Use FREE Blogging to Increase Your Students’ Writing Scores 20 Percent
A couple of years ago, I decided to have each of my fourth-grade students start a blog. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and I didn’t even have a concrete plan. I just thought I’d try it and see what happened.
Within two months, I was desperately trying to convince every teacher at my school to give their students blogs. I couldn’t believe how this single, simple, FREE tool transformed my students and my classroom so quickly.
Before this, writing had always been a hit-or-miss exercise in my classroom. Some students loved it and were great writers. Others would do anything to get out of writing time. Almost all of my students were English language learners, and most of the kids who hated writing were the students who were less proficient in English. It made sense – writing is the last piece of the language acquisition puzzle, so a lot of my kids who were smart, high-achieving students in most subjects struggled with writing.
But blogging changed all of that.
I think the main reason for the change was that students were writing for a larger audience. In the past, they were writing solely for me, and most of them didn’t really care much what I thought. They weren’t motivated to write a lot or write well because, essentially, there was no one to impress.
That changed when their writing got a world audience. First off, all of their fellow students were reading their blogs and leaving comments. Then, teachers and students in other classes were posting questions or suggestions. Eventually, they started to get comments from complete strangers.
Suddenly, students had tremendous motivation. The funny kid wanted to make people laugh with his writing. The academic achiever wanted people to comment on how well she used a writing technique we learned in class. The new, shy student found it easier to make friends via his blog.
My students, none of whom had computers at home, started going to the library and friends’ houses to blog after school. The time we spent blogging was the quietest, most focused time of the week in my classroom. And when the time was up, students groaned – many would ask to stay in for recess or after school to finish their posts.
On top of the motivation, I saw a marked improvement in students’ writing. Luis, for example, had written several stories in his writing journal before we started blogging. Every story was about three sentences, and each one was some variation of this:
My name is Luis. I have 4 sisters. I have 3 brothers and 1 dog. I have 11 cousins. I like baseball.
No matter what we discussed in writing class, Luis’s stories remained stagnant. For most of independent writing time, he would stare at the wall. But after a few weeks of blogging (and either not getting many comments, or only getting polite corrections), his stories became longer and more interesting. He started using strategies we learned in writing class – setting the scene, describing small moments.
Here’s one of Luis’s blog entries later in the year:
It was dark. “Hurry up Luis we have to go Abel said”. So we went to the secret cave. It was dark and I put my backpack on my back and I put my phone on my backpack.
Then me and Abel went inside we take out our flashlights. Then we walk around. Then letter our flashlight went out. Me and Abel feel scared because it was so dark we started to talk. Then Abel feel someone it was a bad guy. Then I got out my phone an I call the police. Then the police “said were is that place” so we tell him were was that place.
So they went to the secret cave and they took us out of the secret cave and they said to not go there in any more so the police took him to jail.
It’s not the best writing I’ve ever read, but it’s a marked improvement, and it’s one I don’t think he would have made without blogging. Luis is one example, but all of my students’ writing improved drastically that school year. One student’s father even bought her a computer specifically because he saw how much it was improving her writing.
But don’t just take my word for it. That year, like the two previous, I worked closely within a grade-level teaching team. We planned all our lessons together and taught everything pretty much the same. Our students’ year-end test scores were usually fairly similar.
That year, though, I was the only teacher in my grade level to have my students blog weekly. At the year’s end, my students’ test scores were about 20 percent higher than their fourth-grade peers’.
My story is a single, anecdotal one. I started wondering, “is there hard data to support what I’ve seen, or was my experience just a fluke?”
So I did some research. And everything I found was incredibly positive.
In 2008, researchers found that third-graders who blogged about the books they were reading had a marked improvement in motivation. In my opinion, that’s a pretty big finding because motivation has consistently been tied to student performance.
A recent study in the U.K. showed that students who blog are more confident about their writing abilities. In addition, they’re more likely to write in various genres – short stories, creative non-fiction, poetry, etc. The research was done in 2009 by the National Literacy Trust. Its director, Jonathan Douglas, told the BBC,
The more forms of communications children use the stronger their core literary skills.
Another study of 18-21-year-old college students found that blogging increased the quality of their writing. According to the research, students who blogged and those who didn’t all showed increases on a writing test, but the bloggers’ increases were significantly greater — about 16 percent. Specifically, students who blogged scored better in the content and organization traits.
And other research has found that blogging helps students acquire a second language.
When it comes to student motivation, confidence, and even test scores, the research seems clear: done well, blogging can make students better writers.
I’m sold. What’s next?
There are a couple of different ways teachers can integrate blogging into the classroom. For less tech-savvy teachers, a good first step is to start a class blog. This is basically a blog written only by the teacher. The teacher posts questions or assignments, and students post their responses as comments.
