Digital Writing: Tips, Tricks and Techniques

 In Classroom Practice

“I started incorporating digital storytelling, and I saw changes in my students. I saw that they were thinking in new ways and writing in new ways and enjoying it. That is when it really started to blossom for me.”  Seth Mitchell – Lisbon High, Lisbon, Maine

Teachers Are the Center of Education: A Profile of Eight Teachers – National Writing Project

“Schools are in catch up mode” when it comes to digital writing, argues Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, co-author of the book Because Digital Writing Matters. She believes school practices are outdated to the extent that “so much of school writing is consciously in the other direction” compared to professional and social trends.

The notion of writing has fundamentally changed. Outside the classroom, the writing that learners encounter is overwhelmingly digital, a direction that all levels of society are moving toward at an increasingly rapid speed.

There are obvious barriers to implementing digital writing in the classroom, as with EdTech in general, including a lack of resources, a lack of training, and the pressure of standardized testing. However, the ever-increasing march of digital writing in our society makes it more important to teach learners, so they have the skills to match the world they will be entering post-grade 12.

A National Commission on Writing report described writing as a “threshold skill” in the workforce. In their report “Writing: A Ticket to Work,” they implore “the nation” to invest in “new and emerging technologies” to advance their writing and for assessment to go beyond multiple-choice, machine scoreable items. “Assessment should require students to actually create a piece of prose.”

Twitter Language Games

The Atlantic took on the question, “How much can you say in 140 characters?” In 2011, they quoted Chinese artist Ai Weiwei saying, “In the Chinese language, 140 characters is a novella.” In English, however, it is far from a novella, necessitating new, truncated word forms such as “2” for too.

Drawing on the need for concise writing and the spirit of Ernest Hemmingway’s famous six-word story (“For sale: Baby shoes, never used”), the New York Times Learning Network created a learning activity designed to develop learners’ comprehension and ability to convey more with less.

  1. Start by writing or printing out a batch of short stories you like from www.sixwordstories.net.
  2. Distribute them to the class and give everyone a few minutes to analyze them individually.
  3. Lead a discussion on what they have just read with questions like:
    1. How did it feel to read stories six words long?
    2. Which one caught your attention?
    3. What do these stories have in common?
    4. Do you think it is easier to write a short or long story?
  4. Have learners pair up and re-write a familiar story – a classic novel, fairytale, or nursery rhyme.
  5. After 10 minutes, have learners read their stories to the class and wrap up with a discussion based on the following questions:
    1. What skills do you practice by writing so concisely?
    2. What is lost and gained by adhering to a strict word count?
    3. Is this easier or harder than long-form writing?

Remember, digital means more than just the same words on a different canvas. As famed academic Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message” – the format in which a message is written implicitly influences how it is produced and perceived.

A pen and paper activity is not necessarily nostalgic if it puts digital media principles into practice, as the need to be concise.

A Case for Spellcheck

LanguageTool is an online program that detects spelling, grammar, and syntax errors. It can be tailored to over 20 languages and specific English variants like UK, Australian, and New Zealand. Using a processor like LanguageTool helps learners develop style and grammar skills by running their writing through a robust filter picking up the mistakes that a standard spelling and grammar check might miss.

It is often argued that spelling and grammar checkers are reducing literacy. However, it has been found that new words are being produced faster, and according to a Stanford study, used in writing more than ever. And with spelling errors becoming increasingly fatal in job applications, we are arguably more literate and less tolerant of errors than ever.

“[A spelling error] says that an individual cannot produce work to a given standard no matter how qualified they might be,” says Mencap CEO Mark Goldring.

As Seth Mitchell observed, incorporating digital skills into writing classes is a great way to build a learner’s enthusiasm for writing and engage in school content in new ways. There are many tools available to add a digital component to your writing classes and just as many approaches you could take. We’ve listed just a few techniques and practices to get you started.

If you have any tools and techniques you use or are trying out some of the ones we’ve listed in class, let us know on Twitter @learningbird.

Pair what you’ve learned in this article with our blog posts on:

Blogging as a Cross-Curricular Teaching Tool

Telling Stories with Technology

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