Technology a key tool in writing instruction

“You can leverage the internet to get student writers responses on their work. There are tools that allow us to publish and take response from a wider range of people than just classmates,” she said. “You can leverage the internet to [expand the students’ audience] through things like blogs. … And wikis can be used to encourage collaboration.”

In this day and age, almost all writing is done by using technology, Eidman-Aadahl said.

“Writing is one of the areas that is most involved in [using] technology. Technology is the very means of writing. It’s the way we reach audiences today,” she said.

Tools for teaching writing

There are also a number of products available to help teach students the writing basics.

Criterion, an online writing evaluation tool from Educational Testing Service (ETS), aims to help students in grades four through 12 plan, write, and revise essays in any subject.

With the increased pressure to perform well on state assessments, combined with the lack of time to teach separate reading and writing lessons, teachers are using the service as a flexible tool to help with writing instruction. Students are able to submit an essay and have it instantly scored for things such as spelling and grammar, vocabulary, transitions, and structure.

“Criterion has added an important piece to our writing instruction and assessment. Students are empowered with quick feedback and helpful guidance on specific areas of their writing, and teachers have data to help guide writing instruction. We are seeing student enthusiasm for writing going up, along with improved student understanding of what it takes to write well,” said Heather Elliot, curriculum and assessment coordinator for Hamilton Heights Middle School in Indiana.

Elliot said the instant feedback students are able to get is something that motivates them to write more.

“It took me away from being the evil grader … and puts you on the same team with the kids,” she said.

The 2009-10 school year was the first year the program was fully implemented at Hamilton Heights, but students used Criterion during a writing rotation for a few weeks the previous school year.

“While we are assessing student writing both formally and informally on a regular basis, standardized testing information has come to be widely valued, and our students’ test scores are definitely going up,” Elliot said.

For example, 89 percent of Hamilton Heights eighth-graders passed the writing applications section of the state exam this past spring, whereas only 77 percent of the same class of students passed the test in spring 2009.

ETS executives acknowledge the program can’t do everything for teachers.

“The teacher can also make comments on issues in the body of the essay,” said Bob Haller, manager of Criterion Services. “When [the software] gives the assessment, it’s not just how the student did, but also where the student needs to improve.”

The program includes a writers’ handbook that gives instruction with a glossary and suggested ways for students to revise their essays. While the students submit their essays in English, the handbook is available in Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and simplified Chinese as well, Haller said.

Another technology-based writing tool is Vantage Learning’s MY Access!, which allows teachers to assign essays by either selecting from an extensive prompt bank or creating a question of their own. MY Access! offers feedback in six languages as well.

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