Talking Documents

On the Internet

Talking Documents

John Higgins
Centre for English Language Teaching
University of Stirling, Scotland, UK

(NB: A sample document has been uploaded to the CELIA Archive, a collection of language learning documents and software kept at two different sites on the Internet. One way of reaching CELIA is to use ftp to and login as anonymous. Then give the command cd/pub/celia/english/listening/dos. The file to download is called It is for a PC. The file type should be set to binary for downloading, and the file needs to be unzipped when received. It is for a PC only.)

Colleagues may be interested to hear of some work I have been doing using talking documents. These are word-processor documents which can be displayed on screen or printed on paper. They have sound files embedded in them, so that while they are displayed you can listen to the sounds over headphones or a loudspeaker by using a mouse to double-click on an icon in the document.

The documents can be created by anybody who has Windows 3.1 and a machine equipped with a sound card available both for themselves and for their students. This tends to limit them to institutions who have re-equipped in the last eighteen months, since sound cards have only recently become common on new PCs. Macintosh users have had the equivalent for years, of course.

You do not need to buy any software, since it is available as part of the operating system. I work with Windows Write and the Windows Sound Recorder. You could also use any modern Windows word- processor and a different .WAV editor, though I prefer to stay with the Windows-installed products (rather than new software) to maximise compatibility. You will need to have a microphone attached to one of the machines in order to make the recordings, and student machines should ideally have a headset to avoid disturbing other users. Excellent microphones can be purchased at low cost (though the cheapest headsets have a tendency to snap off when worn by people with large heads).

There are two main kinds of document, passive documents designed just to be read and listened to, and active documents which allow students to type responses while they listen. Neither kind offers any immediate feedback, of course; Windows Write is a simple wordprocessing program.

The passive documents I have made include English vowel sounds, Introduction to intonation, and Homophones and homographs. Anywhere in the text that I want to record an example, [-1-] I select Insert object from the Edit menu and Sound from the list of objects. This starts the Sound Recorder program. I record from the microphone, re-recording until I am satisfied, and using the Delete before and Delete after options to trim off unnecessary silences. Then I select Exit and click Yes when asked to update. The document now has a microphone icon at that point and will have grown by about 10K for every second of sound. That may seem rather a heavy use of memory, but I find a minute or so of single words and short phrases, recorded without pauses, is a lot of data. Most of my documents are well under a megabyte. When you want to store these files on diskette, they can be made smaller with a compression program (for example, PKZIP, which is readily available as shareware) to about half their original size.

Active documents are essentially dictation exercises. You could make them in the same way and make multiple copies, one for each person in the class, but that might use up unacceptable amounts of disk space. Another method is linking; if I want to make a listening and gapped dictation exercise, consisting of three short paragraphs lasting about 15 seconds each, I first write the master version, with the parts I intend to gap out in italics:

Could I just have your attention please. There are one or two announcements before we break up for lunch.

First of all, could you all make sure you have registered and collected your room keys. And if you have come by car, could you make sure you leave it in one of the bays numbered 14 to 60.

One other thing, theres been a change on the programme. Professor Watson couldnt make it, so his paper is cancelled, but we hope to put something else in that slot. So put a question mark on Friday at 10, please.

I save that in a directory I call TALKDOX as ANSWER.WRI. (If you dont specify the directory, both Write and Sound Recorder usually save all files in the Windows directory.) In my case, I am making the recordings in my office and transferring them via floppies to another room, so I have to be careful to maintain the same directory structure on both machines so that the linked files will be found.

Now I replace all the italicised phrases with dots. I minimise Write and start Sound Recorder. I record the first paragraph and save that as PARA1.WAV. I press Ctrl-C to copy it to the Clipboard. I minimise Sound Recorder and restore Write. I put the cursor at the start of the text and select Paste link from the [-2-] Edit menu. A microphone symbol appears in the text. Then I minimise Write, restore Sound Recorder, choose New from the Sound Recorder File menu, and record the second paragraph. I save it as PARA2.WAV and use Ctrl-C to copy it to the clipboard, go back to Write, put the cursor at the second paragraph and again choose Paste link from the Edit menu. Then I repeat the whole process for the next paragraph. At this point I will look at the whole layout, add instructions at the beginning in a smaller font, and then put the rest of the document into a font just large enough to fill the screen, usually 18 point. The file gets saved first as TASK.WRI. Then, using the Save as.. option on the File menu it gets saved over and over again under the names of students, creating KIKUMI.WRI, MARTIN.WRI, etc. Each file is quite short, since it contains only a link to the sound files, not the sounds themselves.

The next stage is to exit from both programs. Copy all the files to a directory on the machine that students have access to. Run Windows and open up a suitable Program Manager window. Select New from the Program Managers File menu. This asks you to choose group or item. Press Enter for the default Item. Then select Browse, look through the list for the .WRI files with the students names and select them one at a time. When you select them, each will appear in the active Program Manager group window under a Write Icon labelled with that students name. Unfortunately, you have to repeat the process for each student; I havent found a way to select a group of files for this process or to automate the whole process with the Macro Recorder.

Students see their file and can start it by double-clicking with the mouse. Unfortunately, at this point they will see a dialogue box asking them if they want to update the links. It doesnt matter if they choose Yes or No, but they need to be warned about the message or they will be worried about doing the wrong thing. Now they see the text and can listen to the recordings as often as they want and fill in the missing words. When they are ready they can exit and say Yes when asked if they want to save the changed version.

A few days later I will come along and check the work (looking to see which files have chaged dates). I open up ANSWER.WRI at the bottom of the screen and their version at the top. I highlight any errors and press Ctrl-U to underline them; then I copy and paste what it should have been from ANSWER.WRI (where it is in italics). At the very end I will add a comment, usually Well Done! using a script font. Then I save the students file and change its name, using the Properties.. option in the Program Manager File menu, so that KIKUMI.WRI becomes KIKUMI OK on screen, so that she can see that the work has been seen.

There is one awkward feature which students should be shown as it can cause hiccoughs. When you click on the microphone icon, it is [-3-]

There is one awkward feature which students should be shown as it can cause hiccoughs. When you click on the microphone icon, it is highlighted. To the word-processor it is just another character, and if you touch the keyboard at that point it will vanish. Users must double-click the icon to hear the sound, and then they must move the text cursor to another place in the document. I wish Microsoft could do something to make the links unerasable by accident.


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