Getting students practice writing, especially high school students, has never been easy. By this age, you will find the occasional student who is passionate about writing; however, most students think of writing as a real chore and do only what's necessary to get by. Yet, practice in writing is the one sure way to improve a student's writing skills.
My school, University High School, is located in the Irvine Unified School District in California. While the district serves a relatively affluent population, we average a whopping 35 students in each English class. Because of the number of students, it is difficult for teachers to provide feedback on each student's writing drafts, a key component of the "learning to write" process.
As school principal, I was struggling to figure out how to help teachers and students improve on the process of writing. Then I came across a software program, the Criterion Online Writing Evaluation Service from ETS Technologies (the Educational Testing Service people) [http://www.ets.org], that provides automated feedback to students on their draft writing, as well as allowing educators to add their own comments. This writing tool has helped to motivate our students to write while making it much easier for educators to provide the feedback needed to ensure student growth in writing. Also, the program allows for peer- and self-review, which has really helped our students think about their own learning.
"Let's Talk About It'--A New, Improved Attitude!
Since we've implemented the Criterion service, I've observed our "Reading and Writing" class (comprised of students who need additional support in these areas beyond their English class) and noticed something very encouraging. Students have begun to talk with each other about the feedback on their writing from the program. When one student mentioned he only had a "1" (on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being highest), another noted he had written very little one sentence, in fact!--and encouraged him to write more. Other comments I heard while observing the students included: "How do I get rid of a fragment?" "I have a run-on sentence." "How did you get a score of '4' on your paper?" Rarely, if ever, do students actually discuss among themselves bow to improve unless the teacher assigns peer editing, so I knew something was "clicking." Clearly, they are more comfortable with this computer-based process, which is enabling them to talk about their work without feeling threatened.
Our teachers have adjusted their teaching to meet the different dynamics in a computer-based learning environment. They move around the classroom more rapidly so that they can help students on an individual basis. Students ask for help immediately when they run into a problem that they cannot solve. I have been in the classroom with a teacher as they begin the process with Criterion. We have used student aides, who are a bit older and have experience with writing, to help in some classrooms. Students also help each other with the computer aspects of this type of classroom.
A Key to Successful Outcomes
We have found that the number-one key to success for using a computer-based writing tool has been hands-on training for our teachers. After the teachers learn how to set up their classes in Criterion and select or write a prompt, each teacher logs in as a student and goes through the writing process thoroughly before asking students to use it. This gives the teachers a level of comfort that can only be received by working with the program. (It is also interesting to see how competitive they become as they each try to achieve the highest rating!) Simply reading a manual or working through the teacher components does not provide the same training as actually practicing the program.
Our library media specialist went through the training along with the English teachers so that she would have an understanding of the program and its uses with students. …