Online writing tools focus on teacher development, student engagement

The rigorous Common Core standards for writing outline the skills that students should be able to demonstrate beginning as early as kindergarten.

If there’s one skill that everyone agrees all students must learn across the curriculum, it’s how to write well—and the move toward adopting the Common Core State Standards adds even greater urgency to this effort.

The rigorous Common Core standards for writing outline the skills that students should be able to demonstrate beginning as early as kindergarten. For example, sixth graders should be able to write arguments to support their claims “with clear reasons and relevant evidence,” among other standards.

“Obviously, the advent of the Common Core will shine a bright light [on writing instruction], and online technology offers a ray of hope and the potential for scalability,” said Ogden Morse, CEO of AcademicMerit.

For years, Morse noted, schools have been using software that scores students’ essays automatically using artificial intelligence technology, which allows students to practice writing and get constructive feedback more frequently than if teachers had to score all drafts by hand.

But these solutions “still must be grounded in sound pedagogy,” he said, “and that’s not easy.”

Most of the conversations about writing instruction, Morse said, focus on the abilities or limitations of automated essay scoring programs, or the struggles of teachers to assign more writing in the face of larger class sizes. “I would argue that, in doing so, we’re overlooking the obvious,” he said, which is “professional development. Student writing won’t improve if writing instruction doesn’t.”

To address this need, AcademicMerit created FineTune, which it calls a first-of-its-kind online professional development tool for supporting teachers in the rubric-based evaluation of student writing.

According to the company, teachers in a district can use FineTune to work toward calibrating their assessment of students’ writing to match up with a comprehensive rubric, the Common Core standards, and each other.

Teachers choose from a database of hundreds of actual student essays and evaluate each essay based on a five-category rubric aligned with the Common Core. They receive immediate, category-by-category comparative scoring and analysis for each essay they score. The, they take built-in assessments to measure the quality of their scoring from the company’s assessment product, Assessments21.

Once they pass these assessments, teachers become approved “readers” for common writing assignments and exams. Supervisors or mentors in the district can use the assessment data to provide focused professional development in support of teachers. The company also acts as a liaison to the district to analyze results and offer suggestions for additional training, as needed.

FineTune recently received the 2012 EdTech Digest Cool Tool Award for Professional Development, and Assessments21 received the Cool Tool Award for Assessment Solutions.

“Right now, educators are being flooded with information about the Common Core,” said Morse. “Our tools are about helping them implement the new standards. … [FineTune] represents an almost entirely new approach to strengthening writing instruction—one that leverages technology, can be accessed on a recurring basis, and is inherently scalable.”

Engaging students

Obviously, the more frequently students write and revise, the more their writing will improve. That’s why Richard Gelb likes working with ETS Criterion, a product for students in grades 4-12 from the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt company Riverside Publishing; he says the software’s many features engage students in the process of writing and encourage them to revise and resubmit their work.

“It teaches them how to revise,” said Gelb, an educator at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago. “In 20 seconds they get feedback, as opposed to waiting days for a response from the teacher.”

Teachers use the software’s Assignment Mode to choose a writing prompt (there are currently more than 200 to choose from), set the parameters of the assignment, and activate student tools. Students then organize their thoughts with one of eight planning templates. If they need to continue the process after school, template content can be saved and opened from any location with internet access.

Once students submit their writing drafts, teachers manage the revision process by selecting level-appropriate “Writer’s Handbooks” and commenting on submitted essays through private message boards or notes within the essay itself.

Students can enhance their essays by reviewing the advice and examples found in the Writer’s Handbooks, by clarifying issues with the teacher through the message boards, or by using the software’s “Trait Analysis Feedback” to score their essays automatically by category: Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Style, and Organization and Development.

“Just like playing a video game, it is human nature to want to go to the next level, and students like to know that they can improve their ‘game,’” Gelb said. “They work to eliminate any mistakes, and they also try to achieve a ‘6’—the highest score.”

He said students also like that they have the freedom to send teachers their papers at any time. “This sense of independence, autonomy, and challenge is very appealing to adolescents,” he noted.

There is also an embedded eMail communication tool that teachers can use to send student reports and a personal message to parents.

“Criterion has helped me become a better instructor of writing,” said Amy Gonzagowski, an educator at Bishop Dwenger High School in Indiana. “As I became more comfortable with the program, I discovered many ways to enhance the experience for my students. We now use it to include many elements of writing, such as transitions, vocabulary, and varying sentence length. … I have seen the length and development of students’ writing improve a great deal, as has been shown through our writing development scores on the [state] exam every year.”

Criterion also provides reports showing educators and administrators how their class, school, or district is performing. Holistic reports help teachers quickly identify error patterns, and student portfolios help track individual growth and instructional needs.

“The Criterion service has been instrumental in the rise of Scott High’s state writing assessment scores,” said Eric Henry, a teacher at Scott High School in Huntsville, Tenn. “While we have been striving over the last four years to better our writing scores, we had been stuck in the 3.4 to 3.6 range [Tennessee uses a six point holistic scale]. … We installed the program in 2005. By the spring of 2006, we had seen a jump to an above-average score of 4.2. We contribute much of the success to the use of Criterion.”

Pearson offers a similar product, called WriteToLearn, which it acquired when it bought Knowledge Analysis Technologies in 2006. Intended for students in grades 4-12, the online program has both an essay writing and a summary writing component.

As with Criterion, students have access to a scoreboard that gives them automatic feedback on their writing, so they can see where they scored well and what skills they need improvement on. The software’s developers recently made all instructions available in Spanish and simple Chinese, said product and sales director Sue Ann Towle, and version 8.0—which will be coming out later this summer—includes many other improvements as well.

During the 2012 International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Diego, Towle previewed some of these enhancements. For example, the latest version will include built-in writing tips, such as a “Think About It” section that offers hints to generate ideas, as well as automated prompts such as “Give the main idea” and “Add sensory detail.”

In version 8.0, students also will answer vocabulary questions before they complete summary writing activities—and these activities will be personalized and adaptive, based on how students do on the vocabulary quiz.

Facilitating peer review

Dave Keller, a social studies teacher at Piedmont High School in California, uses Turnitin’s PeerMark software to facilitate peer review of student writing in his class.

“My goal is not just to help students improve their writing—which, of course, is still a goal—but also to [help them] understand that they’re lifelong learners, not just learners in my classroom. One way I’m trying to help them understand this is through peer review,” said Keller.

PeerMark, which allows students to evaluate each other’s writing online, is part of a suite of software from Turnitin that also includes OriginalityCheck (a plagiarism detection service) and GradeMark (an automated essay scoring tool).

Once students have submitted their writing assignments online through the Turnitin software, teachers can click a button to make the essays available for peer review. Teachers can set up due dates for these reviews and can indicate how many essays should be delivered to each student’s inbox. All reviews are anonymous by default, so students are not aware of who reviewed their writing.

Teachers can choose from among standard rubrics or develop customizable rubrics to guide the peer review process, and they can require a minimum response. Questions can be scaled so that students must rate different parts of the assignment. These sets of questions can be saved for use on other assignments as well.

“Peer editing gives students multiple perspectives on the quality of their writing,” Keller said. It also helps them understand that they are writing for an audience, not just the teacher.

He concluded: “It’s a really great way to help redefine the students’ understanding of who they are as a writer.”

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