  • Are there advantages and drawbacks distinct to dictation that are relevant to pedagogy?

I take these to be genuinely open questions for the future of writing instruction.

Considering the Benefits

To begin answering these questions, we must understand the benefits to writing instruction specific to typing and dictation. Typing remains a valuable skill, a component of the "computer literacy" relevant to many careers. Perhaps this will continue into the future, in which case typing will continue to be an important skill for students to develop even if their own everyday recreational writing takes place mainly through dictation. In addition, even if one composes the first draft of something entirely through dictation, it seems as if typing might remain a useful way for editing text. It is not hard to imagine people utilizing typing/dictation hybrids in the future.

Dictation technologies will bring their own distinct benefits to writing instruction.

  1. If the future of writing lies in dictation, then it would be important for teachers to help students refine their dictation-based writing skills.
  2. Since individual students respond differently to different teaching styles, we may find that writing through dictation helps some students to learn composition skills better. Such technologies are already proving to be of assistance to visually impaired students.
  3. Lessons that include writing through dictation may additionally train students' speaking skills. That is, the activity of thoughtfully composing text through voice may have the added effect of helping students to become more thoughtful speakers.

If we look into the not-too-distant future, it appears that -- whether we like it or not -- dictation technologies will have effects on writing instruction. The time has come for us to decide exactly what kind of effects we intend for those to be.

What do you think? Should dictation replace typing? How have you used dictation technologies with students?

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Robert Rosenberger

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Georgia Institute of Technology

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

natashamorton's picture

Kindergarten teacher

The Parcc assessment are now required to be taken online and they are changing most writing assessment to computer based test. I can see this becoming something we start using and that becomes more prevalent in the future.

natashamorton's picture

Kindergarten teacher

The Parcc assessment are now required to be taken online and they are changing most writing assessment to computer based test. I can see this becoming something we start using and that becomes more prevalent in the future.

Sarah's picture

I agree that if dictation technologies can be integrated with other modes of writing, the instruction will benefit. However, I don't think it should completely replace handwriting or typing. Both are imperative skills to have throughout a child's education, as well as, in the work place. I do believe that dictation technologies will be extremely beneficial for differentiating lessons for student's with certain disabilities.

HDShoemaker's picture

The other comments mention briefly something I believe deserves more direct focus... the issue of handwriting and typing. I could not help but wonder at the ease this article discusses typing and the fear teachers might feel that dictation technologies will lesson the emphasis placed on students' ability to type. It seems to me this article ignores the fact that teachers once had this fear about typing, that it would de-emphasize the need for careful, legible handwriting.

Somehow we made it past and through those fears. Things probably didn't turn out as badly as some feared nor as well as some hoped. Instead, we have some interesting mix, where students still use handwriting (though, indeed, it's precision and aesthetic beauty may have suffered), while the preferred and expected form for academic writing is through typing.

As with typing and handwriting, I do not think dictation technologies will replace the practice of or need for typing. I also believe dictation technologies, like typing, will neither be as bad as some fear nor as good as some hope, but some interesting mix - hopefully one that improves the ease and quality of our academic endeavors.

Lara J. Parsons's picture
Lara J. Parsons
7th grade English teacher, West Virginia

I can definitely see benefits with dictation tools. I already teach my 7th graders that everybody knows two languages, spoken and written. I do a whole lesson on the differences, why each is important and necessary to every society.

And dictation tools could help some students, yes, but those students who are visual learners and need to see what they're writing as they write it could become more confused in what they are trying to write.

Like with all things technology, we have wait and see what can be done with it, and then adapt it to our classes and our students.

Kendra Grant's picture
Kendra Grant
Learner, Teacher, Parent, Entrepreneur, Volunteer, SOOC Designer. UDL informs practice, process & product. It's all about Transformative Learning.

Thank you for your thoughtful article. I apologize in advance for the lengthy response. Back in 1996 I bought Via Voice, one of the first speech to text software. If I recall it took approximately 45 minutes to "train" my voice, with dubious results. I provided this technology to students with learning disabilities in 1999 and then gave access to all students beginning in 2004 when I adopted a Universal Design for Learning approach. The article that impacted my understanding of "technology enhanced" learning was "Failure is not an Option" by Dr. Dave Edyburn.1 In it he defined the term "naked independence", the propensity to value student work completed with "brain power" alone, and to devalue student work that required technology support. If one student used voice recognition and another typed their essay, and if both had excellent arguments, would they both get an A? Why or why not?
As we think through our position we need to consider that the "old world" of even 5 years ago is gone. Students will live and work in the future. We need to consider what skills will truly be required. If, as Marc Prensky2 says our technology is now an extension of our brains, do students need to learn "trivial" things? With information exponentially growing at an incomprehensible rate should we focus on 20th century skills or should we focus on using technology to help us handle all this information. Whether you agree with Marc or not he is clear "Anyone who maintains that we should continue to teach and use both the old ways and the new is suggesting that we maintain an expensive horse in the barn in case our car breaks down."
With this in mind, we need to determine what is writing. Just like text-to-speech asks us to define what is reading, this technology asks us to define what is important about writing. IMHO researching, developing arguments, organizing thoughts is no easier (and perhaps more difficult) orally. Using tools and organizers to gather, plan and produce writing (with a purpose) is more important than the act of getting the words on the paper. A few years ago I wrote an article called "Beyond Graphic Organizers"3 that explores how Inspiration software is a UDL tool to support all learners through the writing process. Yes some students can write by typing text alone but if our goal is to ensure all students are ready for the future, then what tools can we give them to help them "show us what they know"? The other article I wrote called "System Planning for Inclusive Tech" 4 explored the steps and questions required to bring what was at the time, essentially Assistive technology into your school or district. Now that this "support" technology is built in to almost every app and device, the questions are even more important than ever to ask.

