Exploring How Blogs Can Support Reading Development

02 Nov 2017

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This is a thought-paper exploring how blogs, a Web 2.0 technology, can be utilized to support writing as a key component of reading development. This paper seeks to bridge the gap between theory and practice in specific terms that are beneficial to reading specialists by providing pedagogical strategies and examples that demonstrate how blogging can enhance writing.

One of the ways in which The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines writing is "a sequence of letters or symbols forming coherent words" (Pearsall, 2002, p.1652). Writing like reading is a complex and elaborate system that children come to master over time. There is much information about writing in the literature. In the last ten years, understanding about the writing process and writing instruction has changed considerably. The way that students write can provide insightful information concerning their notions about print, how they construct meaning and their literacy development in general. In the past, teachers focused more on the finished writing product as a means of assessing students’ writing capabilities. Today, emphasis is placed on the process – the strategies students use to create a piece of writing. However, both product and process must be considered in order to provide strong literacy support (Barr, Sadow, & Blachowicz, 1995).

Reading and writing are connected since they use similar strategies and skills. The use and development of writing and reading in children occur about the same time (Barr, Sadow, & Blachowicz, 1995). Excellent writers are usually excellent readers; children that write well often read more than children that write poorly; extensive reading enhances writing; and good readers and writers are aware of their literacy abilities and have a greater chance of engaging in independent reading and writing. In the content areas, it is more beneficial to teach reading and writing together than either area separately. For example, writing about the ideas that one read about in a text, enhances content acquisition, problem solving skills and thinking and learning. Writing may be used as a strategy to explore, motivate and clarify ideas and concepts (Vacca & Vacca, 2007).

Writing can be informal and formal. Informal writing refers to exploratory and journal writing. Formal writing is concerned with essays. Exploratory writing lets students consider what they know and apply it to what they are reading. Journal writing allows students to write about what is important to them. In contrast, formal essays place more emphasis on the writing process, form and organization (Vacca & Vacca, 2007). Informal writing is particularly useful for students who experience great difficulty in writing, for it is less intimidating than formal essays and does not focus on structure and organization.

The overarching strategy suggested in this paper for helping struggling writers is to use informal writing first. When struggling writers feel more confident writing, then they would proceed to formal essays. Three specific pedagogical strategies will be employed to support writing: modeled writing, response writing and RAFT.

The modeled writing strategy can help students engage in exploratory writing. The teacher reads a favourite text to the students and identifies the text structures such as problem and solution or cause and effect. In any model there may be more than one text structure. Next the teacher provides a topic for the students to write about and directs them to use the model to write their own composition. For children that do very little or no writing, the teacher can make the process easier by furnishing them with a fill-in-the-blanks story based on the model. Then they can advance to using the model without a template story (Fisher, 2007).

There are many kinds of journal writing. This paper will be limited to response journals. Response writing is an appropriate strategy for response journal writing. Response journals allow students to write about their ideas and feelings regarding what they are reading and doing (Vacca & Vacca, 2007). Prompts should be given to stimulate students thinking and writing. For example, students can write about what confused them in what they were learning or what was clear. New information can be applied to a different place, time or situation, or a controversial question in connection to the new material may be raised for students to share their perspective on the issue (Fisher, 2007).

Another strategy RAFT stands for role, audience, format and topic (Fisher, 2007). RAFT assists educators in forming prompts for writing tasks. This strategy can be effectively utilized by positioning students in the writing task. For example, instead of asking students to write an essay on how to tie-dye, one can use the RAFT strategy. For instance, the teacher can say, pretend that you are demonstrating the steps in tie-dyeing to curious parents that have come to the school’s art and craft show, write and essay to show that you understand how to tie-dye. The assignment suggests the writer’s role (the student demonstrating tie-dyeing), the audience (the parents), the topic (the steps in tie-dyeing), and the format is stated (an essay) (Vacca & Vacca, 2007). The students can practise the writing process through this strategy. The writing process comprises prewriting, drafting, revising/ editing and publishing (Barr, Sadow, & Blachowicz, 1995).

These strategies will be implemented through the use of blogs. The word "blog" comes from "weblog". Original weblogs were really websites containing links to other websites as well as containing commentary and personal writings (Rodzvilla, 2002). However in order to create a weblog, the individual must know how to create a website which intern required the use of HyperText Markup Language (HTML) coding. With the advent of free weblog building tools, the internet saw an explosion of weblogs. Now anyone with an internet connection can publish their personal weblogs easily, quickly and for free. The original weblog evolved in part into a journal form in which writers record anything they feel like writing. This new form of weblog is usually called blogs. Both forms exist today but blogs are in the overwhelming majority. The interface for writing blogs is a simple box like form where the writer is free to write anything (Rodzvilla, 2002). A blog is a recent phenomenon which is still evolving as individuals adapt it to suit their own purpose (Weber & Dixon, 2007).

There is a powerful rationale for using blogging. Investigation has shown that blogging can enhance reading and writing skills. Blogging facilitates collaboration, interactivity, self expression, self empowerment and a feeling of possession of the blog. These elements facilitate the enhancement of writing and reading skills because they generate analysis, creativity and discussion: students read and write with a purpose hence motivation, direction and enjoyment are present - key ingredients that promote sustained writing and reading. The blogging environment encourages freedom of expression which is an aid to writing. Blogging also encourages students to read and write frequently (Ducate & Lomicka, 2008). It makes sense to use a medium such as blogs that the children of today are familiar with and towards which they are attracted (Caverly, Nicholson, Battle, & Atkins, 2008).

