Use of information and communications technology (ICT) in the teaching and learning of writing
This report was originally published 16 September 2021.
Learning to write is an essential part of becoming literate. The challenge in the digital age for teachers and students is how to make the most effective use of all available digital tools to develop and craft quality texts.
There is substantial research identifying the positive potential of information and communications technology (ICT) for teaching and learning, with evidence that technology in the classroom can create a more interactive, engaging, learner‑centred environment (Tamim 2011). Moreover, technology can amplify good teaching practice. This project aimed to identify the potential impact of digital technology on written text and on the processes of planning, creating and editing text.
The aim of this 2018 research project was to identify the current use and potential impact of digital technology on the written product as well as the processes of teaching and learning writing in the primary context. The mixed methods research approach included both qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection and included case studies conducted in 10 NSW primary schools across Years 4 to 6. This case study approach provided insights into the complexity of the digital writing environment within the context of the primary school classrooms.
The research project involved a literature review to understand existing evidence for effective use of ICT in the context of teaching writing. A broad range of qualitative evidence (lesson observations, teaching resources, and teacher and student interviews) was collected throughout the project to provide a rich picture of teaching practices and student behaviour relating to the use of ICT in the classroom. Teachers participated in a research-informed professional learning program. Pre and post project student writing tasks (paper based and digital) provided quantitative information on the impact of the professional learning program and the use of new technologies on students’ writing.
Understanding writing pedagogy
A consistent finding in the current research literature is that technology does not embody new pedagogy, but supports existing pedagogical goals and can amplify effective teaching practice. Teacher knowledge is central to effective pedagogy. Teachers draw on and integrate subject and pedagogical knowledge to make decisions about what and how to teach (Shulman 1986). Research by Koehler and Mishra (2009) found that technological knowledge was critical for effective teaching in the context of increasing technological use in the classroom. The technological, pedagogical and content knowledge (TPACK) framework (Koehler and Mishra 2009) was adopted within this project because of its wide use and recognition as a tool for describing and understanding the teaching practice with technology integration. Within the context of teaching writing, teachers draw on knowledge about the craft of writing, available technology applications and effective practice for teaching writing to respond to changing classroom contexts.
The TPACK framework includes the following 3 domains:
- technological knowledge (TK): teachers’ ways of thinking about and working with all technological tools and resources to support their students’ writing
- pedagogical knowledge (PK): teachers’ deep knowledge about the processes and practices or methods of teaching and learning, specific to literacy
- content knowledge (CK): teachers’ knowledge of the craft of writing, including both text and visual literacy and multimodal design grammars.
In harnessing these 3 knowledge domains, teachers effectively integrate technology in teaching writing across a range of contexts and cohorts. The review of literature, as summarised in the following paragraphs, confirms the importance of intersecting teacher knowledge for effective teaching of writing.
When teachers have strong integrated knowledge of writing and pedagogy, systematic, explicit and purposeful teaching of writing is evident in their classroom. Knowledge of the teaching cycle for writing provides coherent and systematic scaffolding for teachers and students to create texts (Feez 1999; Derewianka & Jones 2016). Creating texts that are responsive to audience and purpose requires an understanding of the appropriate language and text features (Walsh 2010; Mills & Levido 2011; Kervin 2015; Dalton 2015; Mills & Exley 2014). Teachers draw on grammatical knowledge to explicitly teach students to use language flexibly and creatively across subject areas (Hammond & Gibbons 2005; Humphreys & Macnaught 2015; Christie 2010; Myhill, Jones & Watson 2013; Schleppegrell 2013). With the increasing use of digital technology in writing, explicit scaffolding is recognised as an essential component of successful composition of multimodal texts (Edwards-Groves 2012; Gebhard & Harman 2011; Lea & Street 2006; Zammit 2014; Callow & Orlando 2015).
