An online tool empowers middle school writers

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Trail Ridge Middle School (TRMS), a STEM focus school in Longmont, Colorado, is a one-to-one iPad® school serving a diverse student population.

TRMS wanted to find a way to improve the writing skills and success of all its students. “I think there’s a good amount of research that shows that when you focus on writing, student achievement increases across the board,” explained Eddie Cloke, the principal of TRMS.

1500959504-1941-railRidge-Success-Story-thmbIn the 2015–2016 school year, TRMS began using WriteToLearn™, Pearson’s online tool for building writing skills and reading comprehension in grades 4–12, in all its language arts classes. The online tool scores essays and provides writing advice based on three scoring rubrics: College and Career Readiness, English Language Learning, and the Six Traits of Writing. Essays are scored on a 4- or 6-point scale, depending on the type of prompt and its associated scoring rubric.

Teachers in other subject areas, such as science and social studies, are using the online writing tool as well. “It’s really helping us to develop practices that promote writing across our content,” Cloke remarked.

For Carolyn Thaler, an 8th-grade language arts teacher and the student council advisor, “motivation and immediate feedback” are the “two biggest selling points” of the online tool.

Cloke explained, “The simple fact that WriteToLearn gives instant feedback to students accelerates the learning curve, accelerates the opportunity for more writing, and it takes away the roadblock of the time it takes the teacher to read and grade an essay and return it to the student.”

“The engagement of students in the writing process has increased. They are engaged in improving their own writing because they’re getting that instant feedback.”

WriteToLearn has “changed a lot of students’ attitudes towards writing. They actually want to write,” Thaler said. “The kids are taking ownership; they’re taking pride in their work.”

I love WriteToLearn because when you look at your scores you can improve them and learn a little more each time you do it.

8th-Grade Boy, Trail Ridge Middle School

Both Cloke and Thaler noted that the online writing tool’s automated scoring is benefiting TRMS’s diverse population of learners. Students working at an advanced level can use the tool’s personalized feedback to revise their essays right away and then resubmit them, without having to wait for teacher feedback. The online tool allows teachers to quickly identify struggling writers and provide them with one-to-one support.

It is too soon for TRMS to have standardized testing data to show the impact of WriteToLearn on students’ writing skills. However, Thaler has class data showing improvement “in every population.”

At the start of her units on argument and narrative, Thaler has students respond to a prompt as a form of pre-assessment of their writing skills. Then, at the end of each unit, her students respond to a different prompt to serve as a post-assessment. The overall score that one student in special education received for a narrative essay improved from a 1 on the pre-assessment to a 4 on the post-assessment, based on a 4-point scale. The total word count for the essay increased from 156 to 769 words.

TRMS is using a train-the-trainer model to encourage more content-area and elective teachers to use the online writing tool, with Thaler and Erin Elsen, a 6th-grade language arts teacher, leading the training. This past fall, all new teachers received the training as well to set “the groundwork for them. It’s a nice opportunity for us to say, ‘This is a great tool that we have,’” Cloke remarked.

To learn more about how TRMS is using an online tool to engage students and improve their writing skills, read the full success story.

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