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Engaging Practice: Making in English Language Arts

Use creative technology tools to engage struggling readers and writers

Image of student showing off an eBook they created

Technological innovations continue to make the world a smaller place, changing the nature of work and communication. In order to fully participate and thrive in a world steeped in information, students must be able to effectively locate and qualify information, apply it to solve problems, and effectively communicate ideas and solutions.

While today’s classrooms may be full of digital natives, we still face the challenge of engaging those students who are not prepared for work at grade level and who are not interested in traditional activities.

The instructional response to at-risk students is often the application of more drilling, which further depletes their interest in school. Rote practice may seem like the fastest way to improve students’ reading scores, but this tactic does nothing to foster an essential lifelong love of learning.

Like all students, at-risk learners yearn to express themselves creatively, to do things in non-traditional ways, and to demonstrate successes. Students who are struggling with literacy are rarely asked to create literacy products, eliminating important opportunities for them to demonstrate their abilities and mastery.

Creative multimedia tools allow for multiple forms of representation, providing an opportunity for students to demonstrate understanding while practicing literacy skills through writing (text), reading (audio), and illustration (picture walks and visualization). “When students publish their own books, you tap into their innate desire for recognition as they learn to connect to literature, play with language, and beam with pride at their accomplishments,” shares California educator Linda Oaks.

Publish student-created eBooks

Younger students are often asked to retell stories. We can use the same strategy for struggling readers and writers. Instead of requiring students to complete a fistful of worksheets or to order the scenes of a story in a workbook, have students publish their retellings as electronic books. Once students are masters of basic comprehension, push them to develop storytelling and linguistic skills by creating new endings or developing completely different variations of the same story.

Students can use tools like Wixie to create their own version of books like Mary Wore Her Red Dress by Merle Peek. Such adaptations give students an opportunity to include themselves in the story as well as practice new vocabulary or descriptive writing. Publishing an eBook motivates them not only to work hard during the process, but encourages them to practice when they revisit their very own eBooks at home.

Combining visuals with text gives students an opportunity to demonstrate learning without struggling to tell their story solely using words. Recording student narration provides an opportunity for nonthreatening practice as they record, listen, record again, listen, and finally save. The recordings also provide performances you can use to assess fluency.

Have students “flip” the classroom with their own how-to tutorials

In a flipped classroom, students explore a variety of resources such as videos, web sites, and simulations at home and return to class to address misconceptions and explore additional questions with their teacher. Having students create flipped class resource videos helps them grapple with the content they are learning while providing an opportunity to for expository writing in a format they most likely have seen or used before, such as Khan Academy-style videos in school or how-to online videos about Minecraft or making rubber band bracelets.

Sample page from student-created grammar tutorial

Second-grade teacher Katy Hammack found that after innumerable worksheets and countless review activities, many of her Title I students still lacked mastery over grade-level grammar and language skills. After creating her own grammar tutorials for student review, she began to ask her students to create them instead. She immediately noticed her students more quickly internalize grammar concepts and found that they were also “so proud when they saw their work being used by other students!”

Create as a response to literature

There are lots of ways to evaluate student comprehension beyond character trait charts, plot summary worksheets, and stereotypical book reports.

Students can show what they know by creating scrapbooks or developing social media-style profiles for characters they are reading about. These projects can include plot summaries as well as direct quotes. Regardless of the exact format, students’ deliverables are intended to demonstrate their understanding of point-of-view in ways that go beyond a simple copy and paste.

Sample page from social media profile for book character

You can also ask students to design covers for books they have read or create book trailers to encourage other students to try a title in the school library. To connect to a potential reader, students need to understand the book and connect the story to their own experiences, helping them see how the content is relevant to them and the people who will view their projects.

The visual nature of these products allows students who struggle to read and write to demonstrate understanding by utilizing pictures and music as well as text. As they learn to think about audience and utilize the tools of propaganda and methods of persuasion, they build powerful skills in argument and media literacy.

The Big Picture

Regardless of the activities you choose to do with your students, keep the following ideas in mind.

Read and write in authentic ways

Students need (and want) to practice reading and writing in real-world situations. Technology helps us make this connection by asking students to use tools to create the types of products they see in the world around them.

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Try to make sure every day includes time to apply literacy skills in projects that also have value and meaning beyond a specific learning goal.

Publish for a real-world audience

At the very least, make sure students are doing work that is similar to work done by people outside of the classroom or would have value to someone outside of the classroom. Even better, ask students to do work that will actually seen by, evaluated by, and used by someone outside of the classroom.

All of these things indicate to students that their work has value and meaning. Technology makes it easy to share student work with a wider audience, whether they are creating eBooks, comics, cartoons, or public service announcements.

Give students a voice

Student work should be a reflection of the creator, not the instructor. One student’s final work should not look the same as another student’s. Sure, we can scaffold early work with templates, but too much structure focuses student work solely on “correct” content, not representation or meaning. If our projects assume there is only one right answer for content and delivery, we aren’t asking the right questions.

Take some time with a process like Understanding by Design to ensure you are clear on the goals for student learning. Many district lesson plan templates include great questions like: What will students know as a result of completing this lesson? Also include questions like: What will students be able to do as a result of completing this project? Sometimes this is simply a matter of remembering to focus on process learning as well content learning.

Asking open-ended questions and using open-ended and creative technologies can help you engage your students in important reading and writing practice as well as help them develop powerful literacies that will serve them in our rapidly changing world.

Melinda Kolk

by Melinda Kolk

Melinda Kolk (@melindak) is the Editor of Creative Educator and the author of Teaching with Clay Animation. She has been helping educators implement project-based learning and creative technologies like clay animation into classroom teaching and learning for the past 15 years.

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