Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Teaching writing to students with tablets using voice to overcome keyboard shortcomings

On Friday March 9 I am giving a presentation at the ALLT conference in Dubai on "Teaching writing to students with tablets using voice to overcome keyboard shortcomings". Here is the abstract I submitted with the proposal:

The presenter has for the past few years been refining techniques to overcome shortcomings in the digital keyboards inherent to most tablet computers and other mobile devices by using voice to help students compose and revise essays on their iPads. The technique uses Google Docs or similar online word processing software such as Office 365, for voice input. However, Arab students have problems getting voice recognition to work for them in English, so the presenter has them begin their essays on paper, create a blank online document, and share it with the teacher. The teacher then uses the voice capability native to his or her tablet device to read what the students have written into their shared online documents prior to having them revise those documents on their tablets. This 20 minute presentation will demonstrate the technique, discuss problems encountered and solutions discovered, and show examples of student-teacher interaction during the revision process using this technique.

See the slide show for this presentation at

This presentation refines a technique I have been exploring for the past 7 years wherein I have been getting students to compose in Google Docs or similar online word processing software such as Office 365 and then have them revise using the interactive tools inherent to those platforms. In the past this has involved their initiating their writing process online. 

My last post to this blog in July 2015 was on this topic,
Screenshot (for my slide presentation),

and that post was subsequently published as:
Stevens, V. (2015). Finding Your Voice: Teaching Writing Using Tablets with Voice Capability. TESL-EJ 19 (3) 1-11. Available:

The technique described here has worked well when my students have had devices such as laptops with keyboards, but less well when the students have tablet computers where there is no keyboard. Accordingly, I've been refining techniques to overcome shortcomings in the digital keyboards inherent to most tablet computers and other mobile devices by using voice to help students compose and revise essays on their iPads. 

The problem I need to overcome in my particular context

My students where I teach at the UAE military aviation college in Al Ain do not like to write. They avoid it whenever possible. When they write during class, they are  not inclined to follow through afterwards. When asked to revise, their typical response is “finished teacher,” meaning we did that already and now we're done with it. Revision and writing process are not in their expectations. They see little value in correcting errors. They prefer to sit writing exams with as little preparation as possible.

Writing instruction where I teach is assessment driven. Since the students do so little writing, and are so resistant to it, teachers instinctively use whatever class time they have for writing preparation in test-directed activities. These are formulaic and boring to the students. It seems that no matter what the purpose of the essay (argumentative, etc) many students learn only to begin paragraphs with firstly, secondly, etc. without much regard to internalizing a wider range of cohesive devices.

Some teachers feel that since the essays are usually written out longhand during test, preparation for tests should also be in longhand. I have long felt the contrary, that the format shouldn’t matter as much as the process the students will need to employ while writing their essays in whatever format, but my attempts to get students to write on PCs and iPads have met with limited success, in the first instance due to lack of keyboard proficiency, and in the latter due to a lack of keyboard. 

Writing on iPad is frustrating for me as well, and I will avoid it if at all possible by using a device with a keyboard, or if I’m using an iPad by using voice if possible.

What my students need to know about the writing process

I try to inform my students about the writing process in a handout I give them

In this class, we work using the same WRITING PROCESS
that you should apply when you sit your final writing assessment in this course.

This explains How to follow the PROCESS of WRITING

All good writers revise!
·       In the past, before we had computers,  we had to write or type out multiple drafts, or versions, of what we wanted to write.

·      NOW, with computers, we can write out what’s on our minds in a FIRST DRAFTbut then we think more deeply and change what we wrote in second, third, etc. drafts

Here is the process
·       First draft, get some ideas down on paper or into a word processor
·       Second draft / third draft, go back and
  • Add detail
  • Reorganize for better coherence
  • Find better words
  • Add transition words for better cohesion
  • Check spelling
You will need to follow the writing process on paper by scratching out words, writing between the lines, etc.

Think about your writing as a process you can continually improve by
  • Writing out and submitting a quick 100 word first draft.
  • Revising your draft considering teacher feedback, and thinking about how you can improve it through
a.    Adding detail, improving introductions and conclusions
b.  Better organization, rewording, choosing better connecting words and phrases

  • And then develop your first draft into a 250 word second / third draft
a.       It’s important that you work from and build on your first draft
b.       Work from your teacher’s feedback. Do NOT start over.


Previous iterations of my work have had students composing in Google Docs or in Office 365 (Google Docs is far superior), where I would edit their work and try and get them to correct it. Some students would do this but many wouldn’t, depending on their motivation to learn. One nice thing about Google Docs is that I have records of this kind of work going back years. There is evidence of some student success, such as the video recording I made of my synchronous interactions with one student who clearly benefited from the experience, at least in the moment.

