Making Evidence-based Improvements in Student Writing with Scribo

Maybe this research should be called "It's not what you do but the way that you do it!"

Introduction

Steve Graham and Karen Harris (2016) begin the article “A Path To Better Writing” with an excellent description to set our context:

"Imagine you are charged with the task of solving a poorly defined problem. The general purpose of the problem is understood, but the solution can take an infinite number of forms, and the criteria for judging the success of any solution is fuzzy. While you may have seen how others solved this or a similar problem, the processes for creating these solutions were mostly hidden and involved the use and orchestration of a variety of different mechanisms, including physical, mental, and emotional apparatuses. To make this problem even more challenging, the solution must be understood by others who are missing vital information, which may or may not unfold as the solution is examined. Sounds like an almost impossible task, doesn’t it? This daunting problem is an apt description for writing."

For decades it’s been fairly well understood what approaches can facilitate growth in students from novice to expert writers. Essentially, students need to write often (Graham, Kiuhara, et al., 2012) and for a purpose (Graham, Harris, & Santangelo, 2015); teachers need to provide task-related feedback (Hattie & Timperley, 2007); class activities should target specific skill building with use of examples (Graham, Bruch et al., 2016); and all of this should take place in a positive environment focused on creating and celebrating quality writing (Niemiec & Ryan 2009). Is such a breakdown helpful in its clarity and its research-based evidence? Or overwhelming as you consider the time and effort required of both students and teachers in already very busy classrooms?

We believe in an evidence-based approach, but also recognise that technology has advanced during these decades and can assist both teachers and students to use these approaches in ways that are empowering and motivating. What follows is a brief overview of how Literatu’s Scribo can support busy teachers to help students improve their writing.

Scribo assists in three main ways:

  1. saves time

  2. supports targeted teaching

  3. captures data for feedback and measuring growth

None of these come as new tasks added to the teachers’ workload, but are achieved in ways that streamline and build on teachers’ current practices.

Write More and More Often and for a Purpose

(Graham, Kiuhara, et al., 2012) (Graham, Harris, & Santangelo, 2015)

One of the biggest impediments to improving student writing is the time required. Part of the reason for this is that each writing task leads to more tasks. For example, it’s not just the time students spend writing, but the stimulus and pre-writing, the planning, group practice and sometimes research or critical reading. Then after the fact, tasks might include peer read-arounds, teacher feedback, and targeted teaching to address common issues. Each of these are important and helpful, but when capturing student writing is made easier, along with student and cohort analysis of each text at the word, sentence and paragraph levels, this allows teachers and students to focus on segments of the writing process.

With Scribo making each step easier and analysis more granular, more frequent writing is possible. Here are three scenarios supported by the research:

QuickWrites

When the workload implications of a writing task are diminished, quick writings gain increased value. Rather than a warm-up that might easily be discarded, with ease of analysis and capture of the skills data embedded in the writings, this regular occurrence contributes to evidence-based activities and targeted teaching. For example, after a class discussion or watching a short video clip, students could process their ideas in a short writing that can be used during the same lesson to review learning, find misconceptions or build on successful skills. Among the many things teachers can do is to use sample paragraphs for group analysis or focus on common topics or summaries.

Guided Practice in Context

As the opening quotation illustrates, developing writing skills is a metacognitive task. Classroom teachers already recognise skill gaps and next steps in their students’ journey as writers. Isolating key aspects to focus on can be challenging amidst the shuffle of papers and myriad needs in a classroom. When teachers are provided with a quick report highlighting strengths and weaknesses in topics, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraphing, use of cohesion and spelling and grammar errors, they can choose the most beneficial to student growth and use the anonymised examples chosen by Scribo as the heart of a guided practice session. Rather than decontextualized worksheets or activities, the lessons can target the actual words, sentences and paragraphs used by the students in the class. In this way, both the issues and more effective approaches are suited to the students’ ability levels in the class because they are drawn from the students in the class.

Reflections

Reflecting is a very challenging cognitive exercise. Good reflection digs into the details as well as ponders the bigger ideas and broader connections. Many classroom strategies employ reflection to help students develop their understanding of new knowledge and insights. Direct and targeted improvement in students’ abilities to reflect can be achieved by highlighting examples and aspects of effective reflection. Use the concept development approach of using examples and non-examples to develop deeper learning without extra preparation.

Streamline and Super-charge Teacher Feedback

The work of John Hattie has had a profound impact on the benefits to student learning when teachers provide task-related feedback (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Teachers use a range of methods to give students feedback on their writing from hand-written comments on papers to oral or typed comments on digital documents. One aspect virtually all current approaches share is the loss of this incredibly valuable information! Given the time invested in giving the feedback, its loss is unacceptable in the digital era. Besides the automatically generated data drawn from every text submitted to Scribo, teachers’ comments are quickly captured using “talk-to-text'' recording and can be aligned to specific aspects of writing (e.g., 'vocabulary', 'paragraphing', etc.). Furthermore, teachers can use the same approach to assign their comments to either individual students or the whole class when common issues are discovered. Of course this streamlines what can be a laborious process, but best of all, each comment is kept for later analysis by both teachers and students. The impact of saved and tracked feedback that is linked to instructional practices limits the “moving target” aspect of teaching writing where the comments related to one task or student disappear and the challenge of building writing skills begins anew with each text. With a data-informed context, teachers gain quick insights into what’s working, how students are progressing and can share successful strategies with colleagues to help systemic improvement.

