Write on Time

A trio of online writing tools brings out the wordsmith in each student.

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. For example, WriteToLearn does not know that content may be the most important evaluation criteria in a science class, so a student who scores high in style and mechanics and low in content will need their teacher to explain that while these elements are weighted equally by the program, they aren't by the teacher.

Vantage Learning My Access! 6.0

Teachers will appreciate this program's accuracy in scoring student essays as well as its attention to process approaches to writing. To begin a writing sequence, students can turn to more than 500 well-designed writing prompts—anything from an expository essay on Lord of the Flies to a persuasive piece about mandatory recycling—correlated to many state and national standards.

Six- and four-point scoring options are available for custom-made or program-created assignments in a wide range of genres, including narrative, persuasive, text-based, and literary. If using the program's prompts, students will receive both holistic and domain scores for the six traits of focus and meaning, content and development, organization, language and style, and mechanics and conventions. Adding your own prompts disables the domain-scoring options, and the program defaults to a single holistic score, so be sure to turn on the Approximator when you're building your own assignments or My Access! won't evaluate them.

To test the program's capability, I submitted a student's "A" essay using the custom mode and in response to a narrative writing prompt I designed. In a matter of seconds, the student's essay received a holistic score: a perfect six. Accompanying my score was a helpful explanation of how ably she communicated her message, an annotated draft with all errors highlighted in blue, and an error list with 33 different types of errors, which sends students the message that perfect grammar and punctuation don't equal perfect grades—strong writing that excels in style, organization, and development will easily override a few minor errors.

Most of these errors were single instances, and the engine flagged a character's name as a misspelling multiple times, so while students are getting used to the program in custom mode, teachers will need to help students prioritize by focusing on one or two consistent areas where they need to edit more carefully rather than trying to address every type of mistake identified in their work. Students can also consult an online writer's guide or one of several graphic organizers embedded in the Tools list. In fact, there's almost too much here for students to consult, and text-heavy descriptions of writing terms and Venn diagrams waiting to be populated with main ideas could be made more user-friendly with the help of more interactive graphics. Teachers, however, will appreciate the program's powerful administrative functions, from the form letter that can be e-mailed to parents to share a child's score on a recent writing assignment to options for setting writing prompts in Chinese, Spanish, or for English language learners. (At press time, Vantage Learning released version 7.0, which features enhanced My Tutor and My Editor functions.)

ETS Criterion 6.2

Criterion shares many of the same helpful reporting and administrative features as My Access!, from whole-class snapshots to individual portraits of how students fare in such specific areas as organization and grammar. More than 300 topics are available and can be adapted for different age groups, so if you want to have your high school seniors write about what it would be like to be transformed into the family pet, then the program will score their responses at the appropriate level.

Teachers can select writing prompts from expository, persuasive, narrative, and descriptive genres or create their own. If you customize writing prompts, the program recommends persuasive and expository genres only (as well as human scoring). You'll want to consult the Criterion guidelines for essay prompt development to give the assessment engine the best chance of scoring students' essays accurately.

The program is easy to use. I quickly developed my own expository prompt for a first-year, college-level essay; a series of drop-down menus and a text box walked me through the process of assignment creation. I pasted the same student's "A" essay from a Word document into the program's text-creation area. The Performance Summary gave me five out of six points, along with domain feedback in grammar, usage, mechanics, style, and organization and development. Holistic comments offered feedback on strengths and weaknesses; however, the quality of computer-generated feedback is a bit spiritless, because comments engage strictly with formal elements, not specific ideas (such as, "You have solid writing skills and something interesting to say"). Additionally, the holistic feedback could be confusing to students if, as was the case with my sample essay, the program suggests developing "ideas more fully" or using "language more consistently," because those two tasks require very different approaches to revision. This is where teachers will need to add comments and help students understand which elements of their writing they need to develop.

One area that will likely always change, though, is Trait Feedback Analysis, a great program feature that offers feedback in each of the five evaluative domains. It provides students with detailed charts noting the number and kind of errors in their work. Young writers can consult the Writer's Handbook for definitions of everything from article errors to faulty comparisons, as well as sample scored essays.

Kristen Kennedy is an acting assistant professor of English at the University of Washington.

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