Write on Time: A Trio of Online Writing Tools Brings out the Wordsmith in Each Student

Article excerpt

What's true of teaching writing offline is just as true when the classroom goes online: becoming a good writer requires practice and responsive readers who can engage as much with content and ideas as they can with grammar and style.

How well three new programs adhere to that truism was my emphasis in this review, as well as how effectively each assesses and responds to student writing. All of the programs here--Pearson's WriteToLearn, Vantage Learning's MyAccess!, and Criterion from ETS--provide timely, specific feedback, opportunities for students to revise and resubmit their work, and embedded tutorials. In the process, they take away some of the red-pen work students fear by tackling grammar, spelling, and punctuation, which frees up classroom time for more creative, complex writing tasks.

Each program gives teachers a holistic picture of how well whole-class and individual students are performing in general and on specific skill sets, such as grammar and mechanics, making it easier for teachers to target instruction. To that end, teachers can set programs to evaluate multiple revisions or one-time submissions as practice for high-stakes assessments.

Students also have access to their own assessment data. The feedback generated by the programs is general and generic, however, so students will want to consult other readers for specific suggestions. That's a good thing. Computer-based writing assessment, while efficient for practicing and grading high-stakes skills, is yet to reproduce the kind of learning that happens with a live audience.

Pearson WriteToLearn

Thanks to its ability to "read" content, WriteToLearn offers students plenty of practice with reading comprehension and summary writing skills, in addition to scoring essays. The program is currently bundled with 30 reading passages, on topics ranging from the Aztecs to using bacteria to grow crops, which students read and then summarize. By using the text-entry or cutting and pasting from any word processing program, students can enter their work and quickly receive a detailed report of how well they covered the main ideas of the passage.

The program's diagnostic engine also evaluates summaries for errors in spelling, copying, redundancy, and irrelevancy, providing brief tutorials in these areas in the Tools section. Click on "irrelevancy" and the student's essay appears with areas for revision outlined in red; a multiple-choice prompt allows students to accept or reject changes suggested by the program. However, if students simply delete a highlighted error, as the program advises, they won't necessarily know why their writing is made better by the change, and here's where teachers will need to intervene so students don't simply click the Edit option until they receive a desired score. Because WriteToLearn can understand content, students get feedback on where they've borrowed too heavily from the original source--a very helpful feature for teachers trying to teach students about plagiarism.

Teachers can easily choose from among 50-plus essay assignments included with the program by selecting a grade level from 4-12, subject area, and writing genre, and the engine will evaluate students' drafts according to major criteria of content, style, and mechanics, with additional comments and scores given for spelling, redundancy, and grammar. Responding to a persuasive essay prompt on whether high school graduates should work or volunteer for a year before going to college, I wrote a 262-word essay. In a matter of seconds, I received a report that included a holistic score (four out of six), with additional scores in the domains of content, style, and mechanics. A single misspelled word garnered my essay an "Almost" rating, a term that students may find confusing (teachers can override this feature).

Students may also find reading the results on their scoreboard confusing without a teacher to help them interpret and prioritize a revision plan. …