When Sara was in the first grade, her teacher discovered that she had weak writing skills. No matter what techniques they tried, the teacher saw no improvement. Throughout her elementary school years, Sara made little progress in writing and often felt embarrassed about her handwriting. On occasion classmates ridiculed her.
“I was frustrated and felt trapped. It seemed as though I could not accomplish anything,” she recalls. “Finally one day my father came home from work and informed me that I would be spending my afternoons after school at a new ‘recognition’ computer center.”
With that, things began to turn around for Sara. With speech recognition software, she could control the computer by speaking to it. Using a microphone, she could make her words appear on the computer screen in a word processing format, ready for revision and editing-also accomplished by voice. At last she had discovered a technique that enabled her to write clearly. She began using the program regularly for homework. Her natural talents came to the fore. Her grades steadily improved and by the end of the quarter she made honor roll. At year’s end, Sara was one of two recipients of a coveted creative writing award.
Sara’s experience with writing by recognition illustrates the promise of this technology for students with both physical and learning disabilities, according to Bob Follansbee, co-project director along with Patricia Corley of EDC’s Speaking to Write project. The project Web site, has won several awards and is actively used by thousands of school-based professionals.
Follansbee, who worked with Sara at his previous job (at Children’s Hospital in Boston) has seen stunning results in numerous students.
He recalls Jason, a 19-year-old young man who sustained a head injury at the age of 14 in a boating accident. The injury exacerbated his pre-existing learning disabilities, aphasia, (difficulty recalling words and formulating sentences) and apraxia (which limited his ability to gain facility with the keyboard).
“I had good ideas but couldn’t get them down on paper,” Jason says. “My writing and reading are excellent now. I’m able to get my ideas down on paper. The recognition has put a more independent and confident edge on my life.”
While the software is being aggressively marketed to teens and others for use outside of schools, Follansbee hopes its potential inside schools will be embraced. “We don’t want a kid to get to the eighth grade and never have mastered writing,” he says. “It’s a much different experience in schools when you’ve had success with writing.” Success with the technology can change a students view of himself and force them to become independent. He is careful, however, not to promise too much. “It’s one of the tools one uses, it’s not the only one,” he says. “We like to encourage people to have as many options as possible,” he adds.
Follansbee, Corley, and others in the field are closely watching the changing technology. Originally the software could understand one word at a time. Now it allows students to speak—and be understood—continuously or roughly at the rate of normal conversation. “As the technology leaps ahead, the functionality of the older products is lost,” he says. “That’s a problem for some kids” who were thriving while using the “old” technology. Many students need more supports and need software that isn’t lightening fast, he says. For some students, they need to move slowly and have opportunities to make corrections word by word. “It’s a bit of a balancing act” to make sure the students and the technology are a good match, he says.
The Speaking to Write project is located in EDC’s Center for Family, School, and Community and funded by NIDRR in the U.S. Department of Education. The project was developed in collaboration with the Communication Enhancement Center at Children’s Hospital, Boston and features:
- Adaptations to leading speech recognition programs that will make them more accessible to secondary students with physical and/or learning disabilities
- Tools for educators and parents to help them understand and address the demands of speech recognition for secondary students
- Revised training protocols and materials that are tailored to the needs of students with disabilities
- Tools for educators and parents that help them integrate speech recognition technology into meaningful instructional activities across the curriculum
EDC’s Prize-Winning Website
There are students like Sara at almost any school. To promote understanding and use of recognition technology, EDC staffers have produced a prizewinning website that introduces visitors to speech recognition technology, offers group discussions, helps users deal with school-related issues, and links visitors to related websites and resources. The site has won two prestigious honors and received an “upgrade” on a previously announced honor:
- The site earned semifinalist status in the education category of the 4th annual GII Awards. The award recognizes achievement in 10 categories central to the way people live, work and play: Arts and Culture, Children, Commerce, Community, Education, Entertainment, Government, Health, Netpreneur, and News and Media. The GII awards were presented by Ziff-Davis at its Nextravaganza conference featuring Internet experts, visionaries, and celebrities. The GII Awards program is a private-sector initiative sponsored by leading corporations, organizations, publishers and government agencies. Vice President Al Gore has described the awards program as “…an innovation that is important to our future.”
- Spk2wrt also received the Editor’s Choice Award of the Awesome Library, a collection of the top five percent of sites in the field of K-12 education. The Awesome Library is sponsored by Education and Development Institute in Oregon.
- The site received an “A” from Education World following improvements on the site (following a previously earned a “B”).
Jen Minotti, EDC’s technical and research specialist who developed the site and its graphics, says that the site receives as many as 28,000 visitors a month. “I was just amazed,” she said. “We’re one of the few Web sites where you can go to learn about speech recognition.” The site also features a mail-list discussion that is very popular, engaging more than 300 regular subscribers and about 120 who receive a weekly digest of the information. An average of a half dozen questions are posed every day, and Follansbee facilitates discussion. Follansbee and co-project director Patricia Corley hope the project will be funded to continue that aspect of the Web site, as well as offer an online course for students.
Originally published on May 31, 2000