“I Can Get My Ideas Out”—How Technology is Improving Writing Independence at Blowing Rock School

by Joan McAlpin

With access to simple reading and writing tools including Co:Writer, students find their voices and carry newfound confidence in the classroom.

Dominick is learning about ocean life in his third grade class. He’s also learning how to use technology to improve his work. “I like how you can speak into it and it tells you the word. I use it to help with spelling. It tells me if I got a word spelled right or wrong.”


Dominick is talking about how he uses Co:Writer word prediction, text-to-speech, and speech-to-text features as a research tool. “It makes my writing faster that way and I can get my ideas out before I forget. Or, if I’m writing about the “Pacific Ocean,” it helps me learn whether it’s one word or two.


Dominick and his peers are part of a Co:Writer pilot program at Blowing Rock School, NC. The goal is to improve independent learning skills using technology. To reach that goal, the school provides Chromebooks to K-5 students during the day. Kids in upper grades each have a chromebook that they can take to and from school.


Now with COVID, all 3-8th grade students in the school have chromebooks at home Any student logged in through the school website into their google drive/email, etc., can access Co:Writer.

Skeptical About Technology in the Classroom

Lisa Clinard

Dominick’s teacher, Lisa Clinard, was hoping to see improvements in self-regulation from many of her third graders. They frequently needed or asked for help with everything from spelling to getting ideas down on paper, and self-confidence was an issue. Could technology help?


Lisa was skeptical at first—wanting her students to learn to read and write for themselves. Some of her students came to her classroom using accommodations and she knew that others struggled who didn’t have access to accommodations. She decided to be open to change with encouragement and support from someone in her own district.

Teacher Laurie Gill and Student Lainey

Laurie Gill, Literacy Intervention Specialist at Blowing Rock School, is a vocal advocate for technology as literacy supports for all students. Laurie strongly believes, based on decades of first-hand experience working with struggling readers, that Co:Writer and other types of accessible technology can help students participate and learn at levels that would otherwise not be available to them.


“I love working directly with children and their teachers on bettering reading ability and instruction. In any school, many students read and spell below grade level. Too often, these students are “reluctant writers” and choose ‘safe words’ they can spell to express their ideas, if they write much at all. We found that Co:Writer frees our beginning and challenged spellers to express their ideas without fear of mistakes.”


Laurie spearheaded the Co:Writer pilot program by writing a grant to get a site license for Blowing Rock School through the local Watauga Education Foundation. Laurie worked closely with Lisa and other teachers at Blowing Rock to guide them through implementation. “By providing Co:Writer, we’re confident we can help these students express themselves more fully while also improving as spellers,” Laurie said.

New Ideas… where to start?

Third grade is a typical time to begin learning research skills, so Lisa used those lessons as an opportunity to integrate Co:Writer to help her students practice the skills of reading from multiple sources and writing about what they learned.


“We were learning about ocean life so each student was given the opportunity to choose an ocean animal to study. I first had students hand-write notes on index cards. Next, they use Co:Writer to type, edit, and complete their research assignments. Co:Writer allows students to go through the multiple steps of this work with confidence.”


As students type, Co:Writer offers word and phrase suggestions based on the sentence context, topic words, and the student’s attempted spellings . The program integrates directly into Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge browsers as an extension and Apple’s iOS as a keyboard and an app. It learns how students write and the words they use to help more quickly access the words they know and write more fluidly without getting tripped up on grammar and spelling. It also has built-in voice typing and translation supports.


Lisa’s students enjoyed using Co:Writer, and they also liked collaborating—teaching each other the different ways they use the supports. Dominick discovered that he could highlight text in an online article and have Co:Writer read the text aloud, helping him get through selections that were difficult for him to read but not difficult to comprehend. He shared that tip with his peers and soon they came to him when they had questions about using their technology. It made him feel proud.


“My students also like customizing the extension for their individual needs. For instance, they discovered they can slow down the pace of the text-to-speech support. Then, they can actually take notes on what they’re listening to. Co:Writer has really been helpful for my students doing online research. The text-to-speech support lets students read things that are a little more challenging. When they pick books from the library or the classroom, they’re generally getting books at their reading levels. Co:Writer allows them to not only access online material but also to push themselves. It’s really exciting to see!”

handwriting example before Co:Writer the writing is messy and illegible
Note Taking on Index Cards
Co:Writer being used to write in document with Speech Recognition
Using Co:Writer to type a research report
and index card with illegible handwriting next to the same text typed on a screen using Co:Writer
The editing process using Co:Writer

When Change Is A Good Thing

Lisa immediately saw improvements in both the quantity and quality of work produced by her students. Co:Writer supported reading and writing tasks for those who needed it. Other students found they could use it to listen to a word they couldn’t read or write a word they couldn’t spell. It was Dominick who first discovered that he could highlight a passage from an article he was struggling to read and have Co:Writer read it to him. It also helped him improve his spelling and vocabulary. The text-to-speech support allowed him to keep his mind on his task without getting hung up on the words he doesn’t know.


“I like how you can speak into it [the microphone] and it tells you the word. It speeds up my writing. When I was writing about stingrays, I was trying to write the word ‘material.’ I typed ‘mat’ and the word material popped up in Co:Writer. Now, I know how to spell ‘material’!”


He also likes using Co:Writer as an editing tool. He can use the text-to-speech tool to hear (or, listen back to) what he wrote, which allows him to make corrections before turning in his work.


Lisa was amazed that her students were making these discoveries for themselves. She realized that Dominick was using Co:Writer to have his own work read back to him and correcting parts of his writing that sounded incorrect. She saw for herself that students really liked to catch their own mistakes and fix them independently. It built confidence for her students.


At the start of the Co:Writer pilot, Lisa wanted to see her students become successful and independent. Co:Writer did just that.


“I would say the most powerful thing about Co:Writer for my students during their research project was the spelling feedback. The spelling abilities of third graders vary widely, and it’s crucial that they feel confident enough to take risks and use words that they hear but can’t yet spell. Co:Writer gave them that confidence and it showed in their work. It did the same with their reading—stretching them to choose more difficult texts that were challenging for them to read but not too challenging to understand when listening to the text read aloud.”

Megan Johnson Smiling at the Camera

Meanwhile, another teacher at Blowing Rock was seeing incredible changes in her students, too. Meagan Kingdon is a 5-8 special education teacher who was also given access to Co:Writer and worked with Laurie Gill to implement the supports in her special education classroom. The change? Meagan’s middle school students now love writing. “Thanks to Co:Writer!” she said, “I have middle school boys in my classroom who really didn’t like writing at all—they actually had a distaste and boredom for writing. Co:Writer changed that in a positive way. Their confidence has increased now that they have access to the right supports.”


Meagan teaches many students with reading and handwriting challenges. Since using Co:Writer, her students started to express themselves through writing that is understandable to all. “This is the first time for that!” she said.


Co:Writer is enabling her students to work without dependence on a scribe—empowering them to work more independently both in and out of the classroom environment.


“I’m extremely impressed with this program as it truly takes a lot to motivate middle-schoolers with academics. These students experience an extended amount of struggle. To have a writing support that meets them where they are at and focuses on their strength will change the process of ‘writing’ from here forward. Writing will be in their lives forever and now they have a tool to write a whole lot better.”


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