How I Use Automation To Differentiate Writing Instruction

It’s challenging to differentiate writing instruction for students of various abilities, especially for novice teachers.

How I Use Automation To Differentiate Writing Instruction

Using Automation And Personal Feedback To Differentiate Writing Instruction

contributed by Jennifer Harrison 


A Texas teacher uses a combination of digital tools and good old-fashioned teaching to target her writing instruction to students at various skill levels by assigning different writing prompts to three separate groups of students. While her students are writing, a digital dashboard helps her provide just the right support for students who need it.

Differentiating instruction for students of various abilities can be challenging, and that’s especially true for educators who are teaching writing skills.

It’s hard enough to read as many as 30 student essays per class and respond with timely feedback for each student; trying to tailor assignments to each student’s skill level makes this an even tougher task.

Natashia Hill, an English teacher and Gifted & Talented Coordinator at Clint Early College Academy in Texas, relies on two digital writing tools to help her meet this challenge. Using Turnitin’s Revision Assistant and Feedback Studio has made it much easier for her to differentiate writing instruction for her students, she says—empowering her to be more effective in her teaching.

Hill’s school operates an early college program for the Clint Independent School District. Students in this dual-enrollment program earn both a high school diploma and credit toward an Associate of Arts degree from El Paso Community College. With a community college g.p.a. of 3.0 or higher, students also may qualify for a scholarship to continue on at the University of Texas El Paso to earn a four-year degree.

Although early college programs typically are associated with high-flying students who want to get a jump on their college education, Hill says her students have very different abilities—ranging from elementary to college-level literacy skills. Her classes can have anywhere from 15 to 30 students, and with Turnitin’s software, “I have more assistance to differentiate instruction,” she says.

Powered by technology from Carnegie Mellon University researchers, Revision Assistant (RA) is an automated tool for students to practice their writing and get immediate feedback to help them improve.

Teachers can choose from among dozens of writing prompts within the platform’s library, covering the different types of writing required by next-generation state standards: argumentative, narrative, and informational. As students write essays in response to these prompts, they can request a ‘Signal Check’ to evaluate their work. The platform uses sophisticated algorithms to analyze both the context and syntax of the students’ writing, then delivers highly targeted feedback that helps them revise their work before submitting it.

Hill’s students all have school-issued Lenovo laptops or laptop-tablet hybrid devices. During in-class writing labs, she might provide direct instruction to the entire class about a particular topic, such as what makes for a good thesis statement, then have her students work individually on writing prompts. While her students are writing, she helps those who need additional support.

From the diagnostic testing her school does throughout the year, Hill has a clear sense of her students’ literacy skills, such as their reading level according to the Lexile scale. She can use this information to differentiate instruction by assigning students different writing prompts based on their abilities because each prompt within the Revision Assistant library includes the Lexile score of its source materials.

For instance, to practice argumentative writing, she assigned one of three different prompts to her students. Her lowest-level students were asked to respond to the question: “Should kids get a trophy for participation?” In this prompt, the source material had a Lexile score of 910 to 1230.

Her mid-range students had to write a letter to the principal arguing whether students should, or should not, be allowed to use cell phones in class; that prompt had a Lexile score of 1290. Her highest-level students had to write about whether they agreed with national security regulations, which had a Lexile score above 1300.

“Every single student was working on an argumentative essay,” she says, “but at a level that matched their abilities.”

As her students are writing, the software gives them specific feedback every time they request a Signal Check. Meanwhile, Hill can see from the program’s dashboard which students are struggling with certain aspects of their writing. She uses this information to provide individual or small group instruction that focuses on the particular skills students are lacking.

“I’m pulling students to my desk to talk about their writing,” she explains. “If I notice commonalities among students, I’ll pull them up as a group to go over that skill. They’re getting feedback from the program, but also from me. This helps me extend my presence in the classroom.”

Hill uses RA in combination with another Turnitin program, Feedback Studio, which helps her comment on her students’ writing more efficiently. For instance, she can leave drag-and-drop comments or record verbal feedback in response to a student’s essay, which saves her a great deal of time.

She can also have students critique each others’ writing anonymously, which gives them yet another perspective. “I have them go through two cycles of peer review before they turn in their final product,” she notes.

Using the two programs in combination has been “very powerful,” Hill says. “I’m able to be more strategic in how I teach writing in my classroom, and I also have more time for one-on-one instruction.”

Since she began using these tools, she has noticed that her students’ writing has become much more organized and thoughtful, because they are revising their work more frequently as they get feedback from the Signal Checks.

“The quality of the drafts they are turning in is much better,” she concludes, “and then I can say: ‘This is how you can take your writing to the next level.’”

How I Use Automation And Personal Feedback To Differentiate Writing Instruction