UKEdMag: Overcoming the Blank Page by @TinaWatsonTeach

-By Tina Watson (Extract)

A blank page can feel like an impenetrable barrier to some, but I have found that educational technology can really help to overcome the dreaded fear of the blank page syndrome that some children experience.

I have been using Twitter with my primary aged tutees (via their parents’ accounts) and it is a great tool for breaking down barriers to writing. The 140 character limit provides an excellent security blanket for those pupils who are daunted by writing, offering palpable reassurance that they ‘only’ have to write 140 characters into that little box on the screen. This is the ‘hook’ to get them writing. I have observed how my tutees often respond really well to the direct correlation between what they are physically writing and the decreasing character count at the right of the box. Yes, that is your writing that is making the character count decrease! If you try this out with a reluctant writer it is often the case that they will be dismayed when they run out of characters.

‘That’s not fair! I hadn’t finished what I wanted to say.’
‘OK- you want to write more?’ I’ll ask. ‘Ok, so let’s write another tweet’.
Before they know it they have written 500 characters across 4 tweets.

Fabulous! I initially used Twitter with my tutees to start an alphabet word game called The Parson’s Cat. This is an ‘old school’ word game which some of you may remember playing on long car journeys. The basic premise is that you start from A and have to come up with a name and an adjective to describe the cat. For example: ‘The parson’s cat was an amazing cat called Anita’ was our first tweet and then each child is asked to add a contribution following the alphabet. The element of repetition is also useful for reinforcing the correct punctuation to apply within the sentence. If a tutee posts a tweet with incorrect punctuation I then use that as an opportunity for peer assessment, asking other pupils to correct and retweet it.

The next stage was to extend their initial tweets and use them as a basis for a collaborative story about all those cats. So we looked at all the cats and the adjectives they had used to describe them and brainstormed their characteristics. I would often pose questions to them via Twitter as to what their cat was like (What might an eccentric cat called Ella look like?). My tutees are now writing the extended story of ‘The Parson’s Cats’ via Twitter and when we meet for our individual sessions I use their contributions as a starting point for sentence level work or story structure. We haven’t reached the end of the extended story yet and I am looking forward to seeing how Xanthia the Xerophilous cat is incorporated into the story!

Another great tool that I find useful for encouraging reluctant writers is the StoryKit (iPhone) App. This is one of many interactive book creation apps out there, but I particularly like the built in voice recording and painting tool in StoryKit. If they aren’t eager to write about a topic initially, then I allow them to play around on this and have fun recording themselves or painting a picture around the topic and then use this as a stimulus for encouraging writing. The app allows you to share their interactive books via an e mail link and the children love being able to show their families the books they have created. Then they can get parents or siblings involved and add to the book at home.

I absolutely love the Toontastic animation App. It allows you to create and share animations, but the beauty of it is that it follows the ‘story arc’ structure for storytelling, so even if you allow your pupils to create freely on it they will create an animation that follows a set structure. Reluctant writers will happily engage in creating an animation and I use this as the starting point for ‘writing’ the story they have just animated. Integrating your apps, by using the content you’ve created from one app in the next app you use, is useful too. So the animated story they created via Toontastic can then be written up via StoryKit.

You can even use an iPad to encourage good handwriting! I take photos of the individual sentences or paragraphs that my pupil has written and ask them to create a ‘Pyramid of Pride’ from their own writing, with the most legible text getting pride of place at the top. It is great for motivating improvement in their physical handwriting.

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