Category Archives: Writing

iOS App Recommendations for Literacy

Many fun party conversations have started by whipping out a smartphone and sharing the latest and coolest apps.  However, in educational settings we continually need to refocus the discussion around choosing apps to meet our instructional objectives rather than the other way around.

About a year ago, I published a list of all the apps I installed on our school’s iPads.  I still like that list, however, there are a number of drill-and-kill type apps that see occasional use in  my classroom as well as those that require higher-level thinking and student creation which I use more often.  I wanted to give our teachers options so I gave them tons of apps.  However, my personal toolkit is much smaller.  Here are my recommendations based around instructional needs in the area of literacy.  The specific apps I recommend don’t matter so much as how we they are used in the classroom:


Any voice recorder from the free and simple, Audio Memos to the pricier and more advanced, Garageband, can be used to have students record themselves reading.  Data from Escondido Unified which used iPods and Voice Recorders with English Language Learners (back before iPhones and iPads existed) consistently shows that students showed growth.  The key is having students record and then listen to themselves reading so that they hear the mistakes they don’t hear when they’re focused on decoding.

I’ve used Reader’s Theater in my own classroom (find free printable reader’s theater here or see our class reader’s theater movie, The City Mouse and the Country Mouse).  However, you can also use any passages that might target certain spelling patterns or sounds students are working on.


I like simple.  StoryKit is a free iPhone app that works on the iPad and allows students to write, record their voice, add a photo, or draw on a page resembling kindergarten writing paper.  If you want to publish a whole book from the iPad, the $5 Book Creator is a great option.  Apple’s free desktop app, iBooks Author is even better but it requires both an iPad and an updated Mac desktop or laptop.  With iBooks Author you create the book on your computer and preview it on the iPad.  You can easily import Keynote and Pages files into your final product.   When you’re ready for multimedia, iMovie is a great way to engage even the most unmotivated writers in writing something that will include audio, visuals and an audience.

Apps like Toontastic and PuppetPals are also fun.  However, be careful, Toontastic teaches story crafting via a beginning, middle, and end structure.  If you’re a fan of Lucy Caulkins writer’s workshop and the notion of expanding a single moment with details to make it something bigger rather than structuring a bare bones story sequentially, you will might not be happy with an app that would set you back to an outdated way of teaching writing even if it’s more fun.

Learning Letter Sounds

Apps like the above mentioned Storykit can be used to have students make a book of letter sounds by taking pictures of things that begin with the sound /p/ for example.  Student Tommy would end up with a page with photos of pencils, pictures, paint, and paintbrushes and then record his voice making the sound /p/ on the page.   I know that you can find apps that give students the letter sounds while students passively listen but I’m much more in favor of having students create their own books with the sound in it.  I suspect the learning is more internalized.

What other areas of student early literacy need do you notice?




Down and Dirty Data Analysis

Green is good.  Red is bad.

Here’s what they taught me in “coaching college” about how to read data.

Reading vertically indicates the teacher’s problem.  Reading horizontally indicates a student’s problem.

So, Harpo needs some additional help in all language arts areas.  However, in the vocabulary category, it appears that the teacher needs to examine his/her own instruction as its not succeeding for most of the students.  There’s all kinds of reasons why the teacher could say the students aren’t succeeding and there is validity to all of them…no help at home, trouble learning the language, poorly designed tests, a bad day in class.  This class in particular I hear is a bunch of class clowns.  However, the fact remains that the teacher’s vocabulary instruction with this group of students is not working and if he/she wants better results he/she must try something different.

The Case for Blogging in the Classroom

My blogging output has certainly suffered as I’ve been finishing up my last semester of graduate school. I’ll be all done December 5th when I take the comprehensive exam to receive a masters degree in Education Policy and a California Administrative Credential.

I thought I might combine my blogging and my graduate work by sharing one of my final research papers, an article on blogging’s role in the school community. I make the case for blogging on three fronts:

  • Home-school communication

Schools are increasingly aware that they need to have a web site to have a public presence on the web. However, the majority of school web sites in a district like Los Angeles Unified are static pages set up by volunteers, experts, and other school outsiders. Often these sites sit without updates for years when teachers and administrators find themselves too busy or too intimidated to update the pages that they did not create themselves. Posting to a blog, however, is as simple as sending an e-mail.

Even in low income schools where many students do not have computers at home, many parents do have access to e-mail via cell phones. If parents subscribe to a blog by e-mail they can easily receive reliable updates and teachers can easily send valuable information as they find it.

  • Student achievement

Blogs in the classroom can replace paper and pencil journal writing, showcase student work, collect student research on a particular topic, or be the format for creative writing. Aside from the novelty of working on a computer, the main advantage of blogging as a writing activity is that online writing has an audience whereas most classroom assignments normally begin and end with the classroom walls and the teacher as the only reader.

  • Professional Development

Professional development often consists of one hour scattershot presentations with little follow-through and even less teacher input. By providing time for teachers to participate in blog reading or writing as professional development, administrators can support self-reflective practice and differentiated instruction tailored to teacher’s needs.

I also address practical concerns like pedagogy, lack of equipment and financing, and student safety.
You can download the entire paper here which includes my references.

An Ideal Language Arts Curriculum

Kevin Hodgson lays out what he considers to be an ideal language arts curriculum.  Please read the entire post.  However, the tenets he puts forth are:

Writing to Learn

Including listening and speaking (as well as reading and writing)

A “Stakes Approach” (Moving from low-stakes like journal writing to high stakes like publishing and performance)

Writing Across the Curriculum

And including technology and multi-media

Teaching Persuasive Writing

When teaching writing it’s important to show students how to do it and show them good examples of that genre of writing.

Our fifth graders recently had to write a multi-paragraph essay on whether or not to support the Revolutionary War from the point of view of the colonists.

To write this prompt well one needs:

  • content knowlege of the American Revolution
  • knowledge of the genre of persuasion
  • writing vocabulary (e.g. drafting, revising, and conventions)

As this writing comes at the culmination of a unit on the revolution, the content knowledge can be built through the story selections.  However, even if students learn everything you want them to about the War and its causes, they will not learn how to write persuasively by osmosis.

Rather than focus on everything at once, we chose to focus on teaching students to write persuasively.

Here’s a list of examples of persuasive writing to examine with students (found via Twitter):

  • Ahlberg, Janet, and Allan Ahlberg. 1999. The Jolly Pocket Postman
  • Caseley, Judith. Dear Annie
  • Cronin, Doreen. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type
  • James, Simon. Dear Mr. Blueberry
  • Orloff, Karen Kaufman. I Wanna Iguana
  • Pak, Soyung. Dear Juno
  • Rylant, Cynthia. Gooseberry Park
  • Stewart, Sarah. The Gardener

Update:  Here are a few others…I Wanna Iguana, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, The Great Kapok Tree, My Brother Dave Is Delicious.