Our New Breed of Writers: Beyond Words in Word

then and nowThe 21st century learner needs communication skills that transcend writing essays and technical skills that go beyond setting up margins for printing. From iPad apps to cloud-based tools, today's writers do more than type papers on a blank screen. Transform assignments and infuse tools to help our new breed of writers who communicate through images, maps, audio, and video in addition to words. What does it mean to be a writer?

If you're still teaching the basics of Microsoft Word and asking for paper-based reports, it's time to think beyond 8.5 x 11 with 1 inch margins. Learn to transform your writing assignments while addressing standards across the curriculum.

How can traditional writing assignments change through the use of new tools and technologies?

Let's start by going back in time to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Writing is about sharing. We can experience events through journals. This writing can include words, drawings, maps, and other elements to convey meaning. Reading can often jumpstart an experience. For instance, the graphic history Lewis and Clark by Nick Bertozzi isn't intended to replace the journals, instead it provides a way to experience the adventure.

Technology can also provide new ways to experience a time period. The iPad app U.S. Westward Expansion provides background information. An iPad app like Momento and others provide tools for students to write their own journals. They can even add images and share their work electronically.

Lewis and Clark Ideas:

It's all about writing...

The History of Digital Writing

Let's explore the history of digital writing through five technology tools:

1 - Word Processing Tools

Word processing software was one of the first, popular software applications for the microcomputer. It allowed writers to easily enter, edit, and revise text. Word processing software evolved to include images, audio, and even multimedia elements. However the software is still primarily used to create pages that can be printed or shared electronically. Microsoft Word remains the most popular. Software such as Pages for the iPad incorporate some of the unique features of the new technology such as sharing.

2 - Visual Layout Tools

With the introduction of Mac and Windows, the computer became a more visual tool. Software such as page layout tools, presentation tools, and hypermedia tools allowed writers to infuse visual elements into their work. Designs included complex print materials like folder brochures. However increasingly materials like Microsoft PowerPoint were created for the computer screen without the need for printing.

3 - Correspondence Tools

Remote written communicatons between people were originally in the form of letters. In the 1980s, e-mail became a popular method of communication followed by chat, bulletin boards and forums, blogs, and texting. The focus was on quick sharing of ideas without the need for paper. The written works are often viewed as ephemeral and not intended for permanent storage.

4 - Collaboration Tools

The widespread availability of Internet has increased our ability to easily access information anywhere, anytime. The infusion of open-editing tools into easy-to-use online applications has made the collaborative process much easier. Wikis are a wonderful example of an open environment for writing. However many other types of tools such as concept maps, timelines, and electronic whiteboards provide these features for collaborative writing.

5- Transmedia Tools

Traditionally writing was conveyed through the paper format. Increasingly there are many different ways to experience a story, explore ideas, or interact with others. Transmedia writing involves creating communications that bridge different media. A story may be told through a written narrative along with other forms of communication such as text messages, audio, video, and collaborations.

vestTry It!
What do you see as the major changes in writing over the past several decades?
How are these changing teaching and learning?

Re-defining Writing

It's time to re-define what we mean by "writing" and the emphasis we place on it in school.

Writing can take many forms. It can be text on a page and in paragraphs, but it can also be text on a screen and in bubbles.

Does writing need to be text? What about all those student communications that involve images, audios, video, and animation? Aren't those equally important skills?

Writing is a representation of language through the use of symbols.

Now it's your job to decide what's a "representation of language" and how symbols are used to convey language. What does this really mean? Do we need to expand our thinking to meet the needs of today's communicators?

What's involved with the writing process? A writer brainstorms ideas, organizes thoughts, creates and edits a draft, and revises the communication to serve some purpose. Does each step need to take the form of text to be "writing"? What about lists of ideas, concept maps, and storyboards? How do they fit into our understanding of the writing process?

Do you need to enter words on a keyboard to write? Can writing be an auditory expression of language that is transcribed into text? Or, text brought alive through computer speech?

Does writing need to take a text form or can it be infused with other forms? Infographics combine text with other symbols to convey meaning. Tools such as comic creators interweave words with images to create meaning. Video productions may include audio narration to go with still and motion images. Are these still considered to be writing?

What about adapting and rethinking works? From retelling stories to reimagining worlds, writers often revise and revisit the work of others.

Educators often focus on the traditional definition of writing stressing the use of text symbols to convey meaning. However much of today's writing is associated with other types of composers such as videographer, graphic designers, and web authoring? Aren't these equally important if the mission is communication?

Should we adjust the definition to meet these changing demands or begin emphasizing words like "composing" and "creating" to describe information creation and sharing?

Five New Environments for Writing

Social media has introduced a spectrum of new environments for writing. Let's use Figment as an example.

  1. Favorite, Vote, Tag, or Categorize. Many social networks allow participants to be actively thinking and participating without the need for lots of words. Users can add their ideas in other ways such as voting, tagging articles, or favoriting pages.
  2. Comment or Reply. At Figment, participants are encouraged to post their writing as well as contribute to the work of others through comments and replies.
  3. Create and Share. Use social media as a way to share your writing. Figment has many opportunities to participate in writing contests and interesting writing activities. For instance, Kate diCamillo asked participants to use a line from one of her books in a story. She also encouraged students to read The Chronicles of Harris Burdick that includes 14 popular authors writing about images.
  4. Collaborate. Groups and forums are a place where people can make contacts for collaborations. 
  5. Moderate or Lead. Participants may become moderators of groups or leaders in collaborative activities.

vestTry It!
What's your definition of writing?
How are you using social media to promote collaborative writing?

Five Features of Electronic Writing

As you explore and evaluate electronic writing environments, look for features that meet your needs. Ask yourself how these tools will help you address standards and meet the needs of 21st century learners.

1 - Planning and Note-taking Tools

2 - Editing and Support Tools

3 - Media Elements

4 - Collaborative Options

5 - Formatting and Publishing Options

vestTry It!
How can writing tools be useful during the inquiry process?

Five Real-World Issues

1 - The Basics

How do you teach spelling, grammar, and other language skills with so many "helpers" that don't let students learn from their errors?

2 - The Plagiarism Battle

There are three things we can do to eliminate student plagiarism:

Start with content-rich apps. Use Fotopedia: Heritage from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre to jumpstart a writing assignment. There are ones related to many places including Paris and North Korea. The site doesn't have a copy option so students are less likely to "copy and paste". However students can create a "trip" to bookmark locations.

Teach Information Skills. Students need to understand the concept of plagiarism and how to avoid it. For instance, design activities around websites with built-in note-taking tools that promote student writing rather than copying.

Rethink Assignments. If you ask for facts, you'll get information copied from websites. Instead, design assignments that can't be copied. Ask students to:

3 - Working with Apps

Software is changing. Apps are becoming a common way to access tools and information.

4 - Managing Communication

5 - Assessments

Use electronic tools and process checks as part of assessment.

vestTry It!
What do you see as the key issues related to writing with technology?


Resources. Rather than using crowd-sourced resources like Wikipedia, provide students with quality resources that provide background information for writing. Encourage students to look for the authority of the resource. An important part of 21st century writing is accessing, evaluating, using, and citing quality resources.

Inspire. Use apps as inspirations for writing.


Model. Look for models of new kinds of writing experience. Use these for inspiration.

Create. An elementary teacher from the iRead project used the free Puppet Pals apps with her students. One student created a project called Eureka about the gold rush using a storyboard.

We've been using Microsoft Word for decades. It's time to think of the many other tools students can use to communicate ideas.

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