The effective integration of instructional strategies and technology is challenging. Many educators attempt this task by selecting the technological instrument first and then the goals that they want the students to achieve. This approach tends to defeat the purpose for using technology because the lesson then focuses on the technology rather than the skills and content to be learned. Technology, pedagogy and content knowledge (TPACK) is a powerful approach for the successful integration of content, pedagogical and technological knowledge to achieve the goals and objectives of the curriculum. Instead of focusing on the technology first, teachers should consider the goals, objectives, content and skills that they would like their students to acquire and then decide on which technology tool is most appropriate (Harris & Hofer, 2009).

Thus in this paper the pedagogical strategies selected to support writing are: modeled writing, response writing and RAFT. The writing goals are as follows. For students that do not write, that they begin to write and develop into good writers. For students that write poorly, that their writing skills improve. The objectives are that: students explore writing in a non threatening manner, become skilled at writing journals to express their thoughts and emotional reactions, and learn the writing process so that they can write essays well. Additionally, with such strategies and activities, students will be given the opportunity to read more, understand better what they have read in the content areas and engage in higher level thinking such as analyzing, synthesizing ideas and concepts that they have encountered in their readings.

In order to use blogging to support writing, the educator must set up the blog facility. If the children are not familiar with the technology, the teacher has to introduce them to it in creative ways such as videos of the concept and actual blogging taking place or arrange that the students visit the computer laboratory where they can witness firsthand blogging taking place. There should be engaging discussions about the benefit and purpose of this technology and the desired goals that are to be achieved.

Another element worthy of consideration is typing. The ability to touch-type is a great asset in using blogs and word processing technology in general so that children would not be distracted and burdened with the task of locating letters on the keyboard. As a result, today’s children would benefit immensely if they are taught typing skills with the same vigour as they are taught handwritten skills. It is therefore a good idea that typing skill acquisition be a precursor to using blogging to support writing.

A key component in using modeling is that students should be able to access many books. Thus a well stocked school and class library is important. In order to integrate the strategy of modeled writing and blogging in an exploratory context, the teacher should first read the text that contains the structures that are to be modeled. The teacher should identify the structures and direct students to go to the teachers’ blog where the teacher would have placed up the assignment as well as a short story containing the structures. Since it is exploratory writing, the children should be free to write on any book of their choosing. The teacher can use the formatting tools in the blog interface such as, underlining, bolding, various colours, text fonts and sizes to emphasize the structures that are to be modeled in their blogs as a quick reminder and reference. The assignment should include visiting other students’ blogs and posting comments about their peers’ work. The teacher will read the postings and comments and also make comments. To control the quantity of posts, the teacher can limit them to what ever number she feels is manageable.

The strategy of response journal can be fused with blogging to support writing. Just as teachers may set up a time for students to write in their journals, or visit the library corner, students can be assigned a time to maintain a blog about their inner thoughts and reactions to books and activities in the classroom. The appeal in this strategy is the informality and freedom to write anything that is on their minds. Students will read the blogs of other students and carry on conversations. Teacher will read their blogs and comments and make quick comments.

Using these two informal approaches to writing (modeled writing and response journals) will increase students writing abilities as well as significantly improve their reading. As they gain confidence, the teacher can now shift to more formal writing – the essay- focusing on the process of writing.

RAFT is a suitable strategy to be used with blogging to enhance students’ writing. The teacher using teaching aids such as graphic organizers can explain the writing process. Then the teacher places the assignment on the board in the form of the acronym RAFT and generates ideas about the topic by calling the students to brainstorm. Brainstorming is an important strategy to use in the prewriting stage. The writing process is reinforced by identifying the stages and having the students participate in each stage of the process.

The second stage, drafting, is introduced and the teacher gives class time for the students to write a blog about the topic using the ideas that were generated in the class. The teacher should move around to provide assistance to any student that is experiencing difficulty.

The next stage, revising/ editing can be done by placing the students in groups of threes. The students in each group read the blogs of the students in their group alone and offer suggestions how to improve them. Thus the burden of revising shifts from teacher to students and at the same time, the students are assuming more responsibility which will facilitate grasping the important concept of revising in the writing process. Moreover, the comments aspect of blogging assumes a powerful function as it is the primary vehicle for helping students to get feedback for revision of their work.

Editing in the area of spelling, punctuation and grammar can be greatly facilitated by the word processing function of the blog tool. One strategy is to switch off these tools until the first draft is completed so that students will not be distracted by spelling and grammar errors being highlighted as they type. When the students move into the revising and editing stage, the spell checker and grammar tools should be activated so that such errors can be immediately highlighted and students can now focus on making corrections.

When the students are satisfied among themselves that their posts are ready for publishing, they notify the teacher who will read their blogs, evaluate and grade them. Then the students will be allowed to read the published or finished products of the other groups.

Nowadays there is an explosion of websites that provide useful resources with respect to literacy, lesson plans and educational games to facilitate reading specialists and important stakeholders in education. For example, Reading Rockets offers multimedia information on research-based instruction and best practice. ThinkReadWrite is another great website that provides classroom and after school educational resources as well as professional development resources to educators. This website was developed by two important literacy organizations that also maintain their own resourceful websites. They are the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA).

This thought-paper attempted to translate theory into practice by demonstrating how blogs, one form of Web 2.0 technology, can be used to support writing in concrete and specific contexts that can benefit reading specialists. Three main instructional strategies (modeled reading, response writing in the form of response journals and RAFT prompts were integrated with blogs and used as an approach to support writing. An overarching strategy considered teaching informal forms of using the blogs with strategies such as modeled writing and response journal first, and as students gain confidence in writing, they were exposed to the writing process in writing essays – a more formal form of writing, using the strategy RAFT.

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