Can the iPad really help improve children’s writing?
When the iPad is mentioned as a tool for learning to large groups of teachers I always detect a initial sense of awe and a frisson of excitement, quickly followed by a healthy dose of scepticism and even fear for some. I think the vast majority of teachers see it as a potentially useful tool for teaching and learning, but perhaps too many still see it as something of a glorified word processor! What is crucial is that those teachers have the experience of going beyond the ‘gimmick factor’ to realise the potential of the iPad to transform conundrums which often confound us as teachers.
It is a helpful tool (in my view the most helpful ICT device by a mile), not a miracle cure – but any teacher who witnesses the motivation levels inspired by the iPad will experience how it can engage students in the challenging process of writing and much more. With its myriad of apps, the iPad can harness oral rehearsal like no other technology to aid the writing process. With its capacity to show students writing through the projector at any moment (Apple TV, Airplay or a variety of other apps), it becomes a powerful way to make formative assessment instantaneous for all; helping to make the craft of writing more easily visible, and with good teacher pedagogy, more understandable. With the capacity to make real ebooks the iPad can make the writing process feel more real and more valuable to our students – there is no better way to make students value the crucial skills of drafting and proof reading than to create the opportunity for a genuine audience and create products the look and feel professional.
‘Didn’t we inspire great writers and great writing before the iPad, or other such ICT?’ Yes. ‘Can’t we motivate students to write for the sake of it – can’t outstanding pedagogy exist without the iPad tool.’ Yes, undoubtedly. We should aim for a state of play where students are highly motivated without a reliance on technology; where students develop the core skills of writing both with and without technology – and yes, we must continue to hone their skills with the humble pen and paper! However, we should not ignore the potential gains provided by tools like the iPad, whose multi-functionality provides a host of ways to improve teaching and learning for writing. The iPad, with it’s unmatched range of applications, and it’s reliability and quality, can provide a series of marginal gains that cumulatively can make a significant difference to the learning of students – with writing being a key skill that can be enhanced.
‘It is about the pedagogy stupid!’
Any teacher who has used the iPad with students will know the x-factor it provides (nothing to do with the awful Simon Cowell product I assure you!) – the initial oohs and ahhs and impressed looks; the endless excited questions about it. Like anything, however, those initial awed impressions fade to a level of familiarity. That being said, the raised sense of motivation is palpable and never really goes away – remember, we are teaching ‘digital natives’ who have an expertise with technology (often beyond our own – something we should not fear, but instead harness) that makes them feel comfortable in their learning, often assuming the mantle of the expert unconsciously and with aplomb. When they begin to master the tool their confidence rises still further and they are more engaged than ever. Boys in particular, exhibit greater engagement and focus. One male GCSE student in my school reflected upon his learning with the iPad, stating: “I’m more likely to use technology – I’ll do more and work harder. It’s something different and new. I can make things look better and so I wouldn’t mind showing my work to the class then.” This young man is your archetypal disinterested boy, typically turned off by the process of writing, as he has formed a hardened sense of failure from an early age that is difficult to unpick. The technology gave him a sense of confidence and pleasure in writing that should not be underestimated – in fact, I view it as absolutely crucial to success.
Beyond the confidence and beyond the motivation levels of students is the use of the tool to enhance core teacher pedagogy. Why the iPad is the best technology, in my opinion, for students, is that is has such multi-functionality, such flexibility. Actually, the fact that it is keyboardless (you can purchase wireless keyboards of course) I perceive as a strength – as it removes the misnomer that technology for writing is simply a word processing tool. It can be that, but to transform and modernise and pedagogy it needs to be so much more.
’The ‘How’ – ways in which the iPad can help improve student’s writing:
Oral rehearsal and recording: the iPad provides many applications that allow students to work both individually and collaboratively in rehearsing their writing – a crucial skill to support writing. For example, in devising a scheme for next year’s GCSE controlled assessment on writing a monologue, the students will work together on filming a monologue using iMovie. They will use the variety of camera shots and scene changes to build the narrative structure and sense of voice. They will edit the film, reflecting on the language choices, before showing it to the group to receive constructive criticism. The final process of writing up the monologue becomes cognitively clearer, the students have drafted without realising they have drafted! By using ExplainEverything, students can record their ideas, perhaps commentating on a text they have uploaded to the slide in the application, before they embark upon writing a conventional essay. They can play a presentation to the group and receive feedback on shaping what they have produced, giving then the constructive criticism they need to then write well.
Aiding the planning of writing: iPad has a legion of apps specifically for creative planning, such as Popplet, that are very useful tools. By using the likes of Notability, students can record their notes, save images, draw and be creative in their planning. Websites, such as Pinterest, or the Dropbox app, can be used to share planning, to access shared research or to engage in ‘flipped classroom’ learning. Again, the options are endless, but the teacher should hone their method to best suit their students. Apps like Comic Life can allow students to create comic book style plans for their narrative writing; Puppetpals can allow students to ‘play’ with interactions between characters, to practice speeches or debates in a fun and lively fashion.
Writing models: alongside using their own writing in the process of modelling, by using applications like Goodreader, or accessing documents from Dropbox, students can annotate upon almost any document imaginable! Classic skills of text marking can again be shared and made easily visible for all – the process can become shared, guided by the teacher or other students. Any annotation can be saved and stored, therefore making it accessible for future lessons, or even other groups of students. Although I have not used it, Google Documents can be utilised for creating shared documents and drafting writing across different devices – something I plan on researching soon. Annotation is an age old teaching strategy that isn’t new to any of us, but the iPad can take it up a level or three. The iPad is simply a tool to make the process of modelling and annotating more interactive, more easily visible and making any text more accessible.
Using the device and its applications as a stimulus for writing: I need not explain the potential use of the web or the YouTube app to aid wiring, only to say that it is fantastic to not have to book a computer room, or to organise and undertake the potted journey to the computer room to research the web, or to find some crucial gem of information that the students need for their writing! A range of stimuli for writing is there at the touch of a button – from the music library, the photograph library, iBooks, iTunes U etc. – the options are endless and all ready with easy and flexible access.
Formative assessment – unveiling the mysteries of the writing process: by using Apple TV, or applications like Airplay or Ideas Flight, it allows the teacher to stream the learning from any iPad in the room instantaneously – see Fig 1. Using Notability, students can write their ideas, perhaps a model paragraph or the opening of a narrative. The teacher can stream the writing and embark on questioning to support their writing, garner feedback from others and annotate directly onto the writing on the student’s iPad. The opportunities for guided writing and shared writing are obvious. The visibility of their writing becomes a powerful way to unveil the process of writing explicitly and with simple immediacy. Finally, taking a photograph of the written work of students is a great way to share their work and provide useful feedback for any given task.
What is clear is that the iPad has so many useful tools it can be almost be overawing, like a child flooded with excitement in a sweetshop! Each school or department needs to identify their priorities, harness their shared knowledge and learn together. You can use Twitter to find answers from their PLN (professional learning network) or the host of helpful YouTube video guides to help you through using the device as a teaching and learning tool. Our English and Media faculty have identified key teaching and learning strategies which will enhance our teaching and learning pedagogy – many in evidence above – that we will work together in honing. There will be elements of risk, there will be failures (technology has a habit of doing that at inopportune moments!), but the benefits outweigh the challenges. With some mastery, iPads can undoubtedly improve writing, providing marginal gains at every step of the writing process to result in better writing by our students.