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3 Creative Tech Tools to Teach Writing

Posted by on June 23, 2016

tech and writingWhat is ‘writing’? If you look it up in the Free Dictionary, you find this definition:

The act or process of producing and recording words in a form that can be read and understood

This focuses on recording words that are then communicated to others. In fact, if you ask students (and too often, teachers), to define ‘writing’, they probably agree with the Free Dictionary, adding that writing uses a pencil and paper (maybe a word processing program), requires language skills such as grammar, spelling, sentence fluency, and paragraph construction, and revolves around activities such as taking notes, conducting research, writing an essay, or composing a story.

Today in the 21st Century schools, they’d be wrong. What they have defined as ‘writing’ is actually writing conventions, tools, and activities rather than its purpose, goals, and definition. Let’s look at a different definition, this one from Merriam-Webster:

…the way you use written words to express ideas or opinions

This one is well-aligned with the goals of most popular writing curricula and the Common Core Standards:

To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students need to learn to use writing as a way of offering and supporting opinions, demonstrating understanding of the subjects they are studying, and conveying real and imagined experiences and events. They learn to appreciate that a key purpose of writing is to communicate clearly to an external, sometimes unfamiliar audience, and they begin to adapt the form and content of their writing to accomplish a particular task and purpose. They develop the capacity to build knowledge on a subject through research projects and to respond analytically to literary and informational sources.

Nowhere does this summation mention activities or process because any activity or process is fine as long as it achieves the goals. Sure, “share knowledge” works better with appropriate transition words and comma placement, but those sorts of skills better fit ‘language’ than ‘writing’.  Writing is about the thoughtfulness and creativity required to communicate based on audience, task and purpose. These include (rephrased from Common Core Writing Standards):

  • dig deeply into subjects of interest to achieve better understanding and to build knowledge
  • assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism
  • share knowledge with others to enrich them, collaborate, or accomplish a particular task
  • evaluate what is being read to determine the theme and key purpose

Iconic writing activities — like online writing sites, book reports, biographies, and trifolds — place student focus on words and paragraphs. This for many interferes with their ability to achieve the real goals of writing. Instead, try something new. Two of my favorites are comics and Minecraft, but three more fresh options are listed below.

Twitter Novel

Middle and High School

There’s a lot Twitter brings to the education world:

  • It’s non-intimidating. Anyone can get through 140 characters.
  • It forces students to focus on concise, pithy writing. Wasted, fluff words aren’t an option.
  • It’s fun. Students want to try the ‘forbidden fruit’. They are motivated to test their writing skill.

In this activity, students write a novel in Twitter. Just to be clear: We’re talking about squeezing all those novel parts required for a manuscript—

  • plot/pacing
  • character development
  • theme
  • story arc
  • scene

…into 140 characters, such as David Mitchell’s Twitter novel delivered in 288+ tweets. Here’s a sampling of one-tweet Twitter novels you can find on the Internet:


‘He said he was leaving her. “But I love you,” she said. “I know,” he said. “Thanks. It’s what gave me the strength to love somebody else.” James Meek

I opened the door to our flat and you were standing there, cleaver raised. Somehow you’d found out about the photos. My jaw hit the floor. Ian Rankin

Rose went to Eve’s house but she wasn’t there. But Eve’s father was. Alone. One thing led to another. He got 10 years. Rachel Johnson

Clyde stole a lychee and ate it in the shower. Then his brother took a bottle of pills believing character is just a luxury. God. The twins. Andrew O’Hagan

“It’s a miracle he survived,” said the doctor. “It was God’s will,” said Mrs. Schicklgruber. “What will you call him?” “Adolf,” she replied. Jeffrey Archer


Before starting this writing activity with students, review these four tips:

  • Think token action, dialogue and description. Not this: He sat and looked at the computer for a full ten minutes before he grasped it and experienced the icy weight of his first laptop. Rather: Laptop in hand, he wrote.
  • Think installments.Releasing the novel over time increases suspense. Douglas Sovern released 1600 tweets at the rate of about 5 to 12 a day.
  • Think multimedia. Add links to images, video, or anything else that will add meaning to the story. A Twitter novel allows you to combine text with other media.
  • Think movement. Every tweet should advance the plot. You don’t want your readers ignoring tweets out of boredom.

Now, simply follow the grade-appropriate writing conventions and write your novel!

Serialized novel

Elementary-High School

Start by discussing the meaning of a serialized novel—a normal length novel published one chapter at a time, in small bites for people to read. Many early writers were published this way including Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, and Charles Dickens. Show students examples of serialized novels from authors they are reading in class.

There are a lot of reasons why serialized novels are making a resurgence. Consider these two statistics:

  • The average person’s attention span is 8.8 seconds.
  • The average goldfish attention span is 9 seconds.

Here’s what students will do:

  • Write an outline of the planned story.
  • Write a character study of each character.
  • Develop a basic plot line of what  happens when.
  • Research any setting which characters will visit.
  • Be sure that the story fulfills the class requirements for writing (such as those mentioned).

At this point, students write one installment of their serialized novel each week (maybe during class) and then publish it to their blog. They use whatever writing tool works best for them (word processing, a comic creator, a video, an audio tool, or another they suggest) but it must be embeddable into their blog. Let them select the best tool for their communication style. When done with each chapter, they will visit and comment on three of the stories written by classmates.


Elementary-High School

Discuss the meaning of ‘vignettes’. Help students understand it is a verbal sketch, a brief essay, or a carefully crafted short work of fiction or nonfiction based around a setting, an atmosphere, or characters. Well-known vignettes include:

In this option, students work individually or in groups to write vignettes around a cast of characters and a central atmosphere.  Here are basic rules to follow when writing vignettes:

  • Each vignette abides by the collection’s atmosphere.
  • Each vignette is approximately 800 words. They can be shorter, but not usually longer.
  • Each vignette must evoke emotion.
  • Each vignette shares a moment (including its power and emotion) rather than a plot line.
  • Each vignette collection is tied together by a common mood.

There are lots more rules, but these vary depending upon your curriculum. Share what is necessary to fit your unique student group.

Here’s how this works:

  • Students work individually or in groups organized by the tool they wish to use in writing their vignettes. For example, those who wish to use a comic creator would join the same group.
  • Write a character study of each character.
  • Decide on setting and atmosphere.
  • If working in a group, develop a schedule of who will publish their vignette when. 
  • Publish the vignettes in a collaborative blog.

Whichever of these three activities you (or students) pick, remember that the goal is not writing words but communicating ideas.

More on Writing

Lesson Plans to Achieve Common Core Writing Standards

Technology Removes Obstructed Writers’ Barriers to Learning

5 Writing Lesson Plans

Teach Writing with Tech (an online class)

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for over 15 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.

2 Responses to 3 Creative Tech Tools to Teach Writing

  1. Bill Morgan

    Specific to the task at hand – inspiring young writers!

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