View the screencast here:

Some disadvantages to using tablet devices to begin the writing process

The main disadvantage to using tablets at the early stages of writing is the lack of keyboard. The school where I teach has transitioned from giving earlier cohorts of students PCs to giving them iPads, and for this age group, there have been problems with focus and distraction which are not the topic of this article. As pertains to the present topic, I have noticed that composition on iPads is awkward for my students. They are not able to use voice input themselves for reasons addressed in my earlier work (cited above), so I came up with the technique described here to get them started writing on paper, and having them carry out the revision process on their iPads.

Another disadvantage of students’ composing on Internet-connected devices in general is that they will often pursue one of two counterproductive strategies. One is to copy swathes of text from the Internet and submit it as their work, and the other is to compose in Arabic, run that through a translator, and spew out the result in what I call a 'word salad'. 

There isn’t much to do about the word salad resulting from translation. Since the student’s message does not emerge, I can only tell them to try and rewrite it in their own words. Students will be as overwhelmed with the task of unraveling what it was they were trying to say as I am in trying to help them work it out from the word salad they have put before me, and they see that the best solution is to start over, if they are going to proceed.

Often a simple Google search will expose plagiarism. For example, my Student 1, whose work is described below, submitted this passage (on paper) from something he was copying from his iPad which he had beneath his desk in his lap:

Using voice tools in Google Docs enables me to quickly render text into machine-readable format that can then be pasted into Google. Since I read all my students' work into Google Docs now in order to give them feedback, by doing that I am also in position to quickly check their work for plagiarism. When I read Student 1's work into the iPad, it was transcribed as:

I want to play football but there is an effect of anxiety of badminton players and its relation to the level of accomplishment. This study aimed to investigate the level of anxiety of the badminton players and its relationship to the level of accomplishment. Also the effect of the professional player in developing the level.

By way of feedback, I informed the student that his work was partially copied from the abstract of this study. The study itself was in Arabic but the student obviously lifted from this study of anxiety in badminton players to inform his paper on football.

I asked the student to try again in a later class and the second time he produced the following:

Reading this into Google Docs, I saw,

Football is one of the most famous sports in the world and I like to play the football. Countries and organizations attach great importance to the formation of teams for each country to compete in the world and to represent the country in international and annual competitions, whether annual, monthly, weekly,  or otherwise. This is a very enjoyable sport, as well as a source of income in countries with large teams with high skills that win the world level and gain a strong competitive edge in this field. And I like UAE teams because they are strong teams and I love them, and I like sports because it helps my life.

This time the work was at least on the topic of football, but this was from a student who up to now had produced no original writing in my class. How could he have on his own generated this cohesive and error free text, which incidentally does not address any aspect of football as an extreme sport? By now, in seeing the way I work, my students had begun to find other sources of text that I could not find in Google. They would even challenge me to find it, sometimes gloating when I couldn't, and then double down on their insistence that this was their work. Something like Turnitin might have worked to expose plagiarism, but we don’t have access at the college where I teach. Again having at hand a machine-readable transcription of what they have written enables me to make cloze passages from their work and revert the challenge on them by seeing whether they can fill in any of the missing words. So I gave Student 1 this exercise

Your mark on the paper you wrote for me in class yesterday can be your score on the words that you can replace in this paragraph, which you handed in as your own writing.  If you did not copy this from somewhere, then you will know the words that you used in writing this.

Countries and organizations __________ great importance to the __________ of teams for each country to __________ in the world and to __________ the country in international and __________ competitions, whether annual, monthly, weekly, or otherwise. This is a very enjoyable sport, as well __________ a source of __________ in countries with __________ teams with high skills that win the world __________ and gain a strong competitive __________ in this field.

The student made no attempt to guess that missing words from what he had claimed was his own writing. He did however produce a third version in his own words.

