Jul 31 2013

Can Technology Help Students Become Better Writers?

Survey says digital tools are changing how formal writing is taught in K–12 schools.

Send a list of your last dozen text messages to your high school English teacher and it’s easy to imagine him or her cringing at the sentence fragments, the misspellings, and, oh, the syntax.

Despite the many benefits of technology in schools, educators for years have lamented the hatchet job that email programs and mobile devices, from smartphones to tablets, have done on the English language

If you’ve spent any time grading papers over the last half-dozen years, you’ve probably bumped into a few of the more egregious offenders—acronyms such as LOL (laugh out loud) and ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing) have been known to sneak into students’ formal writing. There’s a place for this brand of hurried shorthand—on Twitter and Facebook, for instance. But in a school-sanctioned book report? As part of a term paper?

Have the lines between traditional English and social-media-speak blurred to such an extent that the old rules no longer apply?

A new survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the National Writing Project (NWP) says digital technologies have a more positive effect on student writing than some educators realize.

Though teachers worry about the “creep” of informal language into students’ writing, the report found that many instructors view technology as a tool to spur collaboration, fuel creativity and encourage students to improve their writing. Findings:

  • 96 percent of Advanced Placement and NWP teachers say classroom technologies enable students “to share their work with a wider and more varied audience.”
  • 79 percent agree that such tools “encourage greater collaboration among students.”
  • 78 percent say digital technologies “encourage student creativity and personal expression.”

The report found that most teachers rated their students’ writing abilities as “good” or “fair.” 

Teachers were especially impressed with students’ abilities to “organize and structure writing assignments.” Students received worse marks for their ability to write cohesively, use appropriate tone and style and form strong arguments, according to the report. 

Teachers also expressed concern about students’ ability to digest “long or complicated” texts and their understanding of fair use and copyright, which has been further muddied by the communal nature of the Internet.

Seventy-five percent of educators said they spend class time “discussing with students the concepts of fair use and copyright.”

Making Students Better

Despite lingering concerns about the influence of technology, such as email or text messaging, on students’ writing habits, some 50 percent of teachers say using technology in the classroom makes “shaping or improving student writing” easier.

So how is technology being used to teach writing? According to the report:

  • 52 percent of participating teachers say they use interactive whiteboards in their classes.
  • 40 percent have integrated wikis, websites and blogs for sharing work in classrooms.
  • 36 percent of teachers use online editing tools to have students revise their work; 29 percent of teachers use similar tools to have students review and revise others’ work.

What do you think? Does technology help or hinder student writing? Tell us in the comments.

<p>Thinkstock/Ingram Publishing</p>

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