Whenever I talk to a group of teachers about writing instruction, we talk about the core elements of writing workshop: choice, time, and teaching. We hone in on this idea of how much practice writers need. As Kelly Gallagher writes in his blog post “Moving Beyond the 4 x 4 Classroom,” volume is essential:
Within 30 minutes assessment comes up. “How do we grade all this?” teachers ask.
I think what we mean when we say this is “How do we manage all this feedback?” We know that feedback is key to supporting our writers. If we want students to grow as writers, we must figure out ways to offer them feedback that is both actionable and timely (Wiggins, 2012).
Enter ProWritingAid (with thanks to Jennifer Gonzalez’s post). This online platform has been a game changer for me as a writer, and I think could be for our students too. There’s a free version, along with a paid subscription. I’ve only used the free version, but even with the limitations, it has impressed me.
How it works
Writers paste a piece of writing into the text box, then run a summary. Through the magic of algorithms, the site creates a report on the writing. And I have to say, it’s a good report. You get information about the general readability of your writing, along with more detailed feedback.
The above report is from the first draft of this essay (yikes!). As a writer, though, I find this report helpful. It gives me a goal to work towards — I want to get those yellow scores to green, and the red one to at least yellow. I’m not recommending that these numbers correlate to a grading scale. Rather, they tell me about areas that I can strengthen as a writer.
One of my favorite areas of the report is the section on Sentence Structure. I love how this section graphs out my sentence length. I can see if I’m using a variety of lengths, as well as where I need to focus my attention if I notice an overabundance of long (or short) sentences.
Another part of the report addresses what they call Sticky Sentences. I love the way this tool talks about the elusive fluff. We all know writers who tend to be verbose, or who fill their writing with words that just kind of take up space (apparently, First Draft Angela is one of those people).
This overall report is only part of what ProWritingAid analyzes. Using the toolbar at the top of the page, writers can drill down into specifics.
Based on my initial report, my Style score was pretty low, so I start there. I click on the Style button and the screen below shows up. When I hover over the underlined areas, I’m given specific recommendations. Eliminate adverbs. Change “which is different from” to “differs from”. The recommendations don’t change the message of my writing; rather, they strengthen it.
I love this tool. I’ve noticed that the feedback it gives me as a writer is similar (if not a little better) than what I would give students. And the best part is that it puts the ownership back on students. I love that I know what to do after looking at this report. I have specific, actionable steps. And honestly, it’s fun. I like revising and then running the scan again to see if it’s better.
After I’ve looked at the suggestions from the site, I choose which suggestions to accept and which to ignore. I own my writing. I notice that most of the feedback focuses on my use of adverbs. I need to, as Tom Romano says, weed the garden. After revision, my scores increase considerably.
How I might use with students
Conferring: I can imagine asking students to run a report on their draft and to bring it to a conference. What a great place to start talking to students about their writing. The report summary would help us focus on areas students might want to ask me about, or it might help me know what a good teaching point would be for that writer.
Reflection: I have been thinking about asking students to print their full report and attach it to the final draft of a piece of writing (or to screenshot it and insert with their doc). I would love for students to highlight places where they’ve made revisions and then reflect on how their writing changed and what impact those changes had on the writing.
Peer feedback: I think this would be a great talking point for students to talk to each other in partnerships. I struggle with peer conferencing because students don’t always know what to say to each other. With this, though, they begin to internalize a vocabulary around writing that will elevate their conversation.
Independence & Transfer: My biggest hope for our student writers is that they leave our classrooms with tools they can use their whole life. This tool gives them a place to go when they need help with their writing. Because that’s what real writers do. They’re not always going to have us and our red (or purple) pen to tell them what to do next as writers. Instead, I want them to know they have some places to go.
Try it. Before you introduce to students, take a piece of your writing and run it through the algorithm. Better yet, do it in front of students. Show them how easy yet powerful it is to utilize this tool. And then, enjoy the gift of time you have. Use that time to confer with students, to talk about mentor texts, to increase the volume of writing that’s happening in your classroom.
Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati, OH area, where spring is showing off every day. Currently she and her three kids are fascinated by the robin’s nest in the tree out front. It’s up to four eggs today! You can find Angela on Twitter @WordNerd.