You Talk - the Computer Types: How to use the Text to Speech Feature in Windows 2002 & 2003

7/1/2005 5:00:00 AM

Speech to text technology has been around for a number of years, but the technology was not advanced enough for most computer users to want to use it or try to use it. I am happy to say that is not the case anymore. Microsoft has perfected the technology to the point where the average computer user, with a little help, can now talk and watch the computer type.

The ramifications of this now ‘easy to use’ technology are far reaching. For example I can now dictate my E-mails instead of manually typing them. I can now dictate messages to my online students in WebCT instead of manually typing messages to them. I can now also dictate items in Word (like this article) instead of manually typing them. And so can you! Basically you can now use this nifty feature to dictate in any Windows-based program. Keep in mind that this is the key – the feature will work in any piece of software that runs under the Windows operating system and that will accept word processing input.

This technology will also help users who have any type of shoulder-elbow-wrist-finger problems related to repetitive computer usage. Our bodies are not meant to be put into situations where our limbs are doing the same repetitive motions over and over again. But our voice, however, is meant for pretty much non-stop use day after day.

Granted this technology is not perfect and occasionally what I say is not what gets typed. I also still find it easier to format by using the keyboard and mouse. There are formatting commands included with the feature, but it takes time to learn the commands and you need to switch back and forth between two modes. Yes, there are simple formatting commands that will work without switching modes, but complex formatting such as font changes or moving text seems to be best done manually, as formatting by voice seems to be more cumbersome than formatting by traditional means. To get started using the technology, you will need to go through the following steps.

  1. For best results you should have OfficeXP and WindowsXP loaded on your system. You can dictate text in any Microsoft Office XP program, in Internet Explorer 5 or later, and in Outlook Express 5.0 or later. The easiest way to check is to open Word and click on Tools – Speech. If you get into the Office Speech Recognition window, then it is loaded. If you cannot find the Speech menu item or if you click on Speech and you get a window that says something to the effect that this feature cannot be found or you need to insert the XXX CD, then you know that this feature has not been loaded onto your system. You will need to get your Windows CD and install this feature. Talking to your friendly tech person at this point is a good idea.
  2. To use this technology you will need a working microphone, and the higher the quality the better. I also recommend a headset unit. You can purchase a good quality headset unit for between $20-$40. Be sure to get one that has an off/on switch on the microphone cable. More on that later. You may also want to purchase an ‘extension cable’ to use with your head set, as you have to plug in the headset to your computer system. Some of the newer computers have jacks/ports on the front panel for this purpose, but many still have the jacks/ports in the rear. Most of us do not relish the thought of trying to plug and unplug anything from the back of our systems more than once, so this is where the extension cable comes in very handy. You’ll plug the extension cable into the jack/port at the back of your system just once and then plug and unplug your headphones into this extension cable, which should easily reach around to the front. This also is a must if you like to ‘talk and walk’. In other words, some of us like to dictate standing up and pacing back and forth. A long extension cable will allow you to do just that. If you have a computer at work and another at home, taking your head set with you is a must and the extension cable (get more than one) will make that transition easier and a lot less frustrating. They are fairly inexpensive and well worth the extra expense.
  3. To start using the Speech to Text feature, make sure your microphone is plugged into your system, put on your headset, and open Word. Click Tools-Speech and then follow the prompts to get started. As you go through the prompts, you will check to make sure your microphone is working correctly and your system will adjust to your microphone accordingly. You will then go through some’ voice training’. In order for the speech to text feature to work properly, you must train your system to understand your voice. Basically you will be reading text on the screen and your system will record all the data it needs about how your voice sounds and how you pronounce words. The more training you do the better the speech to text feature will work. I have done as little as 10 minutes, but 20-30 minutes would probably be a better. Once you have ‘trained your computer’ you are ready to start dictating.
  4. Once you have gone through the training you will notice a new toolbar on top. This is called the Language toolbar. If you minimize the toolbar it will appear below the status bar as either a microphone icon on the letters EN. To bring the toolbar back up click on either of those. To start, make sure your cursor is at an appropriate place on your Word document and click the Microphone button. The Dictation button will be selected. Begin speaking. You will see a number of periods as you are speaking. Once you have stopped speaking the periods/dots will turn into your text. You should speak in sentences or phrases. You can also say simple formatting command without having to change modes. For example you can say “period,” “comma,” or “new line” and you will get just that.

Some additional points to keep in mind. Turn off your microphone when you are not dictating. Otherwise whatever you say to a colleague will also appear on your screen, whether you like it or not, if the mike left on. This is where that off/on switch on the mike cable comes in handy.

Be aware that background noise when you are dictating will sometimes ‘confuse’ your system. It cannot easily differentiate between your words and other sounds, like a hallway full of exuberant students,so try to dictate in a quiet environment for best results.

To dictate in any other program aside from Word, do the following.

  1. Open your program, (E-mail, WebCT, Excel)
  2. Place the cursor where you want to start.
  3. Put your head set on and make sure the mike is ‘on’.
  4. Click on the EN or microphone icon at the bottom of the screen to bring up your language toolbar. If for some reason you cannot find the EN or microphone button, open Word and Click Tools-Speech and go through the steps above again.
  5. Click on the Microphone button
  6. Start speaking

You can also see more Speech features and options if you go to the Control Panel (Start – Settings – Control Panel) and then click the speech icon.

Happy Dictating

Laura Turner

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