Engage in Easy Targeted Teaching Activities

Empowering teachers to teach as effectively as possible is an obvious goal. But to make it more likely, the main obstacle – lack of time – must be removed. Reference has been made in this document to the analytics and insights Scribo provides for an entire class set of texts in a matter of minutes. Here is an animation that illustrates the Report Panel.

You can also view the animation as a playable video.

A detailed overview of the many ways a creative teacher could use the insights and examples from the panel is beyond the scope of this article, but a general sense of what it provides can be gained with a quick analogy. When teachers begin to give feedback to student texts, very early in this process something happens – they notice things that they realise could be “teachable moments” the next day in class. So this practice of noting common mistakes, areas for subtle improvement in techniques or real student passages to use as exemplars or non-examples is exactly what the Report Panel provides – all without teachers reading a single text.

Imagine how this can lead to both saved time and improved student writing. When teachers use the Report Panel as part of a formative process, students can engage in targeted revision, then re-submit their work. Teachers can choose to do this once or over a series of iterations. One significant result of this approach is the culture shift away from “student turns in, teacher grades and gives back” to one focused on a collective focus on quality writing and student ownership for ultimately handing in their best work. With this culture of a collaborative shared focus on quality writing, teachers will be reading students’ best work and thus no longer get the sneaking suspicion that they have worked harder giving students feedback than the students did in writing the text.

With Scribo making targeted teaching easier, improvements in the quality of student writing can be expected. Here are three scenarios supported by the research:

Explicitly Teaching the Writing Process

The first recommendation of the US National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance and its 'What Works' guide for effective teaching of writing for primary students is providing daily time to write. Their second recommendation is “Teach students to use the writing process for a variety of purposes” (Graham, Bollinger, et al., 2012). Similarly, the group’s report for secondary students recommends using a “Model–Practice–Reflect instructional cycle” based firmly on strategies related to the writing process (Graham, Bruch, et al., 2016). Writing teachers are familiar with the process approach that includes planning, drafting, sharing, evaluating, revising and editing. When assigning and gathering data from student texts is easier through using Scribo, teachers have time to more explicitly address aspects of the writing process.

Scaffolding Learning of Genres / Text Types

Many subjects in the curriculum focus on specific text types. Of course, English leads the way with genres like persuasive, narrative and informative writing, but other disciplines such as history, science and the arts have their own formats for interpretations, analyses, reports and reflections. When student work is quickly made available for structural analysis through Scribo, even “non-writing teachers” can use the tool to help students learn the attributes of things like effective openings, clear thesis statements and structuring body paragraphs. In this way teachers only have to know what they want students to produce in terms of format, and focus on that rather than feel they need to address all aspects of students’ writing.

Use of Cohesives

Evidence surfaced by Scribo echoes what writing teachers recognise – better student writing tends to use more and more sophisticated cohesive words for conjunctions, connectives and transitions. But unlike many text analysis software packages, Scribo does not assign a grade so students have no incentive to “game” the software by randomly loading their work with advanced vocabulary or “high value'' cohesive words or phrases. Doing so simply makes students’ work silly and hard to read. Empowering students to get feedback on the cohesives they do use, showing them other words they might use and even providing in-context examples of more advanced cohesion used by peers on the same writing task support John Hattie’s outline for the helpful feedback that tells students "how am I going”, and “where to next” (Hattie & Timperley 2007).

Enhance your Classroom’s Motivating Environment

The research on Self-Determination Theory (Niemiec & Ryan 2009) provides evidence and models to promote students’ intrinsic motivation which results in improved outcomes. As has already been mentioned, a positive learning environment focused on collaboratively developing quality writing is one key approach to successful writing instruction. The research in SDT provides a model that identifies three factors that increase intrinsic motivation: student choice, positive relatedness and competence. When students get quick, frequent and objective feedback on their writing and teachers use targeted activities to build skills, students develop a sense of themselves as increasingly competent writers. This builds a positive loop where the increased motivation yields better outcomes, leading to increased motivation. Compare this to what is common in some classrooms, where students submit a paper and get a poor grade, then move onto another assignment, forever left with de-motivating feelings of incompetence.

References

Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D’Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012- 4058). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/publications_reviews.aspx#pubsearch.

Graham, S., Bruch, J., Fitzgerald, J., Friedrich, L., Furgeson, J., Greene, K., Kim, J., Lyskawa, J., Olson, C.B., & Smither Wulsin, C. (2016). Teaching secondary students to write effectively (NCEE 2017-4002). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website: http://whatworks.ed.gov.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. (2016). A Path to Better Writing: Evidence-Based Practices in the Classroom. Reading Teacher, 69(4), 359-365, accessed 3 January 2019, <https://www.uen.org/core/languagearts/writing-collection/downloads/PathBetterWriting.pdf>

Graham, S., Kiuhara, S., McKeown, D., & Harris, K.R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 879–896.

Hattie, J.A.C., & Timperley, H (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.