“How do you spell observation?” my 9-year-old nephew asked me recently while typing a message on his tablet.

As a technical writer who moonlights as a writing teacher, I jumped at the chance to help him with his spelling question.

A little too excitedly I asked, “How do you think you spell it?”

He began to type while saying aloud, “O … b … s …” This was followed by “Never mind, I figured it out!” He had selected the completed word from the suggested list on his tablet.

“Hey, wait a second,” I said, pointing at his device. “You didn’t figure it out; your tablet did!”

He shrugged and moved on with writing his message.

This scene is very familiar for those of us trying to teach students who have grown up in a digital world how to write. Digital tools give students a lot of help, but when used as a crutch and not a supplement to learning, they can hurt writing development.

However, as someone who teaches writing through an online platform, I know that technology isn’t necessarily the enemy of good writing. For example, in a Pew Research study, teachers indicated that technology can help strengthen students’ writing skills in several ways. Teachers reported that technology enables quick and real-time collaboration and also provides a great forum for creativity. However, this same study showed some of the downsides of technology. For example, informal communication (i.e., text speak), has found its way into classroom assignments. [1]

So how can we teach students who live in a digital world to write better when technology can contribute to lazy writing habits? Here are some suggestions:

Insist on formal communication

Require students to use formal, proper English in all communications with you as well as with their peers during all online activities. This means email, group discussions, online forums, etc. Insisting students practice good writing habits online will help them build transferable skills they can use when writing in other digital formats. Also, when you respond in formal language, they’ll be reading properly written communications as well. When you set a good example, students will be able to follow your lead.

Provide an online list of commonly misused words

Post in an easy-to-find place a list of the words students mix up most often. I know many college students who don’t know the difference between it’s/its, whether/weather, you’re/your, and there/their/they’re. Students often rely on their devices to suggest the right word, but technology can be wrong or even miss the error altogether. Students need to know the difference between these common words so they can use them properly. If a list is online and easily accessible, they can refer to it as much as needed.

Remind students why writing matters

If students believe that writing isn’t important, they will continue to use technology as a crutch. Students need to be reminded that clear, concise writing is essential to help people understand your point of view and reduce confusion. Good writing is also an in-demand skill. Recruiters report that there is a low supply of job candidates who can communicate effectively, despite the fact that employers want this skill. [2] Encourage them to start cultivating good writing habits now. It will pay off in the short and long terms.

Encourage students to read eBooks

Reading is one of the best activities students can do to improve their writing skills. With eBooks, students can use the technology they love and read books on any subject. If your school has access to digital content, great! If not, most public libraries provide access to eBooks that students can download on their devices. By reading well-crafted stories, students can begin to recognize narrative structure and be exposed to writing techniques and new words. This will only serve to strengthen their writing.

Show students how to use an online dictionary

Dictionary apps are a great way for students to learn how to use this essential resource. Many eBooks also allow readers to look up words directly from the text, so students have no excuse for breezing past a word they don’t know. Access to an online dictionary will also help students as they revise their own work and comment on the work of their peers.

Use technology for the revision process

Writing is a time-consuming process, which is why it frustrates so many students. However, technology can be your best tool here. Apps that allow online collaboration or let teachers track suggestions in assignments can help students see the drafting process and experience how writing improves with revision. Not only can you help them build vital revision skills, but also you can use technology to do it.

Technology is a wonderful tool for collaboration, research, and communication, but when student writers get lazy, it can easily lead them to develop bad writing habits that are hard to break. This doesn’t mean educators should shy away from using technology. Students need to work with technology so they are prepared for the digital world. Instead, we need to think of ways to embrace technology while still understanding its limitations so we can better prepare students for their entire education and career.

[1] Purcell, K., Buchanan, J., & Friedrich, L. (2013). The impact of digital tools on student writing and how writing is taught in schools. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/07/16/the-impact-of-digital-tools-on-student-writing-and-how-writing-is-taught-in-schools/

[2] Moore, K. (2016, April 7). Study: 73% of employers want candidates with this skill. Inc.com. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/kaleigh-moore/study-73-of-employers-want-candidates-with-this-skill.html

A self-described "education policy junkie," Rachel Land Nystrom loves to combine the research skills she honed while earning an M.S. in Education Policy with her technical writing chops to help others interpret and understand what's new in the education market. When she's not laboring over her keyboard, you'll find her at baseball games soaking up the sunshine or camping throughout the U.S.

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