Ahead of the Code
Published in

Ahead of the Code

Feedback is a Gift

A First Look at Writers Workbench

My experience with writing assistance tools reaches as far as Microsoft Word, and using the grammar, thesaurus, and the find key! I am “old school” — a writer’s words and ideas are their own, and they alone should decide if they want to change their ideas.

But as we turn more to technology, students are finding and using online writing tools on their own. Many of my students use Grammarly, but I have never introduced or used it in my classroom. So if writers are turning to these online tools, then it is my responsibility as a teacher to identify programs writers can access and show the benefits and pitfalls so students can choose what they need.

But with so many more students in my 8th-grade language arts classroom (155 last year), I do not have the time (or energy on some days) to do justice to the feedback given to students. Using writing partners to give each other feedback is one way to help, but we all know there are those students who do not do this well. So when looking for a writing assistant program, I want one that gives good feedback but does not take the writing decisions away from the writer. Microsoft word will highlight spelling and grammar errors for students, (most just click on the computer fix without thinking about it). I want one that will offer up feedback to make the writing more concise and powerful.

This one thing would save me time — taking me out of the picture as the only one giving feedback and allowing students to focus on their weaknesses and improving their writing using the feedback suggestions from the program.

Choosing Writer’s Workbench

I am choosing to use Writer’s Workbench as a tool this year with my students. I was drawn to this because it seemed to go beyond just structural, editing feedback and more into revision. This tool allows writers to copy text into the window, and then run an analysis on the text for “26 different analysis” of writing in the categories of Content, Characteristics, Verbs, Clarity, Words, and Punctuation. I see myself using this tool after teaching a writing skill, for example, verb tense shift, transitions, or parallelism, and then having students run an analysis on their writing to see the potential problems in these areas. With 26 different analysis, I think the big menu of possible error possibilities could overwhelm students, so being selective in the use of the analysis will be important.

Writers Workbench comes both in an online and downloadable form. It does cost money for student use, but the owner of the company/designer of the program, Greg Oij, is going to let my students and me have it free until the first of the year. The downloaded program does not work with all the different platforms my students will be coming to me with, so I thought the online version would be the best way to start.

Trying it myself

After putting a reflection piece of mine through the analysis, it identified a lot of writing issues!! Kind of embarrassing for a language arts teacher. But this piece of writing was a quick reflection on a book study credit, so I guess that excuses the poor quality! :)

Seventy-five percent of my sentences had To Be Verbs in them. The analysis also pointed out 44 Words to Check. These included homophones, commonly confused words like then and than and almost and most to name a couple. When looking at the analysis, there is a quick bit of information about the skill being analyzed that students can click on for examples. This informational piece is not too wordy or difficult to understand, and often shows an incorrect and correct example.

This program analyzes the writing error, highlights it in the writing, but does not correct the error — which is what I really like. If the writing is going to change, the writer must change it — not just click and fix. Writer’s Workbench does not take the ownership away from the writer — it allows the writer to have the final say on what the corrections should look like — or to not correct at all.

This program attempts to analyze style with measuring sentence length, and identifying the numbers of sentence constructions (simple, compound). Although the first writing characteristic listed is Organization and Development, which leads you to believe it will really give some good feedback, the program only pulls out the first and last sentence of each paragraph and counts sentences in paragraphs to identify potential development problems. Again, the writer must look at this and make changes based on their own knowledge of organization and development.

The program states that this tool works best for expository and argumentative writing. I am wondering what a narrative piece looks likes when analyzed. I enjoyed looking at the analysis of my own writing and honestly was a bit embarrassed with some of the high percentages of potential issues in my writing. So I am wondering how my students will react to their feedback. Will they be overwhelmed and ignore the analysis, or will they carefully look at the places in their writing where the program identifies a potential problem and consider how to make changes?

My students will need to be specifically instructed on how to use this tool to analyze their writing, and I will have to introduce this carefully and in small doses to not overwhelm writers. After revisions are made on the writing, another analysis can be done so students can see the analysis numbers change, but more importantly, they should see the quality of their writing improve. I am wondering how I can more efficiently use this tool in my instruction to improve the revision skills of my students. This seems to be a good tool for writers, but must be taught to my 8th graders in small doses.

Feedback is always a gift to take or not — so I’m wondering if feedback from Artificial Intelligence programs will be more enticing for students to take and use than comments made in conferences or written on the top of their papers from my pen.

I am excited to put this tool to test!

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Denise Mumm

Denise Mumm

I teach 8th grade language arts in Kimberly, Idaho. I am entering my 35th year of teaching, and I still love 8th graders! I am married and have 2 grown boys.