A grammar guru's best friend

Tabitha Pacheco

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

As an educator, I’m always looking for new tools to enhance my teaching and engage my students. In my search for online supplemental curricula, I found a plethora of online resources for reading and math but struggled to find online writing tools. One welcome exception—and a particularly promising writing tool—is Quill.

Quill is a free online website that provides learning activities for students in grammar, vocabulary, and writing skills. It’s essentially a database of digital worksheets aligned to the Common Core writing standards. According to its customer-service representative, over 21,000 teachers and 285,000 students use Quill. The site includes a basic package, which is free, and a teacher premium package, which costs eighty dollars per year. The main difference is the level of detail provided in the student reports available to teachers (more on that later).

The site includes (in the free version) over 150 writing activities designed for grades 1–12. The activities are said to align with forty-two of the English language arts (ELA) Common Core standards across various grade levels, with each activity referencing the standards to which it aligns. In addition to activities by grade level, there are also activities designed for English language learners.

Quill’s typical format takes students through several short, related activities in the course of teaching a grammar standard (the set takes about ten minutes to complete). For example, standard 1.1G, “use frequently occurring conjunctions,” is broken into three activities: two sentence-writing activities focused on common conjunctions and a final proofreading activity that assesses students’ understanding of the standard. Feedback on the completed activity is automatically generated based on the students’ responses. For example, a first-grade activity on prepositions directs students to rewrite the following sentence: “The salty smell reminds me [from/of] the beach.” At the other end of the grade spectrum, a tenth-grade activity on using parallel structure (standard 10.1A) asks students to rewrite this sentence: “The musician likes to listen to new music by other artists or creating his own music” (not unsurprisingly, there are far fewer grammar activities for middle and high school than for elementary-age students).

The site uses a wide variety of materials and genres, including fiction, mythology and historical documents. For example, one of the fourth-grade historical readings is The Last Flight of the Apollo: The Apollo-Soyuz Test Mission and one of the ninth-grade texts is a short biography of James Joyce.

All of the activities require students to respond to a reading passage in writing (no multiple-choice options) and, if their responses are incorrect, to try again. Directions are provided for each activity and there is an example problem and grammatical tips, so students are clear on what is expected. For instance, an activity on how to use colons in a list would provide sample sentences with and without correct colon usage and also a list of key grammar rules (such as “colons can only be used after complete sentences”).

Students are then directed to rewrite a sentence like this with proper colons: “I need three items milk, eggs, and bread.”

Students must write in complete sentences and click a “check work” link afterwards. A “well done” message appears for a correct response; if the response is incorrect, a prompt directs the students to try again, along with a rule reminder or another tip. If the rewritten response still contains errors, the students are shown the correct response with the corrections underlined.

Quill is also on the cusp of launching two new tools that have been in development for over a year. In the coming weeks, the site will include a diagnostic test that teachers can use to place students in appropriate Quill lessons (more details in the forthcoming post), as well as Quill Connect, which helps students learn to write complex sentences. (These new features are currently being beta tested, and will be publicly available in December.) In Quill Connect, students are asked to combine two separate sentences given a list of joining words. For example, students could be given the following two sentences:

Surfers feel the wave.

They begin paddling.

The students must join the sentences using the following given options: as soon as, although, and while (the correct answer would be, “As soon as surfers feel the wave, they being paddling”). The complete sentence must be typed using proper capitalization and punctuation in order for the answer to be correct. For emerging writers who often write short sentences, I can see how learning to combine thoughts for more complex sentences would improve their writing skills.

How can Quill be incorporated into an ELA classroom?

In my class, I would use Quill activities for independent practice following a whole-group lesson. If a classroom held enough computers, all students could work on their assigned activities at the same time. With limited computers, Quill could be used as a class warm-up activity, an activity for students who finish tasks before their peers, or as a station activity for small-group rotations. Quill activities could also be assigned as home practice in grammar, assuming students can get online at home. Because Quill is essentially grammar worksheets in an online format and not an educational game site that tracks incentives for students (such as DreamBox or FunBrain), I would probably not use it as a part of my classroom reward system.

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When used appropriately, technology can enhance and supplement a teacher’s instruction. Plus, our digitally obsessed students appreciate a break from traditional paper-and-pencil practice for gauging mastery of grammar skills and would welcome some computer-based writing practice. Quill gives them that.

My next post will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Quill tool in more detail.

Tabitha Pacheco is a ten-year teaching veteran who holds a National Board Certification. She is a 2015 National Teaching Fellow for the Hope Street Group and serves on the Practitioners Advisory Group for the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders.