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Ask A REL Response

September 2019


What research has been conducted on effective digital tools to use with writing instruction/production?


Following an established REL Southeast research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on effective digital tools to use with writing instruction/production. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed effective digital tools to use with writing instruction/production. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. These references are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist."

Research References

  1. Ching, K. L. (2018). Tools matter: Mediated writing activity in alternative digital environments. Written Communication, 35(3), 344-375.
    From the abstract: "This study examines the experiences and perceptions of writers who composed text using "distraction-free" writing tools that stand as alternatives to standard word processing programs. The purpose of this research was to develop a clearer understanding of how digital writing tools may shape the activities and practices of writers, as well as what writing with unfamiliar tools and technologies might reveal about writing processes. Analysis of study participants' reflective narratives of their composing experience suggests the extent to which writing tools and technologies influence routine practices, assist writers as they try to direct their attention (and avoid distraction), motivate writing, and impact writers' "text sense" as they compose. Moreover, findings indicate how different tools and technologies may be viewed as more or less useful for different writing tasks. This article ends with a call for writing researchers, writing teachers, and software developers to attend more critically to the ways writing technologies shape the practices of writers."
  2. Dahlström, H. (2019). Digital writing tools from the student perspective: Access, affordances, and agency. Education and Information Technologies, 24(2), 1563-1581.
    From the abstract: "Along with digital development, new possibilities for communicating have emerged. The younger generation has adopted these new possibilities to a great extent. In order to be able to utilise the opportunities offered by digital tools when writing, access to digital tools is essential. Schools need to develop a writing education that meets students' contemporary writing needs. In considering this, it is important to learn more about the gains and the losses in digital writing. The purpose of this study was to understand and discuss the relation between students' digital access, students' perceived affordances with digital writing, and student agency. The methods used were a statistical survey and qualitative interviews. Six classes from five different schools located in a municipality in the middle of Sweden were chosen as an informant group. The results indicate that the most common condition concerning students' digital access was that students shared digital tools for writing with their families. An analysis of affordances was carried out to interpret the empirical findings from the qualitative data. Affordances that emerged were: write-ability, edit-ability, story-telling ability and accessibility. In addition, the ways in which digital access and the affordances perceived can be related to student agency were analysed. The main conclusion was that given the conditions of digital access and opportunities to practice, the affordances of digital writing can increase student agency. In turn, this suggests that writing education that focuses on student agency can contribute to equity in writing activities."
  3. Johnson, L. (2016). Reframing the assignment: Evolutions, not revolutions, in learning to teach writing with digital technologies. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 24(1), 5-35.
    From the abstract: "In this manuscript, the author discusses the importance of conceptualizing place and space in teacher professional development intervention research. This article draws on data that was collected during a two-year study that followed 12 secondary English teachers who taught in a single school district, Stone Creek County, located in the rural southeastern United States. Using a cultural historical activity theory framework (Grossman, Smagorinsky, & Valencia, 1999) the author discusses how the cultural and historical aspects of the place and context in which the teachers taught mediated the teachers' understandings of the affordances of incorporating critical digital literacies into their classroom teaching. Findings suggest introducing new tools into the rural setting (specifically the professional development intervention) helped influence teachers' identity in their role as professional educators. The professional development intervention helped the teachers develop a greater sense of agency and purpose within their rural context. Actively drawing on the teachers' insider knowledge as life-long residents in the setting helped the teachers develop a more agentive stance to toward teaching and learning with digital tools. Further, the teachers were able to become more powerful advocates for their students with regards to both students' access to digital technologies and by providing further opportunities in the classroom for students to bring in their everyday and local knowledge through digital technologies."
  4. Little, C. W., Clark, J. C., Tani, N. E.. & Connor, C. M. (2018). Improving writing skills through technology-based instruction: A meta-analysis. Review of Education, 6(2), 183-201.
