Tools That Help Students Slow Down—and Strengthen Skills


What Randall Carswell likes most about an online instructional tool called Quill is that it forces his 8th grade English students to slow down. Having grown up in a digital world, he says, their tendency is to skim through reading assignments, paying little heed to grammatical structure and overlooking critical content.

Quill is a digital resource that prompts students to go through a series of online grammar lessons in an engaging way. It includes sentence-writing exercises involving a single grammatical concept, as well as proofreading exercises comprised of a paragraph riddled with grammatical mistakes and a new collaborative writing tool that’s in the beta testing phase.

Quill requires students to pause if they get a wrong answer and try again before moving to the next question or exercise, thereby making it difficult for them to skim what they’re reading or jump ahead. The automated process also differentiates lessons according to skill level, and at the end of it all, they get one of three color-coded grades—green, yellow, red—that indicate varying degrees of mastery.

“I absolutely love the fact that Quill makes them slow down,” says Carswell, a former marketing manager who started teaching 16 years ago in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and now works at Citrus Springs Middle School in Citrus Springs, Florida.

“They have to look carefully, they have to spell correctly, they have to use proper punctuation,” he says. “Not only are they getting a grammar lesson, but they’re slowing down, so they are going to be prepared for close reading opportunities.”

Sharpening Skills

Quill is one of a growing number of digital resources that help students sharpen and practice literacy skills in a personalized setting. Another, ThinkCERCA, is a one-stop shop that takes students through a series of online steps aimed at helping them research and write argumentative and informational essays. The first step is a short writing exercise to get them thinking about their own connection to the topic at hand—for example, how do social media and mobile technology affect everyday life?

The remaining steps include a reading assignment and a quiz followed by a screen equipped with highlighting and note-taking tools so students can select the information they need for their essays. Once that’s completed, another screen takes them through the process of writing an outline, and then a blank word-like document appears, one where students can cut, paste, and drag their earlier work to write the final essay.

By the end of it all, says Jenny Wejman, a 4th grade teacher at William H. Ray Elementary School in Chicago, her students have read and reread the text, and it’s the repeated reading that makes the difference.

Wejman intended to use ThinkCERCA just once to help her students learn how to write a persuasive essay, but they showed so much growth on a mid-year assessment, she says, that it’s become a routine part of her instructional practice.

In similar fashion, Carswell uses Quill three times a week for 10 to 15 minutes as a warm-up at the beginning of class. Over the past several months, he says, he’s seen noticeable improvements. His students are reading more closely and making fewer mistakes in both their writing assignments and how they speak.

While Quill’s sentence writing feature homes in on a specific grammatical concept, it requires students to use correct spelling and punctuation throughout the sentence, which, in turn, forces them to pay closer attention to the text. If they get stuck on a particular question or prompt, Carswell says, they can ask him for help.

In a recent exercise focused on active and passive voice, Carswell learned that one of his students thought a noun was a verb, providing him with the perfect teachable moment. “That’s important,” he says. “Now I know where I can teach him some more, work a little stronger with him, and not the whole class.”

In addition to facilitating individual teachable moments, Quill’s color-coded grading system readily picks up on classroom trends, thereby allowing Carswell to go into what he calls “teaching mode” and deliver a mini lesson to clarify common misconceptions.

“It’s very engaging for students,” he says. Quill “solves the problem of engaging students in the tedious work of (learning) grammar.” In short, he says, “I’m getting them Quillitized.”

Personalizing Learning

A powerful feature of many digital education tools is the extent to which they can adapt to the learning needs of each student. ThinkCERCA, for example, allows teachers to address the same essential question while providing students with leveled reading lessons.

“It’s really helpful when you are working with diverse populations and different kinds of learners,” says Claire Steines, a special education teacher who team teaches a 7th grade humanities curriculum at Middle School 88 in Brooklyn, New York, where the reading level of her students ranges anywhere from 3rd to 8th grade.

Steines, who focuses on English, co-teaches with social studies teacher Dan McCurry, making ThinkCERCA and its vast pool of topical reading assignments a valuable resource. “We do a lot of writing about history because it’s a humanities model,” she says, “and this has allowed us to pull in current events in a really cool way.”

In one instance, her students had read about and discussed the deaths last summer of two African American men following altercations with white police officers. The classroom discussion was powerful, Steines says, and the next lesson was going to be on slavery, so she and McCurry decided to use ThinkCERCA to create their own reading and writing assignment, one that addressed a related topic: Should middle school students be taught the truth about history even when it’s violent, disturbing, and upsetting?

They uploaded a reading assignment to ThinkCERCA, she says, which “gave us a way to introduce the article to the kids, to allow them to write about it, to talk about it, to wonder, to ask questions...We can upload anything that we want, and we can design a question we want the kids to answer based on the text, and then the kids can write their ThinkCERCA essay at the end.”

Other popular features include the headphones, which students use to listen to a recorded version of the article as they read through it, and the annotation box, where students can explain their reasoning for highlighting particular portions of the text. “I can almost instantly see, ‘OK, you’ve got it or you need help,’ ” Steines says.