Be aware, though: while this is a good first step, it definitely has its draw-backs. First off, the blog is still teacher-centered, rather than student-centered. Some students might be turned off if they don’t have their own virtual space. Also, students can’t post whenever they want to. They can only post in response to a teacher’s prompt, which limits kids. Plus, it’s less likely (though possible) that students will receive comments based on their responses – and comments are a major motivation for student bloggers.
The other option is to create a class blog and then give every student their own blog connected to that main page. This allows the teacher to post prompts on the main classroom blog, but allows students to author their own stand-alone responses. It also gives students the opportunity to write additional blog posts, outside of the prompts.
Several of my students decided to do this on their blogs. Even though it’s been nearly two years since my fourth-grade students started their blogs, one boy recently updated his, saying he’s now back in Mexico and he’s afraid he’s losing his English skills. I invited him to continue blogging with me to help keep his English up.
Find a Blog Host
There are dozens of FREE and low-cost sites that host teacher and student blogs. Each is a little different, so if you’ve got specific needs, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a site that meets them.
For my classroom blog, I decided to use classblogmeister, a FREE service designed specifically for teachers. I liked classblogmeister (and recommended it to dozens of teachers) for several reasons:
- It’s ad-free (which is rare for a FREE blogging site).
- It’s easy for young students to navigate.
- It allowed me to customize privacy settings, such as deciding whether to password-protect content or comments.
- It gives students the ability to change the template of their personal blogs, though there are just a handful of templates so this process isn’t too overwhelming.
- I was able to set up the blog so that blog posts and comments weren’t posted until I approved them. I liked this option because I was able to sit with students one-on-one and edit their entries before they were posted.
- The site would underline misspelled words, but it didn’t provide suggestions, so students had to figure out the correct spellings on their own.
However, classblogmeister isn’t the prettiest of blogging sites and, occasionally, there were a few technical problems.
I haven’t used it, but I’ve heard that kidblogis another good, FREE blogging site that’s similar to classblogmeister.
Stretch Your Digital Dollar is hosted by edublogs, which has teacher and student account settings. Edublogs offers a ton of customizable settings, which I like, though it might be too much for some teachers and students. It might be a good host if you’re writing a teacher blog and only want students to leave comments, rather than host their own blogs. I’ve suggested it to teachers without much tech experience because there are some fairly good step-by-step tutorials. But be aware: in order to use edublogs for free, some edublog ads will appear on your site. They’re not inappropriate, but they can be distracting. (Here’san example of a FREE teacher-centered blog, created on edublogs.)
A big advantage of edublogs, as compared to classblogmeister, is the ease of inserting photos, videos, and other multi-media files.
Introduce Blogging to Your Students
In my classroom, my time was stretched, so I had to work blogging into my already existing schedule. My solution was to use the blog as an extension of my science and social studies lessons. I decided to give students prompts based on what we were studying in those classes. That way, I figured, I was killing two birds with one stone. Eventually, I started having students publish their writing pieces on the blog as well.
I decided to dedicate one hour per week to blogging in my class. It wasn’t a lot of time, and I wanted that time to be meaningful. A big barrier to that was my students’ typing abilities. For some, it would be an hour before they could finish even a single sentence. That wouldn’t work.
So, rather than starting with blogging straight away, I spent the first four weeks of blogging teaching my kids to type. It was actually remarkably easy. I had the kids use Dance Mat Typing, a FREE and fun program from the BBC. After four hour-long lessons, most of my students could type about as fast as they could write, so that’s when we moved on to blogging.
I showed my students some existing student blogs, and we discussed why we were going to blog. We talked about Internet safety and the blogging rules – no last names, phone numbers, addresses, photos, etc. I had the kids sign in, design the look of their blog, and write their first post. For safety, a lot of teachers have students draw self-portraits, using TuxPaint or just on paper. They then use these files (or photos of the drawings) as students’ avatars.
The next week, we talked about commenting. It was basically a lesson in creative criticism – I wanted students’ comments to be meaningful, not just “you’re great.” So we had an entire lesson on what makes a strong comment – telling students WHY you liked or didn’t like what they wrote, giving suggestions for improvements, etc. (Often, throughout the year, I would re-visit this lesson one-on-one with some students.)
After that, I pretty much let the students go. I would post prompts for them every week – usually, they’d have a choice of three, but sometimes I wanted them to answer a specific question. If there weren’t many comments, I might have students spend an entire class period commenting on others’ blogs. Often, some students would take two or three weeks to complete a single post, but I was okay with that. I played it by ear, for the most part.
Near the end of the year, I started having my students use photos in their blogs, but I really wish I would have incorporated more multi-media projects. Blogs are the perfect place for students to showcase what they’ve created on VoiceThread, Go!Animate, or other multi-media platforms. Mr. Remien’s Digital World does a good job of incorporating these projects into a classroom blog.