    From the abstract: "The present study examined the effect of technology-based writing instruction on writing outcomes using meta-analytic methods. Additionally, this study investigated whether characteristics of study, sample, and outcome moderated the effect of technology-based writing instruction. Six studies were coded resulting in 11 extracted effect sizes. Results revealed that the weighted average effect size for technology-based writing instruction was 0.28, suggesting an educationally relevant and impactful effect of education technology on writing outcomes. Several moderators were included in this meta-analysis, but did not significantly influence effect sizes. One exception was learning disability (LD) status; however, these results should be interpreted with caution as only one study included an LD sample. Overall, these results support previous research and provide knowledge of the populations that are potentially impacted by technology-based writing instruction. Previous literature suggests technology-based writing instruction may supplement teachers' efforts to deliver instruction and provide practice time to students, affording students extra opportunities to engage with writing both in and out of the classroom; however, more research is required to determine the exact mechanisms through which technology may impact writing skills. Recommendations for reporting techniques and directions for future research in development and implementation of technology-based writing instruction are discussed."
  5. Martin, N. M., & Lambert, C. (2015). Differentiating digital writing instruction: The intersection of technology, writing instruction, and digital genre knowledge. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 59(2), 217-227.
    From the abstract: "U.S. adolescents' prior technology experiences and exposure to digital genres vary, but they will often write digital texts as they enter college and adulthood. We explored middle school students' digital writing instructional experience in the context of a university-based summer digital writing camp. The sixth- through eighth-grade adolescents fell into three profile groups: digital passengers, digital navigators, and digital drivers. Each group displayed distinct patterns of prior technology experiences and exposure to digital genres, digital writing processes, and instructional needs. Their digital writing instructional experience suggests that prior technology experiences and exposure to digital genres influence the ways adolescents envision and enact digital writing. In the middle school classroom, teachers may need to address a range of instructional needs during digital writing instruction."
  6. Roser, N. L., Mosley Wetzel, M., Martínez, R. A., & Price-Dennis, D. (2015). A digital tool grows (and keeps growing) from the work of a community of writers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 31(2), 185-200.
    From the abstract: "This article reports on a collaborative inquiry into the use of a researcher-designed digital tool for the support of writing instruction in elementary classrooms. The digital tool in question is an online collection of original writing samples produced by elementary children that was conceptualized as a resource for coaching new writers using easily retrievable samples of "gems" produced by other young writers. This article describes the teacher education context from which the design of this tool emerged as well as the evaluation of this tool by a group of Master Reading Teacher candidates. Grounded in the literature on the use of mentor texts in writing instruction, this article highlights the role that authentic child-authored texts can play in supporting teachers' instructional moves. The article ends with a discussion of implications for enhancing teacher professional development through the use of digital tools that can be utilized to promote reflective inquiry into writing pedagogy."
  7. Vue, G., Hall, T. E., Robinson, K., Ganley, P., Elizalde, E., & Graham, S. (2016). Informing understanding of young students' writing challenges and opportunities: Insights from the development of a digital writing tool that supports students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 39(2), 83-94.
    From the abstract: "Conducting focus groups with target audiences to assess user needs is a critical step in the process of designing and developing a web-based writing environment. This descriptive study examined focus group data gathered to address two questions: First, do data from focus groups affirm and expand our understanding of writing and writing development among middle school students? And second, do data from focus groups provide information helpful to the use of digital technology for enhancing writing instruction, production, and engagement? Analysis of students' writing experiences across grade levels revealed that sixth graders placed more emphasis on procedural knowledge such as format, editing, and timelines, whereas seventh and eighth graders placed more emphasis on substantive processes such as plan, draft, and revise. Students' writing experiences also showed a disconnect between writing behaviors they engaged in on their own (texting, social media, and email) and writings they learned in school. Future research and instructional practice implications are discussed, including providing ongoing supports when writing and use of digital technology to enhance instruction and engagement."


Keywords and Search Strings
The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Digital tools for writing instruction
  • Teaching writing with technology

Databases and Resources
We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published for last 15 years, from 2003 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types - randomized control trials,, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Southeast Region (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast at Florida State University. This memorandum was prepared by REL Southeast under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0011, administered by Florida State University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.