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Voice recognition, or speech-to-text, technology on my smartphone may be the feature I use most. That includes the Facebook and weather apps. That’s because I’m not terrific at typing on the small on-screen keyboard, especially when I’m doing other things, like walking from the car to the store, or stirring a pot of soup. It’s a convenient technology for many users, but for users with disabilities, it can make a huge difference in the quantity and quality of their written work.
For years, using speech-to-text meant training Dragon Naturally Speaking or another program to recognize your voice. This was a time-consuming process that was difficult for poor readers (who couldn’t read the text they were supposed to use for training), individuals with unclear speech, and people with short attention spans or limited stamina for work. But now, Google Voice Typing is available within Google Docs, on any computer with a microphone. It doesn’t require any training, and you can start almost instantly!
Who can benefit?
Me, for one. When my son was an infant, I often used Voice Typing to write short compositions for the class I was taking while he slept in my arms.
I know a few adults (including at least one with ADD) who use it to overcome the barrier of getting their ideas from their mind onto the screen. I’ve recommended it to my dad, who is a novelist and also a two-finger typist.
And it’s great for kids, too. I know a few fourth, fifth and sixth graders with learning disabilities using it regularly. I’ve even tried it with kids as young as first grade, with mixed results. For some, it was too distracting and frustrating, but others took off with it after a little practice.
- Open Google Docs in the Chrome browser on any computer or Chromebook.
- Make sure a microphone is attached/installed. This can be the device’s internal microphone, or one you plug in to the microphone port. You can use something simple and cheap, like a cell phone headset, or a fancy noise-cancelling microphone.
- In the Tools menu, click “Voice Typing”
4. The microphone icon pops up on the left-hand side of your document. 5. The first time you click on the microphone, Google Docs will ask for your permission to access the microphone. You must click “Allow” to continue.
6. When the microphone has been activated, the icon looks like the image on the left. As you speak, you will be able to see that it is picking up your voice (on the right).
7. It may take a moment, but the words will start to appear on the screen. If you get an error message saying the microphone doesn’t hear your voice, or if the icon stops moving while you are talking, click the microphone off and on again to reactivate it.
That’s it! You are Voice Typing!
What are the pitfalls?
- Background noise: Your accuracy may be lower in a noisy room, or the microphone may pick up the speech of those around you. This happens a lot when I am coaching a student as they learn Voice Typing. As I say, “Now start speaking your sentence,” they hit the microphone button, and we have to stop and backspace because the screen has some mix of my directions and their composition.
- Wrong word errors: Voice Typing seems to use context to understand your words. That means if you speak…one…word…at…a…time, your accuracy won’t be as good as if…you speak in phrases…but a little slower…than your natural speech. Sometimes, if you’re not monitoring while you write, you might get to the end of a paragraph or page and find so many errors that you can’t tell what you meant.
- Random capitalization: Voice Typing knows the basics: capital letter for the beginning of sentences or proper nouns. Sometimes if you try too hard to emphasize a word to get the microphone to pick it up, Google decides it Must be important and Gives it Capital Letters. These random capitals need to be fixed in the editing process.
- Voice commands: Voice Typing understands a range of voice commands, including punctuation (question mark), formatting (new line), and many other more sophisticated ones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have a voice command for quotation marks, which is a barrier for students writing fiction or narratives.
What are the alternatives?
There is built in speech recognition in Android and iOS devices. Newer versions of Windows (beginning with Windows 7, at least) have speech recognition capability. There are commercial apps and software, like Dragon NaturallySpeaking. The right choice for you will depend on exactly what you plan to use it for, and what your preference for device and work environment is.
My recommendation is to start with something free, like the voice recognition that comes with your device, or with Google Docs. For many users, this gives the features they need. Heavy users of speech-to-text technology, or those with specialized needs due to industry-specific vocabulary (like scientists, for example) might need to pay for a program to get the functions they need.
Have fun with it, and tell Google I said hi!