While there are still many obstacles facing teachers in implementing technology, teachers play a critical role in driving the use of technology to teach writing, says a recent report by the National Writing Project (NWP) and the College Board.
In the report, “Writing, Learning, and Leading in the Digital Age,” nine teachers—selected for their commitment to excellence and for a diverse set of disciplines, locations, kinds of schools, and student populations they represent—were observed by a writer for one day and then interviewed.
“The best way to make the case for technology and writing was to show how technology is being used,” said Alan Heaps, vice president for advocacy at the College Board.
The report found that the use of Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, podcasts, wikis, and comics-creating software can heighten students’ engagement and enhance their writing and thinking skills in all grade levels and across all subjects.
“The experience of these nine teachers reminds us of the central role they play in true education reform. It’s teachers who are the technology drivers, seeking out digital tools, learning them, testing them, and finally implementing them successfully in their classrooms,” said Sharon J. Washington, executive director of NWP.
The College Board and NWP recommend that three things be done to meet the challenges of teaching and learning in the digital age at all levels of education, said NWP co-director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl.
First, every student needs one-on-one access to computers or mobile technology in classrooms.
“Technology can’t have an impact on children if they don’t have access,” Eidman-Aadahl said.
Second, every teacher needs professional development in the effective use of digital tools for teaching and learning, including the use of digital tools to promote writing. Teachers need an opportunity to use technology themselves so they can share what they learn with the students, she said.
Finally, all schools and districts need a comprehensive technology policy to ensure that the necessary infrastructure, technical support, and resources are available for teaching and learning.
“The idea of just putting in a computer is a huge failure unless [schools] have a computer policy for teaching technology in the schools,” Heaps said.
Eidman-Aadahl urged teachers to rethink what writing is. She said writing is not just text anymore—something echoed by Joel Malley, a teacher who was profiled in the report.
“We are preparing kids for a different world—a world where they need to know how to tell compelling stories. And the types of stories that are compelling these days are not just print stories,” said Malley, an English teacher from Cheektowaga High School in New York who also uses video to engage his students.
“When kids make a video about something, they know it a lot better than if they were writing a research paper … When it is more real, they are more engaged; they are more motivated, but they also try harder.”
Students also must have an opportunity to write about real issues and for a real audience outside of their classroom. They should be able to get responses from other students in and out of the classroom, and to collaborate on writing projects. All of these things, Eidman-Aadahl said, can be done by using the internet.
“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.
Vantage Learning offers its customers a three-part training experience. Teachers learn how to use the program, then they learn how to develop in-depth action plans based on student performance, and finally they learn how to use the MY Access! online community.
“It cannot and does not replaces a teacher,” said Stephanie Dixon, manager of professional services for Vantage Learning. “It’s impossible to throw a program into a classroom [and expect results] without proper training.”
Kathy Bari, director of educational technology for the Capistrano Unified School District in California, said her district uses MY Access! because it helps students build writing skills while freeing teachers to do more one-on-one work with students.
“It eliminates a lot of the time-consuming elements of teaching,” she said. “And it keeps kids really moving through the curriculum.”
MY Access! 
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the How technology can help with language instruction resource center. Learning a foreign language is an increasingly important skill for success in the global economy—and learning to speak and read English fluently is vital to the success of ESL students. Fortunately, students and educators have more language acquisition resources at their disposal today than ever before.
How technology can help with language instruction