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3 ways to build better student writers

Allison Holicky
December 10, 2020

Sixty-six percent of students in grade 8 and 63% of students in grade 12 are not proficient in reading, according to the 2019 report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A report from the Learning Agency states that students are simply not spending enough time writing.

This is unacceptable. Writing is a critical skill that all students will need for their academic and career pursuits. 

It’s time to rethink the tools we use and the ways we teach so we can improve student engagement and help close these achievement gaps.

One way we’re doing it at Pacifica High School in Oxnard, Calif., is through the use of NoRedInk, an interest-based online writing curriculum. It aims to build better writers by engaging students with exercises based on their interests. The platform uses adaptive technology to guide students through the writing process. Since its implementation, our students' scores have increased by an average of 100 points per student on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing portion of the SAT.

The tool is just one part of our success formula. Here’s how I’m using it as part of my instruction.

Working on specific skills

Improving a student’s writing starts with relationships. It means spending time with the student, walking with them through their processes, identifying the fault areas, and then providing corrective guidance. This investment of time goes a long way toward clearing the cobwebs in their understanding.

NoRedInk identifies my students’ strengths and weaknesses -- on a class and individual level. It then assigns adaptive practice exercises for the students to work on. Based on students’ interests, the exercises include their favorite celebrities, hobbies, TV shows and even friends. I can then work alongside students and offer immediate remediation.

Specifically, I have a structured learning process where I assign 45-60 minutes of practice per week, and it depends on the student’s skill level as to how they progress on the task. While the deadline for the practice and quiz is at the end of each week, students are not penalized for taking longer because their mastery of each skill is crucial. I also typically assign one exercise per week that homes in on one specific skill -- parallel structure, thesis statements -- and one enrichment assignment for the quarter that is a mix of lower-grade and grade-level topics, such as subject-verb agreement and dangling modifiers. This allows students to first complete their assignments for the week and then continue to work on the enrichment assignment. This way, the students are engaged and continually improving upon their grammar and writing skills and then able to decide their focus area.

My class structure remains consistent each week. I assign a diagnostic test to be completed in class on the first day of the week to gauge base knowledge, of each student and the class as a whole. I then utilize NoRedInk and supplemental videos to cover the topic that students practice at the beginning of each class. When we are in the in-person class environment, I encourage collaboration amongst peers to promote collegiality and strengthen their understanding. Finally, there is a growth quiz at the end of each week, which quickly shows my students their progress and performance. Students can even retake the quiz until they are satisfied with their performance.

For example, my student Sammy*, a low-performing English learner, was reading at a second-grade level and struggled immensely with writing. Before writing her first big argumentative essay, Sammy worked through the thesis statement exercises on NoRedInk. This enabled her to become more proficient at writing and evaluating thesis statements by the end of the unit. Part of the assignment included her sharing an explanation with her peers, which was a true test of her mastery level.  

Providing immediate feedback

Fast feedback goes a long way toward boosting student self-confidence.

The system provides instant feedback, and then I go over this data with the student to fill in any comprehension gaps. We tackle the issue, at the moment, when it’s fresh in their minds. I can see common errors, help them better organize their thoughts and smooth out their writing processes overall.

My district also uses a program called GoGuardian that allows me to view my students’ Chromebook screens. I can see their progress on NoRedInk in real-time and it helps me find mistakes. GoGuardian's chat feature lets me provide hints and ask guiding questions to help students arrive at the correct answer. I cheer them on as they work their way through three in a row to master a level.

I also focus heavily on the growth points on each week’s growth quiz rather than the score itself. Even if students are still not proficient, they can sometimes see up to a 60-point increase in growth on a particular skill, which is huge for building confidence. That feedback, along with my encouragement, is what propels many of them to retake the quiz after completing more practice. They are very proud of their growth and invested in their knowledge.  

Letting students write about what matters to them

Content is king these days, and students are master content creators. I have given them the freedom to write about what matters to them.

My freshmen just completed their final for my class -- an argumentative essay centered around the one most important quality in a leader. We read several texts that showed different qualities in leaders. Students selected texts to write about based on their personal interests. NoRedInk’s Guided Drafts walked them through the process of building a thesis statement and citing sources to support their statements.

I use NoRedInk’s Quick Write feature as an exit ticket, asking students a fun or silly question to assess their mastery of the skill we learned that week. For example, I may ask them to describe their favorite food using a parallel structure or to give me their favorite song lyrics and identify all of the nouns.

I have had great success with this program. It optimizes my teaching time, stepping in to provide students with targeted assistance to keep them moving forward.

*Student’s name changed to preserve student’s privacy.

Allison Holicky is an English teacher and instructional coach at Pacifica High School in Oxnard, Calif. Additionally, Allison serves as WASC Coordinator, English 1 Team Lead, and was named as OUHSD Teacher of the Year 2018. She uses NoRedInk with her students. Connect with Allison on Twitter at @MsHolickyPHS.

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