When teachers combine knowledge of technology and pedagogy, they can create a learning environment for writing that is engaging and collaborative. Studies show enhanced student engagement and enthusiasm when ICT is introduced into the writing program (Zheng, Warschauer, Lin & Chang 2016). Research identifies the student engagement and learning potential from making connections between students’ growing use of digital technology at home for writing at school (Merchant 2007; Kervin & Mantei 2016; Lynch & Redpath 2014; Mills & Levido 2011). When knowledge of technology and pedagogy combine, digital technology can be harnessed to support peer and teacher collaboration during planning, composing and editing phases of writing. Studies note the benefits of student collaboration in writing, evident in student negotiation and joint content building within the digital writing environment (Walsh 2010; Freebody 2007; Doult & Walker 2014; Merchant 2007; Cope & Kalantzis 2015). Digital platforms are used increasingly to provide timely and responsive feedback on written drafts (Doult & Walker 2014; Cope & Kalantzis 2015).
When teachers combine knowledge of technology and writing, they judiciously select the appropriate technology for the writing purpose and can use the technology with flexibility and creativity. With increasing choice of software, teachers need understanding to be able to select the most appropriate tools for their context (Zheng, Warschauer, Lin & Chang 2016; Walsh 2010). Increasingly, digital technology is recognised as a resource that can be used to enhance and transform the way we express meaning (Edwards-Groves 2011, 2012; Zammit 2014; Puentedura 2006).
Impact of professional learning
The design and delivery of professional learning to develop effective writing pedagogy was one of the main objectives of the research. The professional learning model comprised a mix of expert-led workshops and school-based implementation, with knowledgeable mentors guiding teachers as active participants in the research. Feedback from project teachers confirmed the success of this model.
The professional learning provided to teachers reflected the findings of the literature review and supported teachers to develop and integrate technical, pedagogical and writing knowledge. The workshops developed understanding to support the use of the teaching and learning cycle (Feez 1998), explicit teaching of language features appropriate to audience and purpose and the integration of ICT into literacy programs.
The impact of the program of professional learning was evident in student writing samples which included more multimodal elements and tailored use of language. However, the extent of changes in students’ writing varied between schools. It is likely that this was due to a number of factors, including specific teaching approaches and school contexts. To be more confident of the extent and nature of the impact, the research would need to be conducted over a longer period of time.
Impact of digital technology
Our research with case study schools showed that digital technology is impacting on all aspects of students’ writing processes – planning, composing and editing writing.
- Students – especially high support students – experienced less anxiety and increased motivation to begin writing tasks when using ICT.
- Devices were effectively used to encourage collaborative planning, with students working together to plan digital compositions.
- The use of small whiteboards was an important tool for text preparation regardless of what type of writing task was being attempted.
- ICT increased the breadth of literacy taught by enabling additional writing genres to be introduced into lessons (for example, blogs, websites, videos, presentations).
- ICT supported students to imagine a wider audience for their writing (for example, websites and social media platforms) and to immediately understand the purpose of their writing.
- Enhanced engagement in writing was seen across subjects.
- Digital platforms supported greater and more effective teacher and peer feedback.
- Teachers and students reported the benefits of collaborative online review and reflection (for example, feedback relating to the written draft can be made alongside the text; teachers and students can review texts together remotely).
- Students valued access to editing tools such as spellchecks and online thesauruses and dictionaries but accessed these after, rather than during, the drafting process.
- The design of assessment rubrics for the new genres in multimodal texts was required to inform and structure peer and teacher feedback.
- Students’ use of online spellchecks and dictionary references, while increasing the accuracy of their texts, may obscure difficulties with spelling and grammar.
- Explicit teaching of secretarial and grammatical features of writing should occur in parallel with the use of ICT. A variety of apps were used by teachers to support the explicit teaching of grammar, vocabulary and spelling.
- Teachers require both technological fluency and flexibility combined with knowledge of all aspects of the craft of writing to effectively teach writing in the context of ICT.
- Technology that is unreliable or malfunctioning may distract from learning.
- Emerging genres require teachers to work out which language structures and features to explicitly teach.