Supporting ELL Students with Automated Writing Feedback

Male university student using computer while listening to music in college

“Writing is labor intensive exercise for both the student and the teacher and requires a lot of one-on-one,” said Wink Swain of Measurement Inc.
A 2012 case study agreed:

One reason that teachers may assign essays infrequently is that grading them is both time consuming and increasingly difficult. If a typical teacher is now instructing a single class of 20–30 students, and—in some cases—those same teachers are carrying 2-4 of those classes, a single long-form essay assignment of 1,000 words (4-5 pages) can generate between 100 and 600 pages of written material. Asking teachers to read, grade and provide substantive feedback on each one represents a formidable commitment of time and attention.

For 15 years a handful of companies have offered automated essay scoring. Studies have demonstrated scoring software can replicate trained graders, making it useful for testing situations. Perhaps even more importantly, these same scoring engines can provide useful formative six trait writing feedback.  
Jeff Pense, a Canton Georgia English teacher, assigns 28 essays each year to his 130 middle school students. He notes that “Each one of those was submitted for assessment an average of six times, so that’s well over 20,000 drafts that were assessed and graded, just for my classroom. There’s no teacher who could do that.” Pense uses Pearson’s WriteToLearn to provide formative feedback to students.  
Swain reports that teachers using the PEG Writing feedback system report that they don’t have to spend as much time on the mechanics of writing (spelling, capitalization, punctuation, etc.) which allows them to focus on more substantive skills (organization, elaboration, development of ideas, etc.).
Writing programs like PEG “meet students where they are, keep them focused and motivated on the task at hand without having to involve the teacher at every point,” according to Swain.   
Automated feedback, doesn’t replace the teacher, “It does give them more control over instruction and feedback,” said Swain, “It’s like having a tireless teaching assistant who can quickly assess each and every draft.” Feedback tools also provide teachers a summary of each student’s progress.
Writing assistants provide immediate feedback to students which helps internalize the encouragement, something “especially important for anyone coming to a task where they are notably behind,” according to Swain.
PEG is licensed statewide in North Carolina as NC Write and used extensively in Durham Public Schools. Like NC Write, Utah Compose is a writing solution for the state of Utah. Last year, it scored more than three million essays. PEG is also used by more than 136,000 secondary student through a Texas Education Agency pilot program (representing all 20 regions, 100 districts, 250 schools) most with large percentages of English language learners.
Dr. Joshua Wilson, University of Delaware, has found significant benefit in the use of writing feedback systems with students with disabilities finding results “encouraging, showing that students with disabilities grow at an [more] accelerated rate than their typically-developing peers and actually close the gap.” Wilson will be evaluating PEG use by Texas English learners.  
Pearson’s literary tool, WriteToLearn, supports English language learners with writing prompts and feedback that focus on the fundamentals of writing including language usage, sentence structure, mechanics and ordering of ideas. The NextGen version has specialized prompts for ELL students, a scoring rubric focused on writing fundamentals that corresponds more to the kinds of errors ELL students make, vocabulary training which focuses on teaching students about words they would need before reading texts they would summarize, and improved guided feedback and writing tips which can also be displayed in Spanish and Chinese.
Pearson recently launched TELL (Test of English Language Learning), a tablet based assessment with an interactive, fun interface for screening, diagnosing and monitoring ELL student progress.  It integrates automated scoring of writing and speaking technologies and uses tablet features to support interactive activities including reading short texts out loud, listening to instructions,  interacting with pictures, watching and describing videos and retelling stories.
More than half of the 24,500 students in Compton USD are English learners. The district uses WriteToLearn to encourage more and better writing (watch this YouTube).
A 2012 study evaluated Criterion Online Writing Evaluation Service by ETS in a college-level psychology course and a significant reduction in the number of article errors in the final essays of the non-native speakers.
“We use Criterion as an integral part of a comprehensive and coordinated plan to improve student writing across campus,” said CSU Fresno faculty. “This online program gives students the opportunity to rewrite and reduce the distractions in their papers so that professors can focus on the quality of content and evidence in written assignments. Many students, especially English Language Learners, find that the immediate feedback helps them gain a better understanding of grammatical features in writing.”
With recent ELL enhancements, efficacy studies of writing feedback systems like Criterion, PEG, and WriteToLearn would be valuable to the sector.
Two Ways to Share Your Ideas

  1. If interested in contributing your story and ideas to the series, please submit a guest blog to [email protected] with the subject line “ELL.”
  2. To share your favorite ELL tool, tip or strategy, please tweet us @Getting_Smart using the hashtag #SupportELL.

This blog is part of the Supporting English Language Learners Series with support from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more, stay tuned for the culminating podcast, infographic and publication.
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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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A great way to learn languages is to watch movies in the language you want to learn with subtitles in the same language. Lingvo TV gives you a convenient tool to grow vocabulary and have fun at the same time.

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