How Online Tools Can Make Teaching Writing Easier
by Kelly Ogan, English Teacher at South Kitsap High School in Washington
This content is sponsored by Turnitin
Using online tools to support writing instruction can have significant benefits for both students and teachers.
Online writing tools that provide automated feedback give students more opportunities to practice their writing, without placing an additional burden on already over-stressed teachers—and the more opportunities that students have to write and get feedback, the more their skills will improve.
In my English classes at South Kitsap High School in Washington state, students are using Turnitin’s Revision Assistant to practice their writing skills. We are new to this technology, but we are thrilled by what we have seen so far.
At the high school level, the amount of grading in writing-heavy classes can be a bit overwhelming. With this online writing tool, students can get more practice in their written responses to a wide variety of prompts, without burying teachers under an increased workload.
What’s more, students receive immediate feedback on their writing, without having to wait for me to grade their papers. They simply click on the “Signal Check” button, and they can see very specific comments about various aspects of their writing, including things like content/ideas, organization, evidence, and conventions.
Revision Assistant is just one of many online writing tools available. However, not all of these tools are designed equally. With so many options out there, it can be a daunting task to sift through all the choices. Here are four key features to look for in a high-quality online writing tool.
4 Benefits Of Teaching Writing With Online Tools
1. Alignment with writing standards
This might seem like a no-brainer, but not all tools keep standards alignment in mind in their design. Learning doesn’t happen unless students have specific skills improvement goals they are trying to achieve—and teachers and students should be able to measure progress against those goals.
The Common Core standards identify the writing skills that students should be refining at each grade level. For example, students should be able to shift their writing mode from expository, to argumentative, to narrative. Revision Assistant aligns very well with this particular skill, as well as with the other Common Core writing standards.
2. Timely, relevant feedback
One of the biggest challenges for me as an English teacher is giving students both timely and meaningful feedback. While I would never use an online writing tool as a replacement of my role, I cannot possibly give all my students as much feedback as I would like.
With Revision Assistant, students can request feedback as frequently as they want, and the feedback is both positive and constructive. With a limited amount of time in the day, I might write “awkward” on a student’s paper, but he might not know how to revise the sentence to make it more fluid. Revision Assistant offers specific suggestions so that students know what they can do to improve.
For example, my students recently responded to one of the software’s narrative prompts, and one of my students received this comment to help him improve his narrative techniques: “Look at some of your favorite books and see how those writers write dialogue.”
As a suggestion to help him improve his style, he received this comment: “The details are a little fuzzy here. Your intro needs to paint the picture of the setting or characters with strong and specific details.”
In total, he received 8-10 specific comments like this on his paper. With 150 students, I just don’t have the time to write this many detailed comments on every paper.
3. Opportunities to differentiate instruction
Teachers should have an easy way to differentiate instruction for every student, and online writing tools are no exception. With Revision Assistant, for example, I can assign a prompt for students who need some intervention or additional practice, and I can assign a different prompt to students who are ready for enrichment.
4. New ways to engage students
Digital writing tools should facilitate engagement in deep, meaningful ways. When evaluating writing tools, ask yourself, “How will this help my students engage with the entire writing process?” In other words, how will the software help students understand what good writing looks like, how to work through the development of a piece, and how to evaluate their own work critically?
Revision Assistant provides a prompt and a prewriting step for students to deconstruct and then plan. Some students still choose to complete their prewriting on their own paper, because they are more comfortable with strategies they have been using for years. Others choose to complete their prewriting digitally, and the program transfers their ideas into the drafting step.
Revision Assistant also encourages students to revise, revise, revise. The program is set up like the Wi-Fi signals on your phone: The more bars you see, the better the signal. When students click on the Signal Check button, they see how many bars they have for each category that is being assessed (such as language, technique, organization, or conventions).
I’ve noticed quite a few students are motivated by that, almost in a competitive way. When some discover they only have two bars, they add more text or revise some of their writing, then immediately hit the Signal Check again. It’s fun to listen to them celebrate when they see the number of bars increase.
If a digital writing tool measures progress against specific writing goals, serves up actionable feedback, provides opportunities to differentiate instruction, and facilitates meaningful engagement, then it should lead students to take ownership of their work.
With Revision Assistant, I have noticed that students’ confidence in their writing is growing—and they are definitely writing and revising more frequently. Any time a student puts his ideas into words and then receives suggestions or praise, I think the student benefits.
We are still relatively new to this program, so I’m sure there is more to learn. But so far, we have been very excited by what we are seeing and by the possibilities in the future!
Kelly Ogan is an English teacher at South Kitsap High School in Washington.
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