Technology helps boost writing skills
Computer programs increase test scores, student interest
by Janet Sugameli / Detroit News / 9-23-02
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WARREN -- A pilot program to improve students' writing and
organizational skills is making a positive impact on general
education students as well.
The Macomb Intermediate School District's "Begin with Me"
program is a hardware and software tool kit for teachers to
use with struggling students in their regular classrooms.
With computer programs, talking word processors and electronic
spell-checkers, initially it was aimed at special needs and
"The idea was to get it into the classroom, where they need to
use it," said Assistive Technology Consultant Susan Hardin.
"This way, the kids that are struggling can use it right
District consultants found the program was helpful to all
students -- not just those for whom it was intended. Hardin
said it improved students' writing. They also wrote more
often, and longer.
Educators believe the program contributed to improved scores
on last year's fifth-grade state writing test.
Students can use the tool in several ways. The software gives
them help with brainstorming by mapping. Kids type in their
ideas on a subject, and the Kidspiration program builds a map
or web of their thoughts.
The program also utilizes electronic spell checkers.
The technology helps at-risk and special education students
who need the extra computerized help. Many students who are
not struggling find the use of technology a novelty,
encouraging them to write, too.
Last year, Aaron Nitz's fifth graders' natural writing ability
was polished by the specialized technology.
"'The Begin with Me' program stresses personal skills from the
planning stage," said Nitz, a teacher at Warren Woods
Briarwood Elementary. "It helps bring their ideas from their
brain to the paper, all the way to final editing."
"It helped me think of ideas on writing and it helped me
format everything. It just made it easier," explained
11-year-old Steven St. Louis, who participated in the program
"Before, when I would write, I didn't web (my thoughts). But
now I use it and it helps me. Even without the computer it
Nitz said the program was particularly helpful for the
students "who don't fit the special education bill, but they
do have some weaknesses like organizing their thoughts."
Twenty-one teachers in the county are trained to use the
program this year, its second. That number is expected to
Last year, five districts used the program; this year, it's up
It is expected that within six years, the program will be
available in every Macomb County district.
Two fifth-grade classrooms in Fraser participated in the
program last year, according to elementary school computer
coordinator Angela George; this year, five are using it.
Taking control of the program this year allowed Fraser to
"tailor the program to our curriculum, so it was not extra
work for the teachers," she said.
District officials decided to expand the program because they
were impressed with its results, and how it worked for special
education and general education.
"From the data they collected, our teachers saw a definite
improvement in students' writing," George said.
"Students have a lot of ideas that they want to write about,
and the technology helps to support the presentation of those
Next year, the district may expand the program to all fifth
Last week, Briarwood fourth-grader James Little watched the
demonstration of the program for the first time. James said he
didn't like to write, but he's been trying to improve.
"This might help me to get better topics," he said. "I think
there's going to be a big difference in my writing."
Nitz said students love to incorporate technology into their
"Their natural skills came to the surface because of their
writing and use of the technology," he said. "They were more
apt to get the ideas from their brain and put them on paper."
Principal Mary Tewksbury observed that "by showing kids how to
deal with problems, such as spelling through the use of the
AlphaSmart (software), it took away one of their road blocks."
Through the intermediate school districts, students can take
virtual field trips and connect with other distance learning
technology as part of the 'Begin With Me' program.
"Sometimes, kids are reluctant writers because they don't have
anything to write about," Tewksbury said. "Distance learning
makes it real for the students and it gives them some fodder
for their writing."
"If you have the tools without a reason to write, the toolbox
stays closed," said Frank Miracola, interactive learning
consultant for Macomb schools.
Sixth grader Katie Spanos said the program "gave me better
images of what I was reading. When I could go write, I knew
more about what I was writing about."
Ashley Krolicki, 11, agreed.
"It gave me hints on what words to use and it made my writing
better," she said. "It still helps because I remember what we
Janet Sugameli is a Metro Detroit free-lance writer.