iPads can’t improve learning without good teaching Pt 2 – Writing

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com ( http://inkygirl.com/comic-use-policy/ )

Writing and technology has been a controversial subject for many traditionalists in education. “Spell check stops children from learning to spell”. “All students do today is copy and paste from Wikipedia and Google searched articles.” ” Children need to handwrite all their drafts”. “William Shakespeare didn’t have a laptop” ( OK, i just threw that in for fun!) At the same time, of course, as a teacher I have been subjected to countless reports and stories typed in ridiculous unreadable coloured fonts, decorated with superfluous clip art and WordArt headings and thousands of “death by Powerpoints” unnecessarily printed out to hand up to me. 20 years of computers as a publishing tool has not necessarily improved the standard of students’ writing skills.

The key words in that last sentence are of course publishing and writing. For too long we have seen the computer purely as a publishing tool. For me, the computer is far more effective as a writing tool. I completely understand that in the early days of classroom tech, when we only had one or two computers at the back of the room, publishing was about as much as we could do. Today, though, as we move into Personalised Learning in the Age of Technology, it is time for us to break the shackles of traditional thinking regarding writing and technology. We can no longer afford to dwell on the negative impacts of spellcheck and copy/paste. Instead, let’s focus on the benefits.

Which leads me once more to the star of “Mr G Online”, the iPad. Again, though, the iPad will not have any impact on improving student writing if its use is not accompanied by innovative teaching backed by sound literacy principles and a change in attitude towards technology’s role in the writing process. If it just becomes yet another means of publishing student work, with new bells and whistles replacing WordArt,Clip Art and fancy borders, then we once again waste an opportunity for significant change in writing education.

I’ll preface this discussion by saying that many of my suggestions can certainly be carried out on laptops or indeed desktop computers. However, the touch interface and AV tools, coupled with the portability and personal experience you get from using the iPad, makes for simpler and more practical use.

What is writing?
Before trying to convince the doubters that the iPad can impact on student writing, we have to define what writing actually is.

A breakdown of genres, their processes and products

I’m not going to use some perfectly expressed term written by literacy professors to impress anyone. For me, the definition of writing is one word -communication, either with yourself or with others. We reflect in writing to help our thinking processes. We record in writing to keep information for later use. We write to persuade others to agree with us on a variety of issues. Many of us have stories to tell, either from real experiences or from the deep recesses of our imagination. Sometimes events and processes have to be explained. All of these examples are ways of communicating.

Now originally, communication was verbal. It was immediate, person to person or within groups. We eventually felt the need to communicate with others beyond our immediate area and left images, cave paintings, carvings, statues – our first multimedia experiences. At a later time, we decided we wanted to be clearer in our communication and began recording our every thought in written forms. With the invention of the printing press, we could share our ideas with a mass audience – the early, albeit very slow, World Wide Web. At the same time “a picture paints a thousand words” was being made apparent by the Renaissance artists, with their paintings sculptures and stain glass windows educating the illiterate of their societies. Eventually we found new ways to communicate; plays,music and songs, photography, film and television, until we finally created the computer in all its forms.

You may be wondering why you are reading a history of communication when you came here to learn something about writing and iPads. Bear with me a little longer. My point here is that as teachers we have to rediscover the purpose of writing as pure communication. We have to get past our obsession with the mechanics of writing, the perfect spelling,the beautifully crafted complex sentence with all the punctuation in the correct place and get children to communicate effectively, enjoying the experience and wanting to share what’s on their minds. This, finally, is where I think the iPad can have an influence, especially if we get the teaching part right.


The planning stage
Traditionally the planning stage of writing has been that bit at the start of the lesson when students were forced to write down their key ideas on paper, regimentally jotting down our Orientation, Complication and Resolution or ordering their arguments. Let’s take them on a far more inspiring and useful track using the iPad instead. This will involve teachers challenging their idea that we don’t use computers before the publishing stage.

Use Popplet to record ideas in separate blocks of ideas that can be rearranged in any order without the tedium of rewriting. Branch extensions of those ideas off the original using its mind mapping properties. Take snapshots with your iPad camera and import them into your Popplet to inspire your imagination visually. Pass the iPad around to fellow students or teachers and let them respond to your plan without the need to scribble over your handwritten notes. They can alter the order of your ideas with a simple drag and drop, or pop a quick note in.

Alternatively students could use Evernote or Notability in similar ways with the added bonus of audio recordings of thoughts and ideas they can use for their later writing. Students can import web clips of useful pictures, videos, information websites that support the research project they are compiling and have easy access to them when they start composing. They can use social bookmarking apps like Diigo, combined with the Diigo bookmarklet in Safari to collate links to websites related to their work.