Using teacher voice to help students engage in a writing process 

In order to get the students to produce first drafts of their writing more quickly than they can do it on an iPad and to be able to give them fast and improved feedback on their writing, as well as to counter and discourage these counterproductive strategies, I have my students 
  1. Start writing on paper in class. 
  2. I have them create and share a blank Google Doc with me. 
  3. Once they have done this, I take their papers and speak what they wrote into their shared Google Docs. This corrects their spelling, grammar, and punctuation and gives them something to go on in revising their work in a follow-up class. 
  4. The teacher prints out a hard copy of the student's work, makes some corrections and suggestions there, but in particular addresses more global issues that the student might work on.
  5. This makes further revision much more efficient than with other methods, since what they have written already is rendered into correct English. The students can open the soft copy on their iPads, and they can use their limited time for revision to strengthen arguments or complete the work they started.
Here is an example of what the technique looks like in practice. In this example, Student 2 responds to the writing prompt by writing the following in class, on paper

The student did not appear to address the task very seriously. He wrote 50 words in the 30 minutes assigned to the project, half the number of words the teacher was expecting from the weakest students in the class. Yet this student is not weak. He makes interesting analogies with attacking and hunting regarding the pursuit of balls controlled by opponents while passionately engaged in the 'extreme sport' of soccer. 

Teachers are often at a loss as to how to respond to written student writing in an effective way. All manner of markups have been proposed in the decades I have been teaching. One thing that does not appear to work well is decorating the paper in red squiggles and expecting the student to respond thoughtfully to each squiggle. This is a shame because teachers pour heart and soul, and copious amounts of time, into those squiggles, often with relatively dismissive acknowledgement from the students.

In Student 2's case, teacher takes 5 minutes to read the student's work into Google Docs and produces this in soft-copy, prints it out, and marks it up with suggestions for revision.

In this technique, just the act of reading it into Google Docs is perhaps an effective feedback for the student. The teacher has obviously taken time to literally read the student's work. Students may or may not notice the spelling and grammatical changes, but they are just as likely to not notice them even if they are highlighted in red. Feedback here is focused on what the student should do next. This is designed to keep the student writing. And the time it takes to make suggestions on a printout of a paper that has been "corrected" though voice rendition into text is a fraction of the time it takes to address errors one by one and then provide that valuable holistic feedback.

Here we can see that the student took some of this on board to add more substance to two of the paragraphs, bringing his work much nearer to standard, and addressing the task with more thoughtfulness than before.

In practice some of my students simply ignore the feedback the teacher has provided and might change the topic or start over using one of the counterproductive strategies mentioned earlier, in which case they waste their time and that of the teacher. But those who carry forward with the process can usually improve their work more effectively than if they were revising by hand. For those who follow the process the results have exceeded methods I have tried in the past. 

Here is the work of Student 3 to show how he responded to the technique. This task began with an "essay planner" where the students completed reasons and examples for an advantages / disadvantages essay:

Here the student has converted these points into an essay on paper using a reasonably coherent structure.

The teacher reads this into Google Docs, notes from Google's word count that the work is well crafted but short of the 200 word target (168 words), and returns it to the student. I probably spoke to the student about his work when doing this, offering my suggestions orally.

The student does not respond to the suggestion (in red) that he rephrase the introduction to avoid "lifting" words from the prompt that will not figure into his final word count, but he does add additional information to two paragraphs that significantly improve the paper, highlighted in yellow below.
These small revisions might seem trivial to teachers of students of strong writers who faithfully engage with a writing program, but small victories are significant with students whose English is so weak that their writer's block is rooted in deeply negative attitudes toward something they feel they will never do well. Student 1 was in a class of the weakest students in the institute, and when I started working with them, they would tell me, as if it were all the explanation needed, "We are level 1, teacher." So let us return to the case of Student 1, the one whose first attempts at writing in my class were plagiarized. When I finally got him to see that I would not accept that, he finally, on third try, produced this:

Clap for the student :-)

I read this into Google Docs and was finally able to give him some meaningful feedback.

When the student seemed to still be struggling, I have him an essay planner handout and had him complete it with ideas that would help him organize an acceptable essay. Here is what he did with it:
I recorded this into Google Docs ...
As we see, the student was making progress. I'm not sure what kind of help he was getting from classmates, but as I pointed out earlier, I count success in the fact that the technique employed got the student to persist in his writing and follow a process which he might be starting to internalize. I believe he also benefited from this modicum of success he may not have thought possible as an individual who saw himself as a level one student. 

The students I work with are challenging. Class sizes are large, and many of our students use that to hide out in class and avoid work while the teacher focuses on the more responsive students. Teachers need a technique that will enable them to address the initial efforts of all students quickly and draw them out the way that Student 2 was encouraged to make meaningful revisions in his paper. Having students start the writing process on paper usually gets them to write something, and putting that into Google Docs gives them something to take to the next level without having to re-write anything from scratch. 

I find the technique described here to be an effective way of dealing with several classes which collectively produce several dozen short essays in a day. I can usually address the work of a class of up to 20 students in about an hour, and return them something next class that will get them moving into the next phase of the writing process. The technique seems to work well with some of my students.

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