Kiera Chase's picture
Kiera Chase
Blended Learning Coach, Envision Schools

I could not agree more with the author of this piece and with the author of the first comment. I too feel that technology should be harnessed to ensure that all students have an opportunity to demonstrate their skills and share their thoughts. I know from experience that dictation software can be a life saver for some students. Without this tool they cannot read their own words and neither can anyone else. If the point of writing, or typing, is to convey ideas, then the action does not directly implicate the outcome, meaning that dictation should be a viable means to the end. I agree that learning to dictate is not an easy task. Organizing one's thoughts and becoming facile at speaking in different language codes, to me, is more difficult than using speech to communicate in person and using typing to communicate in a more academic tone. But this distinction can be learned and cultivated.
I do think that it is important for students to learn to type proficiently as well. It is not always appropriate to be talking into one's phone, ipad, or computer, and certainly not if an entire classroom is doing this all at once.

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Thank you for this thought provoking article. I hadn't really considered the role of dictation software - at the moment, I've always found it too cumbersome/ expensive, but I agree that there are fantastic opportunities for students - indeed, all students, not just those with special needs.

I think the crucial question, as technology continues to mediate education, is how learning outcomes are improved. I know this sounds simplistic, but in a world where everyone dictates things, is it necessary to know how to write? This is not a great comparison, but just like less and less people need to know how to shoe a horse today, is it conceivable in the future that less and less people will need to write?

IBas's picture
Educational Therapist

As an educational therapist, I am a strong proponent of writing, specifically cursive writing, as the best means to get one's thoughts on paper. At the same time, I realize that for many of my students', namely those with dysgraphia, it is an arduous task that limits their ability to express themselves. Thought processes are hampered by the physical act of writing. With the use of dictation devices, the playing field is leveled. These students can speak their thoughts and have them transferred to text where they will still be using critical thinking skills as they proofread, edit, and revise what they have produced. Also, they practice spelling and grammar skills with the correction features that pop up on screen. Dictation devices provide an opportunity for self-expression and competency for many of my students.

lexinelm's picture
High School Social Studies and Literacy

This question has been on my mind this year as the students at my school got new computers this year. Every computer is equipped with a very good speech-to-text program. To be sure, there are problems with it as well as terrific benefits.

One problem occurs when a student requests to use speech-to-text during class. This requires that the student sit in the hallway so he doesn't disturb the others in the classroom. My student has an IEP which clearly states that he should be given access to this type of technology. While he is very bright, he has learning disabilities that prevent him from fully expressing his knowledge. He is the perfect candidate for speech to text. However, he also has behavioral challenges that make it very, very difficult for him to work unsupervised. Consequently, on the occasions when I have allowed him to work in the hallway, he has accomplished very little.

Another student who uses the speech-to-text option does get his work completed, however he refuses to edit it. So, while he has great ideas, they are still not accessible to the reader due to spelling, punctuation, and organization problems. I usually grade student writing (in literacy class) on completion and progress. He can get a good grade for a first draft, but he gets a zero for a final product, since one of the requirements is following an editing checklist and showing revisions.

The freedom text-to-speech affords to students, especially those with dysgraphia, is breath-taking. It is great to watch them complete assignments--at least the first draft--easily. Perhaps my students will mature along with their use of this type of program.

This technology is new, and I have just started working with it this year, so I expect there will be a learning curve for me as a writing teacher. I believe we need to embrace it, though. I liked the comment about not expecting people to know how to shoe horses anymore. For now, students do need to be able to type in order to present final revised writing pieces. They also need to be able to write their names and be able to fill in a job application with a pen, if required. We are teaching for their future, and the emphasis in writing may be shifting toward text-to-speech capabilities. In the meantime, I'm going to keep expecting a variety of ways to express ideas in writing. There seems to be a place for all of it right now.

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