Specific apps allow for effective and engaging planning. Comic Life or Strip Designer can be used to storyboard ideas. Toontastic’s user interface is designed around the planning structure of the narrative in which each scene is broken up into parts like setup, conflict and resolution. You can add your characters and backgrounds in as you go and revisit each scene to edit. It makes for an interactive planning experience while also providing the opportunity for good teaching to happen in developing story writing skills. What I hope it doesn’t become ( after necessary early experimenting) is a cute way of creating badly written stories. StoryPatch is another option for junior grades that allows for guidance in planning and creating stories through a visual interface.

This is a major shift in the way we have planned writing in the past and it will take a lot of good teaching to embed it into the practice of both students and teachers but I really believe we have to deepen the thinking at the planning stage beyond the dot point method. And yes I know they don’t have time to do this before a standardized writing test. But are we preparing them for 40 minute tests or instilling in them a lifelong love of writing?

The Composing/Editing stage
This is where in my experience the greatest shift has to take place. In my humble opinion, it is not good teaching to NOT use an iPad or computers in general as a composing and editing tool for writing. Get the ‘spell check is bad’ mentality out of your head and teach kids to reflect on the errors that spell check has picked up while they write. Using Spellboard, a spelling program app for the iPad, they can copy and paste their errors over to the app as they show up and store them for later work during spelling lessons in class. Far more effective than making a ton of errors that aren’t picked up until a teacher or spelling buddy corrects them. Reluctant writers are reluctant because they have to make so many changes to their handwritten writing and can’t be bothered rewriting the whole text all over again or writing a detailed text in the first place.

The iPad makes for a personal, “easy to edit and enhance” writing experience. If they only have to edit the errors and not rewrite everything, reluctant writers will be more willing to experiment and extend their writing. If they have easily accessible dictionary/thesaurus and other word study apps at their fingertips, all with search functions, then they can compose and edit far more easily, without flicking through pages and pages looking for a word. Teach students to take their time. Teach them to review their writing as they write. On the iPad ( or any other word processing device ), if they take their time, edit as they go, respond to feedback on sections ( not entire texts) using any word processing app on the iPad (not going to list them here)  the result will be more fluent, quality-driven writers.

Don’t bog them down with 19th/20th Century writing practices just because you’re more comfortable reading and correcting handwritten texts. I haven’t handwritten a text since I’ve had access to a computer. I’ve written over 30,000 words on blog posts in a month without putting pen to paper. And I’m not a super fast typist. The drawbacks of the iPad keyboard ( which I have used to compose about 90% of these blog posts) actually slows me down enough that I can just write and review without doing a stack of drafts.

The publishing stage
This is the easy part because this is traditionally what teachers have seen as the role of the computer, which the iPad is just the next version of. What I want to see happening is a variety of publishing media, beyond the old Word/Publisher/Powerpoint triad ( and not just because I’m anti-Microsoft!). Spielberg, Disney and Pixar haven’t published a novel between them but are probably the greatest story tellers of the last century. THere’s more to writing than the written word. Think beyond purely written text as publishing options.

Many of these apps also provide opportunities for increasing audience for writers as well, with their integration with online services. This is another incentive for increasing writing quality and desire.
Final thought
Of course, all of this is pointless if we don’t have teaching and learning strategies in place. The apps don’t create the text. But they do make teaching writing and writing  itself a better experience. Naturally, this all just my opinion. I have no Masters in Literacy as an authoritative stamp on this post. I have taught writing, though, for 25 years and written songs, stories, information texts, Maths programs and opinion pieces over that time. From experience, computers have made me a better writer. The iPad can take me to another level. As teachers of writing, we have to move into the new millenium. What do you think?

9 thoughts on “iPads can’t improve learning without good teaching Pt 2 – Writing

  1. A lot of food for thought there Mark:) Great ideas on how to use the iPad to plan writing. I know a lot of teachers are keen on popplet for brainstorming, and I must try it out!
    I had already downloaded toontastic on my iPad, but it seems the range of characters is quite limited. Maybe I am missing something here? I probably am, as I am quite new to the iPad and using it’s apps 🙂

    • Toontastic is unfortunately one of those apps that has in app purchasing to build up the range of characters. I’ve upgraded so have more options. Not that big a cost for one person but for lots of kids at a school, maybe. Popplet is a good app with lots of functionality. The lite version is ok to try out to get a feel for how it works but lacks some features.

  2. As a speech/language pathologist, using the ipad as a therapy tool to improve written language in my learning/language delayed students I could not agree more. The computer tools available on such devises has enabled me to motivate as well as teach students how they can compensate for their language struggles using these computer assistants to make these students better writers.

  3. Writing is so complicated and so much fun to experience with kids. I’m excited to look at it in a different way and to use the IPad to further my students love of a good story. Too many times spelling issues have become the wall that kids and teachers can’t hurdle. I’d like to try the spellboard app to see if I can move the kids beyond this into new and exciting types of communicating their message.

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