Online writing tools focus on teacher development, student engagement

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.”

Meris Stansbury

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