Category Archives: Jeremy Zhe-Heimerman

Siri and Dragon Dictation for College Students

Many of us know about how Siri can allow a user to give your iOS device voice commands. People with visual disabilities and limited mobility rely on Siri quite a bit, as they can’t interact with their devices as readily in other ways. But Siri and dictation apps like Dragon Dictation are also quite valuable for college students who want to write notes or papers on their devices.

dragon      siri

Many students think better while speaking than while writing or typing. Students with dyslexia or dysgraphia might find it especially difficult to concentrate on content, style, or structure when it can be a chore just to get the words out properly by hand. If you are such a person, you may wish to take notes or write papers by dictating.

Dragon Naturally Speaking, by Nuance, is an application that has been available for PCs and Macs for years. It’s voice recognition capabilities have allowed busy people like doctors and lawyers as well as people with disabilities to dictate their writing to their computers. In the past, Dragon Naturally Speaking required a lengthy training process for the software to learn the voice of the user. High quality microphones needed to be used in consistently the same way for accurate results. Voice recognition has come such a long way, however, that recent versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking and similar apps on mobile devices are highly accurate (although not perfect) upon first use.

Dragon Dictation is Nuance’s iOS app. It’s essentially a bare-bones note-taking app. When starting a new note, one taps the red button and dictates the note. It’s best to speak relatively close to the microphone.

Commonly used voice commands are found by tapping the “i” icon at the bottom right.


One may bring the keyboard up to edit the note within the app.


When finished, one may email, cut or copy, Tweet, or Facebook the note, allowing one to export the note into other apps for further editing or publication.


While Dragon can only be used within its own app, Siri allows one to dictate seamlessly into most any app that allows text input. When the keyboard comes up, just tap the microphone button next to the space bar and dictate away. Tap done when finished and edit using the keyboard if you wish. Here it is in Microsoft Word.


While accuracy wasn’t perfect for me with either Siri or Dragon, it was good enough to give me a first draft to work with.

Since Dragon Dictation is free, Siri comes built into iOS, and both are easy to use and learn, it’s worth trying these out to see if they work for you.

Have you dictated notes or papers? Do you have any tips for others to do the same?

Mac OSX Text-to-Speech

Many don’t realize that OSX includes a very useful text-to-speech tool. This one minute video nicely demonstrates how to use it.

This is a great tool to keep focus on reading a PDF when it’s hard to pay attention to the text. Or maybe you are writing a paper and need to hear your words read back to you while editing. There’s no need to seek out and purchase an app when this is built right into your operating system.

This feature is limited in that one must repeatedly select text and hit the keyboard shortcuts to listen. Additionally, each word is not highlighted while being read aloud. But it’s a perfectly adequate text-to-speech function that many of my students have been satisfied with over the years.

Prizmo for iOS

Prizmo for iOS is a leading scan and read app that may be useful for those of us with dyslexia or visual impairments. The user takes a photo of a document, the app converts it into text, and then it allows one to hear it read aloud or save it as a searchable PDF.

An older version of Prizmo is reviewed with similar apps in this article from a couple years ago that focuses on blind users. Since I’m most familiar with our students with dyslexia, I’ll focus here on its applications for them.

One can easily think of the times this might be useful for a dyslexic student. A professor hands out an exercise or reading in class and you need to listen to it? Open up Prizmo, snap a photo, and plug in the headphones. Stuck with a reading on paper rather than listening to accessible e-text? Use Prizmo page by page. Maybe your instructor posted a reading as an image PDF rather than a searchable one? Open it in Prizmo and make it accessible. (Please note that our students should always be able to get accessible e-text. Just see Jeremy. But this could work in a pinch.)

So this app sounds great, but how well does it work? How good does the image quality need to be for the optical character recognition (OCR) engine to accurately translate the image into text? How well does it read? How easy is it to export the documents to other apps or cloud storage? I put Prizmo through its paces and here’s what I found.


Let’s start with a nicely scanned PDF that a professor may have put on Blackboard without running OCR herself. Will Prizmo be able to make it readable with few to no errors?


