Teaching Writing, Tablet Style

By Troy Hicks

While I am very much an advocate for digital writing that incorporates multimedia content such as audio, video, and images, I also understand and appreciate the idea that writing involves — and should always involve at some level — the use of words. Very rarely, if ever, does a young writer need all the bells and whistles that come with standard word processing software.

This is especially true when it comes to using a tablet, given the limited amount of space we have for viewing and typing on smaller screens, especially when not using an external keyboard.

A girl listens to music and reads off a tablet. CC Licensed Photo (Some rights reserved by flickingerbrad.)

CC Licensed Photo (Some rights reserved by flickingerbrad.)

So, when it comes to helping our students to write, to put words into sentences and then into stories, essays, scripts, and more, I look for applications that make the writing process simple and elegant. As a teacher, this means that an app does not, should not, have to do everything from brainstorming to drafting to publishing. Different points in the process may require different apps. And, as a parent, I am reminded that sometimes simply having fewer distractions on screen can help my children focus.

With that in mind, here are some free apps that you might consider using with your own children and students as you help them use their tablets effectively, all the while focusing on the writing process and bringing their stories to life. Please note that I am an iPhone/iPad user, and I admit that I don’t know the Android system nearly as well. If you know of some better apps than what I have found here, please share them in the comments!

Speech-to-text

As a long-time user of voice dictation software, I am glad to see that other educators are giving it thoughtful consideration as a tool for writing instruction. Dragon Dictation (iPad, free) remains the go-to app for me when it comes to capturing ideas quickly and turning it into text. For Android, ListNote (free) appears to work in a similar manner. For young writers, I could imagine that they might dictate their initial ideas just to generate a list of writing topics. Or, perhaps they have hand-written a rough draft, and want to get the bulk of their words into digital form because typing is too difficult. While the voice recognition software may require some adult help, I have seen my own kids’ amazement at watching their ideas appear on screen with speech-to-text software.

Word processing

While I am a big fan of Google Docs/Drive (iPad; Android), and I sometimes have my own kids write with it, there are a few simpler, more straightforward word processing tools. For iPad, Compositions and Simple Note have very clean user interfaces. Android users have Simple Note, too, as well as Simple Notepad. Other tools, including the journals mentioned below and Evernote, offer more features, but for straightforward writing, these apps have a minimalist design that allow writers to stay focused.

Journaling

Both Momento and MaxJournal offer iPad users some nice features, including the ability to track entries by date and attach photos to the entries. Android users have options including Day Journal and Diaro. Advocates of keeping a “writer’s notebook” such as Ralph Fletcher have provided us with many models of what could go into such a journal: capturing snippets from conversations, lists, stats, facts, lyrics, sayings. As I recently heard Ralph describe it, “Writers cherish words and collect them,” keeping them to review later. These tools would help young writers in that process.

Response

Between the drafting and publishing stage, I would strongly encourage you to offer your child some response to their writing. Not offering advice, but offering response. There is no app that, by itself, can help your student become a better writer. You are your child’s best audience.

Writing researcher Don Graves pioneered a simple, straight forward approach to response, and describes how one teacher worked to respond to a writer in her classroom:

Ms. Richards’ statement is specific. When she receives Billy’s text, she uses the actual words he has composed on the page. All writers need to know their words (the actual words on the page) affect other people. Notice that very little praise is given to Billy in this type of response. Instead, the listener, Ms. Richards, points with interest to the words; they are strong enough for her to understand and to remember them. The use of specifics, rather than the exclusive use of praise, is a fundamental issue in helping Billy to maintain control of his piece, as well as to take more responsibility for his text. (“All Children Can Write”).

By focusing on the words and offering specific response, we give our children the best types of feedback. If it is helpful for you, writing researcher Lennie Irvin offers some additional suggestions to his students about peer response that are perfectly appropriate for us, as parents, to use with our own children, including the advice that we “Respond in the spirit of helpfulness and respect.” In short, take some time to read and respond to your child’s writing before it moves into the publishing stage.

Publishing

Finally, we come to the point where a young writer has written a piece and wants to share it with a broader audience. Storykit (iPad) is an effective tool that can combine text, images, and sounds into a virtual storybook. Also, Book Creator Free (iPad) will allow you to make one free book before requiring you to purchase the app for $4.99. There are a number of other paid iPad apps available, too. I wasn’t able to find any particular apps similar to Storykit or Book Creator in the Google Play store, but there are a variety of scrapbook type apps that might serve a similar purpose. Ultimately, the process of creating a book — whether it remains digital or is actually printed off and bound — helps bring the writer full circle, and celebrates the work that she has completed.

Rethinking the writing process

As you work with your child through the many stages of the writing process, remember that this is a recursive, on-going process, not a linear one that has a straight path from start to finish. Sometimes writing involves revision in the earliest stages, and other times what comes out first may be exactly what he or she wants to say. Your goal is to support them as emerging writers.

Lucy Calkins reminds us to focus first on the writer, then on the particular piece of writing. It is advice that still serves us well in a digital era. I would suggest that you focus on the writer, then the writing, and finally on the technology. Digitally dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” is only effective after you have talked with your child about his or her ideas, asked insightful questions, and helped them improve the quality of their thoughts.

There is no app that can replace time and attention that only you can give; these are the best gifts that you can offer your child as a writer.

 


Troy Hicks (@hickstro) is associate professor of English at Central Michigan University. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. He directs CMU’s Chippewa River Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project.

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