As the blocks come off technology in exams, Sal McKeown reckons Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 is ready

Dragon NaturallySpeakinAnywhere anytime dictation: Dragon styleI was a very early adopter of voice recognition. I used it for the first time some 15 years ago to help a student whose dissertation had disappeared from her hard disc. I dictated 3,000 words from a tatty print-out and I could not believe how accurate it was.

I was a convert and demoed it to various groups around the country. I have to say that it worked better in my kitchen than in exhibition halls or training suites and I never achieved that same level of accuracy in public that I enjoyed at home. Having just tried the latest version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, published by Nuance, I suspect it has become more robust and will travel better.

Voice recognition technology is likely to become very big news. The Government wants a greater emphasis on formal examinations and a reduction in coursework. This will challenge learners  who have difficulties with reading and writing under pressure. However, awarding bodies for qualifications have to comply with the duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make "reasonable adjustments" for students with disabilities.

This means that, provided that students would normally use technology in their lessons, for homework and formal assessments in schools, they will be able to use it for an exam.  In fact, the Joint Council for Qualifications says: “Where the centre has approval for the use of a scribe and where it reflects the candidate’s normal way of working within the centre, as appropriate to his/her needs, the candidate may alternatively use… voice activated computer software which produces hard copy with predictive text when the candidate dictates into a word processor. Software (a screen reader) may be used to read back and correct the candidate’s dictated answers.”

With these changes, it is likely that schools will be encouraging pupils to try the technology in an attempt to boost results.

Is Dragon really '99 per cent accurate'? Sometimes

Dragon NaturallySpeaking promises that students will be able to dictate papers and assignments three times faster than typing, with up to 99 per cent accuracy. Given that most students seem to be two-finger typists with lamentably slow typing speeds, most will input text with voice recognition four or five times faster than at present and it has the added advantage that all the words will be correctly spelt. However, does it deliver 99 per cent accuracy?

I have to say it seems to live up to its promise, although in the early stages it was a little frustrating. The package took a long time to download so it is not the sort of thing you should try in the hour or so before meeting the student user. Make sure you have set it up the night before at the very least. Above all, do invest in a decent headset. So many people say they don’t get on with voice recognition when in fact they are using a cheap old microphone someone has dug out of the back of a cupboard. The more effort you put in at the early stages, the better the final result.

I was a little disappointed in the training materials on offer. When I worked at Becta we spent a lot of time talking about the need for simple approaches and simplified text for young people who were poor readers but the passages on offer still require high level reading skills. Two of the passages are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Kennedy’s Inaugural Speech, neither of which has great child appeal for slow readers. I chose the easiest option which was a children's story about a singing pig. It looked simple at first but had the words "Carnegie", "Lucille", "Beethoven" and "Mozart" in it. Many weak readers would need prompting with these words.

Of course the full version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking which I trialled lets you control the operation of the computer and open and close other programs too. However, in this review I have concentrated on dictation as that is what most pupils in school will use it for (For more detail, along with explanatory videos, see also Chris Drage's "Talk to the most articulate 'Dragon' of them all".)

Learn the lessons to build up the accuracy

All the words were accepted at the first attempt by the training program but when I came to dictate a passage from the magazine That’s Life about a woman whose new man turned out to be a con artist, Dragon made more mistakes. Perhaps the software could not quite believe what I was saying or is not very keen on scandal sheets. Next I dictated a passage from Wikipedia about Bridlington which was 99 per cent accurate (see reproduction of That's Life dictation, with corrections highlghted, at the foot of this page). The lessons learned?

  1. The enrolment is just one stage. Don't take the view that once you have dictated the passages the software is fully trained. You need to read lots of passages to help the software become attuned to your voice, and the more you use it the more accurate it becomes;  
  2. The latest version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking works with a Mac which is excellent news for all those at university who have gone down the Mac route;
  3. The new version will work with a voice recorder – again, as with a microphone, the brand and quality will be an issue but here is  a full list of suitable voice recorders on the Nuance website;
  4. It is off-putting to see the text going up on screen because nothing happens for what seems like ages and then chunks of text appear – I found it better not to look – or maybe turn off the screen in the early stages and dictate a long passage;
  5. Make sure the learners who use it do so regularly, especially if you plan to introduce it in examinations – remember, voice recognition must be students' 'normal way of working', not a last-minute strategy to try and boost their grades.

Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose  5
Ease of use              4
Features                  5
Quality                     5
Value for money      5

Dragon NaturallySpeaking Pro 12
Nuance speech-recognition software, available with package including CD or as software download from the Nuance website: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Professional, £549.00; Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Professional Upgrade, regular price £179, promo £143.20; Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Premium Education, £99.99; Dragon Dictate for Mac 3, £129.99; Dragon Dictate for Mac 3 Wireless (lets you control computer by voice too), £229.99 (All prices include VAT). Special pricing for education can be found here.
It's also worth checking out Amazon prices, for example £54.25 for home edition of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, or £79.99 for the Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 12.0, Educational Online Validation Program (PC) 

DragonThe kinds of corrections you are likely to make with 'Dragon NaturallySpeaking': more practice, fewer corrections

Sally McKeownSal McKeown is a freelance journalist. Her book, How to Help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child, is published by Crimson Publishing. Brilliant Ideas for Using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom, co-authored with Angie McGlashon, was shortlisted for an Education Resources Award