Preparing “Digital Natives” for College and Career Level Writing

By John Matich, COO, Core Innovate, Inc. 

More than a decade ago, The College Board’s The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges produced two reports, The Neglected “R” the Need for a Writing Revolution and Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out: A Survey or Business Leaders. As my colleagues and I visit schools and district offices, we hear the clarion calls of the early 2000s resonating today. Educators, eager to prepare their students for matriculation and the rigors of college and careers, are seeking resources that build this essential skill for students.

Today's K-12 students, or "digital natives," were born after the widespread adoption of digital technology and have the expectation that content will be delivered via digital devices. According to the Commission, only 28% of high school seniors are proficient in writing and they are not prepared for 21st century, college-career level writing. In order to address this crisis, it is essential that we rethink the way we engage these "digital natives" in writing in all content areas.

A growing body of research, both in education and in neuroscience, suggests that using technology to teach writing increases student engagement in the writing process. Neuroscience tells us that when students engage in writing, the brain makes a prediction about whether the experience will generate either a protective or pleasurable response (Willis, 2011). When students feel anxiety, this negative emotional response sends information to the reactive involuntary brain where retention is limited. When students are at ease, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases motivation and perseverance through challenges (Willis, 2011).

My colleagues and I surveyed over 500 high school students asking them to define the biggest barrier to engaging in writing. The "fear of the blank page" was one of their main concerns. Technology tools that break down the writing process, provide organized pre-writes, offer reminders of processes and guide students step-by-step are beneficial tools for our digital natives. Additional studies indicate that students have an easier time expressing themselves when they are able to write their thoughts on the computer. Further, technology allows students to enhance their writing by adding more precise detail to their writing pieces and by initiating self-revisions.

Technology can create efficiencies that allow teachers to respond to student writing more quickly. When students receive timely feedback, the results are dramatic. Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) state that effective and timely feedback translates into 28 percentile point differences in achievement on writing assignments. John Hattie (2009) concluded that timely feedback was one of the most effective strategies for improvement among the hundreds of education practices he studied. Writing software that includes feedback palettes, progress toward mastery reports, and instant revision tools can support teachers in all content areas.

Using a software platform to assign and teach writing can save time and money. Consider what it takes to get a writing prompt from idea to completion. Teachers must first create a rigorous and engaging writing prompt. Then, they must print it out and pray that their classroom printer works before they stand in line at the copy machine. Once it's their turn, you guessed it, PAPER JAM! After the teacher fixes the paper jam and makes 200 copies of the prompt, 200 copies of the graphic organizers, they return to class and distribute them to their students. Then, when the bell rings to dismiss class, one-third or more of the papers handed out are still on the desks or the floor and students are unable to complete the writing assignment at home. One school reported that going paperless could save them more than $10,000 per year in paper, toner, and copy machine expenses.

For too long, the task of teaching and assigning writing has been the responsibility of the English teacher. The inability to write is not only a barrier to college completion, it’s the number one barrier to promotion in the workplace. We are seeing teachers, regardless of content area and grade level, share responsibility for preparing students for college and career. With a unified and united effort, teachers can begin to close opportunity gaps by building the foundational skills students need to succeed. 

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Scott, P., Mouza, C. (2007). The impact of professional development on teacher learning, practice, and leadership skills: A study on the integration of technology in the teaching of writing. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 37(3), 229-266.

Technopedia Digital Natives. (2007). Retrieved February 20, 2017 from Technopedia:

Willis, J. (2011). Writing and the brain: Neuroscience shows the pathways to learning. National Writing Project. Retrieved February 20, 2017 from