Case Study: Writing with Technology

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Practicing writing is typically a slow process. It's time-consuming, and student feedback is often delayed owing to the time it takes teachers to grade each essay for grammar, content, and writing style. In a world of 24/7 advertising, Game Boys and instant messaging, how can teachers motivate middle and high school students to invest their time and energy and actually enjoy practicing writing?

For my 7th and 10th grade students, I found success by appealing to my students' competitive spirit. The competition wasn't so much student to student, but more so student to computer.

At our school--Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami, FL--we started using an online writing evaluation program to score student essays. The program we chose, Educational Testing Service's Criterion service, gives instant diagnostic feedback and a score on a four- or six-point rubric. We work on a six-point scale. Students can then scroll over highlighted errors, read some of the program's suggestions, revise their essays, and resubmit them. Having this kind of technology dramatically reduces the feedback turnaround time for students, which helps keep them motivated while they're in "the writing zone." Teachers can read after the program, which gives feedback in grammar, mechanics, word usage, style and organization, and development, for the aspects of writing that only humans can grade, such as content, use of imagery, and strength of argument.

Introducing Writing Software
When I first introduced the software to my classes, many students were confused, asking, "How is a computer going to score my essay?" Curiosity and eagerness to see how it works soon trumped their apprehensions, and, with a little handholding in the beginning, students rapidly adapted to using the program.

Within minutes, everyone was typing and keeping their fingers crossed to see who would score the coveted 6. No one did. Most students scored a 3. Within that first 45-minute class period, a buzz arose among students, who revised and resubmitted their essays to see whether they could get a higher score. And (wouldn't you know it) the majority earned scores of 4, with a few achieving a 5 or 6.

In a computer class surrounded by their peers, students became competitive and tried to outdo one another. I likened the odds of getting a 6 to the odds of winning an Olympic gold medal and noticed that the more I challenged students by making it seem unlikely that anyone could get such a score, the more they wanted to prove me wrong. When a student did produce a 5 or 6, I made a huge hullabaloo--high fives, applause, you name it. Students who wished to stand out and receive instant recognition were inspired to work for it.

The Side Benefits
Online writing evaluations have a few other side benefits. I noticed that a number of students who earned a 6 wanted to help other students who were almost there earn a 6 too. One of the great advantages for me is that because the feedback is unbiased and self-explanatory, students don't feel that I am harping on one thing or another or being "picky" when it comes to grammar and word usage. It removes some of the negative feelings that students have toward their teachers when they receive papers back with red ink all over them. If the computer is telling them the same thing as their teacher, they figure it must be true. This kind of reinforcement helps ingrain the lessons I have already been sharing.

Even low-performing students managed to do well, and that alone gave them the incentive to work on their writing skills. For me, personally, it was great to see an improvement in their dismal attitudes toward achievement. Now they liked English.

Well, sort of.

They certainly liked competing in a public arena with their peers and, more importantly, with the computer. By the end of the semester, most students had earned 5s or 6s, with only a few still earning mostly 4s.

Alongside the remarkable and consistent progress I observed in my students' writing skills, I was able to spend more one on one time with the students who needed additional attention. My experience with the Criterion service has me convinced that incorporating an online writing evaluation tool into any writing curriculum certainly qualifies as a best practice.

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About the author: Cristina Ramirez a teacher at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami, FL.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

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