When my students blogged, readers needed a password to leave a comment. In retrospect, I wish I wouldn’t have done this. Showing students that they have a world-wide audience is an incredibly meaningful and motivating experience. Jeff Utecht pointed out on his blog that it can also start a great domino effect.
There are several widgets you can embed on your blog that show where, in the world, your readers are located (there’s one in the right sidebar on this page). I’d highly recommend including something like this on every student blog. Aside from showing students their worldwide audience, it provides a jumping-off-point for social studies and geography lessons.
Lesson Integration Ideas
Objective: The student will be able to adjust his/her use of written and visual language to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences for different purposes.
Some teachers aren’t sure when they should start having students blog. My suggestion: as soon as they start writing. Kathy Cassidyhas her first-grade students blog from the beginning of the year. Their blogs are similar to what you’d see in an average first-grade writing journal – one sentence about an experience they’ve had, accompanied by a picture. Ms. Cassidy has her students create those pictures using a computer program. Other teachers might want to follow suit, using the FREE TuxPaint. My students used to just take photographs of their drawings and publish the photos on their blogs.
Giving younger students a blog gets them thinking about writing for an audience early. Most likely, this is a skill they’ll have mastered by early middle-school, when writing teachers often struggle to introduce it.
It’s also a great way to get students excited about literacy early. And most teachers know that instilling an early love of reading and writing is the best way to create life-long learners.
Middle School Classrooms
Objective: The student will be able to use the language of mathematics to communicate his/her math thinking coherently to peers, teachers, and others; and analyze and evaluate the math thinking and strategies of others.
Blogging is clearly an amazing tool for the writing classroom. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Reading teachers can use blogs to start discussions about books read in class; science teachers can have students explain their understanding of an in-class experiment; social studies teachers can have students write letters to their congress people and post them on their blogs.
Blogs are also the perfect place for students to learn to communicate their mathematical thinking. For students to progress in math, it’s extremely important for them to be able to articulate exactly how they solve word problems and why they chose this method. In addition to strengthening students’ mathematical understanding of a concept, it can point teachers to common misconceptions.
In essence, blogs can allow you to have every student complete a problem on the board. Here’s a possible math lesson:
- Post a word problem for your students to solve.
- On their blogs, the students are expected to explain their thinking step-by-step (i.e.. “when I read the problem, I thought this. So I…”) – this may require some pre-teaching.
- As they explain their thinking, students should show their math calculations (for some students, the math calculations might be a drawing that you photograph and post on the blog).
- For their next assignment, students should be expected to comment on other kids’ blogs. These comments might be a specific piece of praise, like “I like how you said that the problem reminded you of marbles grouped inside of cups. That helped me think about the problem differently.” Or they could be constructive criticism, like “the problem said he had four groups of five pencils. Why did you decide to divide? Maybe you could draw four groups of five pencils to help you.”
High School Classrooms
Subject: Social Studies (Civics)
Objective: The student will be able to understand the rights and responsibilities of citizens in setting directions for public policies and working to support both individual dignity and the common good.
Blogs are the great equalizer – anyone can be a published writer. And if you’re able to communicate effectively, your message will get attention. One of social studies teachers’ major complaints is that high school students, by and large, are apathetic. But there are tons of examples of students who have affected change through Web 2.0 tools, like the southern California student whose video on sweatshops earned her personal phone calls from the heads of corporations like The Gap. And the middle-school student whose climate change Web site launched him on a world-wide speaking tour.
Why not give your students the opportunity to affect real change, like this? It might not work for all of them. But most of your students are sure to, at the least, become less apathetic, and perhaps a simple assignment will transform a few into world-known activists for change.
- After studying social revolutions and current events, have students choose a current social justice issue that interests them.
- Have students research the topic, possibly authoring a couple of blog posts reporting the facts.
- Eventually, have students create a multi-media persuasive blog entry trying to convince their peers to make a social change. The change might be something related to their own lives (i.e., recycle) or something they could do to help people far away (i.e. donate money to Heifer International). (You can even make it a competition, to see who can inspire the most change.)
- Other students (and readers) can leave comments explaining whether or not the blog convinced them to change and why.
Thank you for your information on student blogging. We did a pilot at our middle school last year and all the 6th grade students had a blog to post their portfolios to Blogger. Now the other grades in the middle school are planning to move from paper based portfolios to using blogs. We are wondering do most schools keep student blogs private? If they are open to the public for comments, is there a progression of working in blogs that happens so that gradually students invite people to comment on their blogs or do you keep the blogs private?
Thanks in advance for the information.
Thanks for the comment. It sounds like your school is doing some exciting stuff!
There’s not really a right answer to your question — it really depends on the school. That said, I’ve had students keep both private and public blogs and I think there is a definitive benefit in public blogs. When students have the entire world as their audience, they’re more motivated to create an interesting product. Plus, it prepares them for the real world — knowing that everything they post online is accessible to the world opens up important conversations about netiquette, posting reliable information and privacy issues.