Pretty good, I’d say. You’ll see the cursor on the page and the keyboard along with it. That’s to allow one to fix any errors if need be. It was also quite easy to open that PDF up from Dropbox, so I would guess that one should be able to open PDFs or other image files from other sources as well.

Now we’ll move onto those documents you might receive on paper in class. Here’s how Prizmo converted the first page of a syllabus. The syllabus was flat on the desk and the light quality was decent and slightly shaded for my iPad Air’s camera.


Not perfect, but not bad, eh? And if the image quality doesn’t make for the greatest readability, one may adjust the contrast and brightness before running the OCR. Here’s another handout:


And yes, the OCR engine goes beyond English to  recognize 10 common languages and allows one to purchase many others.

What about an article from a journal that is not laying completely flat on the desk?


Hmmm….some major problems here.

It looks like Prizmo is acceptable  for use when one is starting with a high quality scan or photo. But it’s not a cure-all for documents that aren’t prepared well to begin with.


Prizmo includes built in voices and in-app purchases allows one to buy many others. Here’s what it looks like when Prizmo is reading a document. You’ll see the word highlighted as it reads, although it does not have all the features one finds in Voice Dream.



So maybe you want to open that accessible PDF you made in Prizmo in Voice Dream or on another device. One can easily export your document to other apps or to cloud storage. Here’s the above PDF in the original layout view in Voice Dream after exporting.


Final Assessment

Prizmo could be well worth its $10 price to someone often wanting to be able to listen to paper documents and willing to put up with some imperfections. However, its limited accuracy when image quality is less-than-perfect means that we as a college need to continue to provide students with accessible readings that don’t require students to run their own OCR.

Have you used Prizmo? How have you liked it? Have you come across other affordable scan and read apps that have worked for you?


Voice Dream

Voice Dream logoLet’s start this blog off with the app that I’ve heard students praise the most: Voice Dream for iOS. This is a high-quality and low-cost text-to-speech app that allows the user to listen to text files quite easily. Students with dyslexia have found it especially useful, but anyone who wants to listen to a PDF, ePub, DAISY, Word, or Text file on their iPhone or iPad will appreciate its ease of use.

A full review, including an interesting interview with the developer, can be found at LibraryCity, but here are a few of the things that make this a popular text-to-speech app.

  • It’s easy to open files in Voice Dream. Sync your Dropbox, Google Drive, or Bookshare accounts to easily import the files you want to read. Or add whatever is on your clipboard or whatever you type into a text editor.
  • Includes its own web browser so you can listen to web pages.
  • Voices – Comes with Heather, a high quality English voice from Acapela, and allows access to any of the dozens of built-in iOS voices. If that’s not enough, dozens of additional voices in 20 languages are available as in-app purchases for a few dollars each.
  • You may choose to view the original image layout of the PDF while reading or text only. This is helpful when reading a textbook that is filled with photos, charts, and the like that you might want to have an eye on while listening. The below screenshot gives you an idea of what this page view looks like in Voice Dream.

Exact page layout view with sentence highlighted in Voice Dream

  • If viewing just the text on the page, Voice Dream allows you to make only 1, 3, or 5 lines of text visible. Some readers who often find themselves losing their spot on the page have found this especially useful.
  • Voice Dream highlights the words as they are being read aloud to keep the reader focused. If that bugs you, it’s easily turned off. See that feature in the above screenshot and the below text view that also demonstrates only 5 lines visible.

Photo 2

Voice Dream is currently priced at $9.99 at the iOS app store, but I’ve seen it on sale at 50% off or more in the first week of semesters.

I recommend trying out Voice Dream Lite first. Download it for free and listen to 300 characters at a time before having to press play again. Also, you can download any of the extra voices for free to try them out.
Update 2/12/15: Voice Dream Lite is no longer available.

If you have used Voice Dream, how does it work for you? Do you recommend any other good text-to-speech apps? What other types of academic apps would you like to see us review? Please let us know in the comments.