I Write With My Voice: How Dictation Helps Me Handle College Writing

Nov 28, 2016

Caida Mendelsohn/Understood, The Inside Track blog post

Writing isn’t easy. Thinking of what you want to write, how to say it, and then getting the words down on paper can be difficult for everyone at times. Because of my dyslexia and ADHD, however, writing has always been especially hard for me.

Sometimes, I’ll compose a sentence in my head, and then forget it before I can write it down. Or when I’m writing, I’ll have a word in mind to use, but because I can’t spell it, I’ll pick some other word. I often have a hard time just getting into the rhythm of writing. It simply takes me more mental energy and work to write than it does for most people.

I did very well with writing in high school because we weren’t required to do a lot of long-form, out-of-class essay writing. Instead, most of the writing we did was in-class, timed essays because that’s what students are asked to do on the SAT, ACT and AP exams. It also helped that I had accommodations like extended time and no points off for bad spelling if my teacher could understand what I’d meant to write. I didn’t need anything else.

So when I graduated from high school and started at a small liberal arts college, the writing requirements came as a shock.

All first-year students at my school were required to take a “writing intensive” course. The purpose of this course was to teach students to write at college level through extensive practice. Over the course of my first semester, I wrote almost 50 pages for this course alone. I had a very hard time adjusting to the amount and quality of out-of-class writing that was expected.

Thankfully, during student orientation, I was able to meet with the head of disability services at my school. We went over my schedule and the accommodations I’d received in high school. Then she mentioned that assistive technology—like dictation software and audiobooks—had helped other students with similar learning and attention issues.

When I began to struggle with writing during the first few weeks of school, I decided to give these tools a try. The first time I tried dictation, I started to see how this tool could help me.

As a person with ADHD and dyslexia, I have difficulty with working memory and information processing. Dictation helped ease the strain of trying to remember sentences before writing them down. It also made it easier for me to put my thoughts into words.

I think that’s because dictation incorporates one of my biggest strengths—talking—into my writing process. I’m a very verbal person. I have a much easier time expressing my thoughts out loud instead of physically writing them down. Dictation allows me to talk out my ideas aloud.

The benefits of dictating my papers didn’t come right away, however. Learning to use your voice to organize a paper, as well as construct sentences and paragraphs, takes time. It was almost a semester before I was comfortable using the software, and refining my skills has been an ongoing process. I had to retrain myself to compose sentences verbally and say punctuation out loud.

This was my first time using dictation software. I went through my entire K–12 career without anyone mentioning it as an alternative way of writing. If I had known about dictation earlier, I would have asked my parents and my school to include it in my 504 plan.

Dictation isn’t perfect, however. If I don’t articulate words clearly, sometimes the software mistakes one word for another. For example, “present” and “president” sound alike, and dictation software sometimes confuses them. Spell-check won’t pick up this error because the word is spelled correctly, even though it makes no sense in context. Also, when I’m dictating quickly, I sometimes forget to add in punctuation, or mistakenly say the wrong command.

Today, I have about two years of dictation practice under my belt. Personally I find it more useful for writing rough drafts of papers than for editing and refining them. I end up keyboarding to polish and finish my papers, which still takes me a lot of time.

Overall, though, dictation has helped me adjust to college-level writing. It helps that I supplement it with other tools and tricks to aid my writing. For instance, I have a hard time reading text on the computer, so I print out my papers to edit them. My mom, who also has dyslexia, also taught me a trick for editing papers—start at end of the paper and read it backwards. This helps me catch and correct any errors.

Students like me with learning and attention issues have a lot to express about the world. We can come up with creative, thoughtful, smart things to say, but we sometimes need a little help putting our ideas into writing. And that’s where dictation can help. I write, but I write with my voice.

Get more information on assistive technology to help with writing. Compare different software programs for writing. You can also explore free online tools to help kids with reading, writing and math issues.

Any opinions, views, information and other content contained in blogs on Understood.org are the sole responsibility of the writer of the blog, and do not necessarily reflect the views, values, opinions or beliefs of, and are not endorsed by, Understood.

Caida Mendelsohn is a student at Smith College, and has ADHD and dyslexia.