Prompted by the federal No Child Left Behind law and state mandates for improved proficiency in writing and other skills, district leaders have intensified their focus on writing in elementary and middle schools. Many are integrating word-processing software and other technology tools into their curricula to strengthen the instructional and assessment elements of their writing programs, some of which are simply homegrown. Some are piloting the technology in single schools, while others are implementing it districtwide.
Regardless of whether or not products are helping, writing scores are increasing slightly. According to The Nation’s Report Card in 2007, average writing scores for students in grades 8 and 12 were higher than in previous assessments in 2002 and 1998. The average writing score for eighth-graders was three points higher than in 2002 and six points higher than in 1998. For seniors, the average score in 2007 was five points higher than in 2002 and three points higher than in 1998.
In Maine, where all seventh- and eighth-graders have their own laptops, wireless networking and Internet access since 2002, the average score on the state writing achievement test in 2005 was 3.44 points higher than in 2000, meaning the average student in 2005 scored higher than two-thirds of all students in 2000, according to the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine. In Maine’s Middle School Laptop Program: Creating Better Writers, researchers reported last year that using laptops helped students become better writers overall, not just better writers using laptops. Some administrators and teachers suggest that using outside technological resources that help them develop successful writing programs is driven not just by pressure to improve students’ writing but also by the learning environment in which children are comfortable.
Students are digital natives and have no fear of a keyboard. “When they move past the paper and pencil, they are willing to spend more time on their writing and it is easier for them to expand on topics and flesh out what they write,” says Sue McGuier, a former English teacher who now is county test coordinator in the Ohio County (W.Va.) Schools.
“Kids are really in with the technology. Even 9-year-olds text message to each other. It’s their mindset,” adds Mae Guerra, who used a computerized writing program, Write-ToLearn, last year in her fourth-grade class at Valverde Elementary School in the Denver (Colo.) Public Schools. “They have computers at home and they are bored writing on paper. To me, it’s important to get where they are, and since even little kids now are technologically advanced, we have to teach to that level to keep them interested,” Guerra declares.
To enable teachers to teach to that level, districts are investing in technology that helps students learn the mechanics of writing—spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation and sentence construction—and also how to shape the content of what they write so that they clearly express what they are trying to get across and support it with facts or reasoned statements. Further, the programs include technology that assesses the correctness and quality of what the pupils write and provides instant feedback to them and their teachers.
With the Web-based learning tool that Guerra used—WriteToLearn, a product from Pearson—students practice essay writing and summarization skills, and their efforts are reviewed by automated assessment technology that evaluates their writing by examining whole passages, not just grammatical correctness or spelling.
In her class of 22 mostly Hispanic fourth-graders, 13 of whom were officially classified as English Language Learners, nearly all began the year with “unsatisfactory” scores in writing on the Colorado state assessment. Most students reached the “proficient” level in writing over the first three months of the school year.
Once a week, Guerra’s students read texts about different subjects—for example, California’s gray whales—and were instructed to write a summary of what they read, first by hand. “One of the key concepts they needed to learn was writing main ideas and finding the details to support their main ideas,” Guerra says. She helped individual students and small groups find the main ideas, and then students found details in the text to support it, Guerra explains. Then they went to the school’s computer lab, where each one typed a summary and received immediate feedback about whether it was “on point.” For those students who missed, they returned to the text and found the details they needed to make it better, Guerra says. “It may seem kind of risky doing that in an elementary grade where kids are still learning about paragraphs and learning how to type,” she continues. “But text nowadays is really wonderful on the computer. It gives them a feeling of achievement to see their work on the screen, and they love the instant feedback.”
Before moving to Texas this year to be closer to her family, Guerra used Write-ToLearn in a pilot program at Valverde, where it was incorporated into the writing curriculum, says Ardell Rivera-Francis, Valverde’s principal. “Because we got such nice results from it,” the school is expanding use of the technology, Rivera-Francis says. She says Pearson offered to train all fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in how to use WriteToLearn and also gave the school 15 laptops on which to run the program. But Valverde is the only school in the Denver district using it in a continuing pilot project, and it probably will be up to district administrators to take it into moreschools, Rivera-Francis says.
Practice Makes Perfect
In the Ohio County (W.Va.) Schools, another program, Writing Roadmap 2.0, a product of CTB/McGraw-Hill, is being used this year districtwide in grades 3-12. The state department of education piloted the online essay scoring tool statewide three years ago and reported last year that data analysis showed “strong and consistent evidence of a relationship” between practice with the program and student performance on the West Virginia Online Writing Assessment.
During a presentation at the conference last year—the Annual National Conference on Large-Scale Assessment—representatives of CTB/McGraw-Hill and the West Virginia Department of Education stated, “Although it is clear that those at higher performance levels were more likely to practice and practiced with more trials than those at lower levels, there is convincing evidence that practice improves performance for students at all performance levels.”
“The Writing Roadmap rubric generally aligns with the rubric we use in scoring our assessment. Our teachers feel it is a valid practice instrument for our assessment,” says McGuier.
Using writing prompts in the program, Ohio County English teachers assign essay topics to students in one of four styles—narrative, informative/expository, descriptive and persuasive. Aside from automated and instant scoring of student work—“in about six seconds,” says McGuier—the technology helps teachers quickly identify students who need help with their writing and also generate reports about individual students they can share with parents.
That’s a benefit as well of MY Access, a product of Vantage Learning, which is in every fifth-grade classroom in the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Public Schools. The district is close to implementing it in grades 6-10, says Helen Starman, chair of the Initiative for Excellence Committee of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Education Foundation, which funded the grant to the district to pay for the program.
“It gives teachers information to direct their instruction,” Starman says. “It might tell a teacher, ‘Half your kids are not using commas well.’ Then the teacher can create a mini-lesson on commas. It also gives teachers time to work with students who need help individually while the others in the class work independently.”
In the Bend LaPine (Ore.) School District, teacher Laurie Walsh uses a lesson plan book—Kidspiration in the Classroom: Writing Essentials, a product of Inspiration Software—as the core of her writing program in her fourth- and fifth-grade class at Buckingham Elementary School. In one exercise, while studying the national parks, Walsh asked students to address a question: “As the population of the United States grows, how will the importance of the national parks change?” Students brainstormed their ideas and typed their “prewriting” into computers.
“They can organize their thinking that way and see it visually. It sets a good foundation for the kids. They know they need a topic sentence and a concluding sentence and have to support their key ideas,” Walsh explains. Then, “with just a click of the key,” they also can spell-check, edit and format what they write.
Writing ideas on paper and then writing a first draft and revising on paper years ago was hard work and discouraging for many kids, says Walsh. “With the technology, they can make their writing really good,” Walsh says.
Administrators and teachers in many districts agree the technology tools that have helped them build successful writing programs are beneficial because they also engage students in scoring well. “Kids play around with each other and see who can get the higher scores,” says Starman. “They love that.”
Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.