Students struggling with writing tend to fall behind in multiple disciplines; however, it can be hard to correct their writing behavior effectively on an individual basis. Amid all of their other demands, many teachers simply don’t have the time to grade student essays every night. That’s where software programs such as SAS Curriculum Pathways’ Writing Reviser come in, users say.
“One of the things that we’d been hearing from teachers was that writing—particularly the review process, and getting students to understand revision—was a skill that a lot of students struggled with,” said SAS Curriculum Pathways Director Bruce Friend. In response to this demand, SAS added Writing Reviser to its Curriculum Pathways program in 2007.
“What Writing Reviser specifically does is take [students’] narrative work and give them feedback on areas where they could improve,” Friend said. The program scores students through feedback in areas such as wordiness, overuse of prepositional phrases, or clichéd jargon, and it provides constructive feedback through artificial intelligence.
“A real strength of Writing Reviser is to give the student nonthreatening feedback,” said Friend.
Katie Higgins, an English teacher at Mooresville High School in North Carolina, is an advocate for the software.
“I’ve used it in the classroom for whole-group instruction, as well as with peer editing and revising in small groups. For homework assignments, I’ll have them use Writing Reviser at home as well,” Higgins said.
One of the boons of Writing Reviser is that it doesn’t automatically correct students’ work for them, instead forcing them to rewrite and edit themselves based on its suggestions.
“I think the greatest aspect of it is that it actually encourages students to think about their writing,” Higgins said. “It really gets students to think about why they’re writing, who they’re writing to, and the best way to organize their writing for the particular audience and purpose.”
“You can’t just click a magic button and say, ‘I’ve eliminated all my wordiness.’ The students still have to go back in and make the edits to their work,” Friend said. “Otherwise, we’d just be teaching them how to use the tool to clean up their work, but not necessarily reinforcing the skill [of revision] itself, so they don’t make that same mistake next time they produce work.”
Writing Reviser also has users look more closely at the grammar and language they’re using, while helping them to identify weaknesses in their writing. For instance, if they’ve used simple sentences for an entire paragraph, it alerts them that they need to vary their sentence structure.
Higgins said that using the program as a daily tool has really improved her students’ willingness to look over their work.
“I’ve definitely seen them more willing to revise their writing. In the past I’ve had students who, as soon as they write a paper, they’re done, and they don’t want to spend a lot more time with it. [This] gets them to look more closely at it, and they’ll spend an hour revising their paper and not even realize it,” she said.
Friend said the program provides educators with information about their students’ program usage.
“It’s very helpful to teachers because they get that [feedback] about the student’s writing, and so it helps them see the students are indeed improving in certain areas,” he said. “It also saves the teachers an incredible amount of time, because we’re providing them this [information] where they can see historically how the student improved.”
He added that Writing Reviser can benefit teachers in unexpected ways.
“It can really promote writing across the curriculum and empower teachers who may not necessarily be writing teachers,” Friend said. “It helps teachers other than English teachers become more comfortable scoring student’s writing.”
The personal corrections that Writing Reviser offers can give students the boost the need to build small successes with their writing skills.
“[Students] want to be better at writing, and I think writing is just a very intimidating skill for a lot of students,” Higgins said. “They originally don’t have any confidence, and seeing that this program really helps them strengthen their writing makes them proud of what they’ve done, and they see the benefits of it.”
Feedback for learners of all levels
Writing Reviser, which is geared toward students in grades 8-12, isn’t the only software program to help students develop their writing skills.
CTB McGraw-Hill’s Writing Roadmap is an online essay-scoring tool available for students in grades 3-12, as well as college students and adult learners. It provides automatic feedback based on the continual writing practice offered. Its goal is to help prepare students for state and national assessments, with writing prompts in four styles: narrative, informative/expositor, descriptive, or persuasive. All materials are delivered online through an easy-to use interface.
The nonprofit Educational Testing Service (ETS), which develops and administers the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, offers a web-based writing evaluation service called Criterion. Like the other programs, it’s based on artificial intelligence that evaluates a student’s writing skills and within seconds provides diagnostic feedback and a holistic score. Students in K-12 schools and colleges use the Criterion service to plan, write, and revise essays using free online planning templates and writer’s handbooks, ETS says. The technology behind Criterion is called the e-Rater Scoring Engine.
iParadigms is best known for its TurnItIn anti-plagiarism software, which checks essays submitted through the program for originality, but the company also offers a service called PeerReview, which facilitates peer review of writing assignments online. What’s more, iParadigms has partnered with ETS to integrate ETS’s e-Rater service into its GradeMark program. This will provide automatic mechanics and grammar checking for papers submitted through GradeMark, right from ETS’s scoring engine, iParadigms says.
Programs such as Writing Reviser and these others encourage students to revise and resubmit their work, which is a key to developing good writing skills. That was recently demonstrated in Derry Township, Pa., where a one-to-one laptop program has led to more frequent writing and revision by middle school students. And that, in turn, has led to gains in students’ writing scores, officials say.
“Since implementing the computer program, our district has seen writing test scores increase at an impressive rate among middle school students,” said Al Harding, director of technology for the district. “The program has been praised by teachers, students, and parents alike, and we’re looking forward to expanding it to additional schools in our district.”
Organizing one’s thoughts
For those who need a bit of help organizing their thoughts before starting the writing process, there is Kurzweil 3000. Particularly appropriate for students with learning difficulties or those struggling to read after third grade, Kurzweil 3000 provides a variety of tools to help improve reading and writing skills.
A reading, writing, test-taking, and learning tool, the software allows students to check their spelling while typing. Writing templates in the software’s Brainstorm format are geared toward learners who work well with graphics, rather than text-based draft writing templates. A “Start Writing” button helps streamline the starting points for writing, making it simple to access draft or brainstorm templates. A “Create Draft” button allows documents to be converted from outlines to drafts ready for expansion, while a “Review” button brings forward a writing checklist, allowing users to make sure they remembered all of their edits.
A research-based, developmentally appropriate handwriting program, ez Write was developed by an early childhood special-education teacher and an occupational therapist, with the objective of improving handwriting during the years of early education. Ez Write offers programs for children in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, along with special education and English language learners.
Students using the software reportedly experience dramatic improvements in the letters per minute they write, as well as the legibility of their writing. The software encourages “automaticity,” or the ability of students to retrieve and produce letters automatically. Grade-level specific packages come ready for use in the classroom, with a training DVD for teachers as well as teacher worksheets and training guides.