Tip of the Week: 3 tech tool types that support distraction free literacy
It used to be called “writing across the curriculum.” Years ago, in Derby Middle School, I remember WAC being the latest educational buzzword. And it was a good idea. Literacy – reading, writing, communicating – is something that should be happening in all the content areas. But for a lot of reasons, WAC theory and actual practice never seem to align.
Of course, good teachers have been integrating literacy skills into their instruction both before and after WAC. That practice is now encouraged and supported with the latest trend – literacy standards embedded as part of historical thinking and social studies best practice.
It’s still a good idea.
Our students should be reading, writing, and communicating in the specific social studies disciplines. And I know you’re having kids do it. But finding the right tools to support literacy can be difficult. Using paper and pencil is always available . . . though without options for easy collaboration, editing, and sharing. Google Drive provides options for that sort of stuff but it’s still not available in some districts.
And even if it is available, using Drive and other online writing tools are not always the ideal writing environment. It’s easy to get distracted – Look! A squirrel / Facebook / Flipboard / Social Media / Texts – and lose focus. We know that these distractions make it more difficult to come back to the writing process. And even if we are able to resist the blackhole of YouTube Grumpy Cat videos, we can get distracted by the bells and whistles of word processors, focusing so much on format and editing and process that we have difficulty getting words out.
So today? Some tools to help you and students stay focused on the task of writing.
Many teachers and students aren’t aware of edit-lock writing tools. These are online word processors that prevent you from even editing anything you’ve written until you’ve reached a predetermined time limit or word count. Some of my best teachers always told me “write first, edit later.” An edit-lock editor helps do that.
One of the easiest edit-lock tools to use is called BlindWrite. The idea behind BlindWrite is that if you can’t actually see what you were writing, it would force the critic in you to shut up and let you write in peace. It’s a simple text editor that gives you only a blank screen to work with. At the site, you’re asked to enter the topic you’ll be writing about and how long you would like to write.
Type in Grumpy Cat, set the timer for one or five or 20 or whatever minutes and the site gives you a blank screen. You start typing and everything you write is blurred out until the timer hits the magic number. The words unblur, you makes changes, and begin the process again. When you’re “done,” copy and paste into Google Drive or Word or other favorite word processor.
I also like a tool called ilys. This is even more restrictive. After you set up your account, you start a session, tell the software how many words you want to write, and the only thing that appears when you begin typing is one letter at a time. You can’t see anything that is created. But it’s a great way to focus on getting words, sentences, and paragraphs out without worrying so much about structure. You can’t backspace or delete. You just write, keeping track of the word count using the number in the top middle of the screen.
Once you write the amount of words you set, you have the option to edit and save what you’ve written with the ability to go back and add to the session later.
I like it because it truly forces you to live from your notes and mental organization. It used to be free but now comes with a limited number of words (10,000) before cutting you off and asking for money. It’s $13 bucks for three months.
A third edit-lock tool is called Ernest. Earnest does not spell-check your writing, provide any way for you to format your work, there is no grammar checking, and you can’t edit the words you’ve already written. Like BlindWrite and ilys, Earnest is about getting words down for your first draft, you can edit later. It automatically saves your work every 10 seconds locally on your computer. You can work on, and store, multiple pieces of writing at any time. Because your work is saved locally on your computer, Earnest does not require any sign-up or login.
The downside for use with students? The front screen opens with a quote from the software’s namesake Earnest Hemingway:
The first draft of anything is s–t.
I’ll let you figure that one out on your own.
A second type of tech-based writing tool are the distraction-free editors. One of the most difficult aspects of writing is that distractions exist around every corner. You can eliminate some of that by using tools such as WriteApp, WriteSpace, or Writebox. WriteApp is web-based and free with an option to upgrade for a one-time fee of $1.99. Both free and upgrade versions give you the chance to write and edit in a very clean window, saving your work online for future sessions.
A third tool type are essay graders. While the true measurement of quality writing lies in the hands of humans (at least for now), essay grader tools can help your students self-assess their own writing during the process. So after using edit-lock and distraction-free tools, encourage them to use a tool such as the Hemingway App.
The Hemingway App makes sure that your reader will focus on your message, not your prose. Too often, our words are like our thoughts, disorganized and confusing. Begin by clicking the “Write” button and pasting in your text. Hemingway reads your text and assigns not just a readability score to your writing but will highlight phrases or sentences that are hard to read. It also highlights adverbs, phrases in the passive voice, and words or phrases that might have simpler alternatives.
Clicking on the highlighted areas will give you more specific suggestions.
Make any changes you see necessary and ask for more advice. Continue the process until your essay is perfect. You also have the ability to just start typing rather than copying earlier work. There is also a $10 desktop version that doesn’t require internet access.
Used together, these different tools can improve how your kids think about, organize, and construct the writing they do in your classroom.