iCivics Drafting Board: Unique, useful, but needs more

Editor’s note: This article concludes our 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 described in our prior post, iCivics Drafting Board is an online essay-building tool for teachers seeking to help their pupils learn to write argumentative essays while exposing them to core civics and social-studies content. As with any online resource, however, it has both strengths and shortcomings.

What are iCivics Drafting Board’s greatest strengths?

Drafting Board is a unique online resource for improving students’ core literacy skills—namely, teaching them how to construct effective argumentative essays that are supported by evidence and reasoning. A major strength is its clear and simple breakdown of the writing process. The site’s use of user-friendly “game-like” graphics and instructions helps students at all levels to formulate ideas, organize arguments, and defend conclusions, while making the multistep writing process interactive and approachable (for example, text is supported through a glossary of potentially unfamiliar terms, such as “candidate,” “campaigns,” and “special interest groups”). Such embedded supports may be especially helpful for struggling students who are intimidated by long essays. Differentiating the level of writing support for each student could allow varying pupil needs to be met within the same class.

In addition to strengthening argumentative writing skills, Drafting Board also uniquely requires students to develop argumentative essays on subjects relevant to their lives (such as whether young adults should be given access to credit cards, or the pros and cons of lowering the voting age), in addition to more traditional civics content (such as units on the electoral college and the role of interest groups in America’s political process). The seven topics presented on Drafting Board are legitimate civics issues, and each uses appealing graphic images to specifically appeal to adolescents.

On top of these engaging, student-relevant lessons and units, the site includes a suite of supplemental activities and resources to aid teachers in incorporating Drafting Board’s lessons into their classrooms. A printable teacher’s guide is provided for each unit, containing not just text evidence and guides for each step of the process but also reproducible handouts to guide brainstorming, topic understanding, and peer editing.

Another strength: Because text evidence must be reviewed several times in the process of writing an essay on Drafting Board, students are encouraged to reread as well as to close-read. Embedding counterarguments within the argumentative essay structure is also wise; this skill is necessary and possible even for middle schoolers, though they often need ongoing support and reinforcement. Because the site does not include an online grading feature, teachers or peers must review and grade student’s writing themselves. Allowing students to peer review each other’s work could help refine their proofreading, revision, and editing skills while exposing them to diverse examples of argumentative writing.

Several independent evaluations have found that students using the Drafting Board tool wrote stronger essays than control-group students, even after controlling for demographic differences. Finally—and critical for educators on tight budgets—iCivics’s resources are completely free and publicly available after registering online.

How could Drafting Board be improved?

One challenge with Drafting Board is the time required to complete one of its sessions. iCivics recommends that each learning unit be completed in a single sitting—a process that can easily take up to two hours. Although developing stamina for the writing process is valuable, young or struggling students may have trouble maintaining focus for that long. And many schools run on schedules where class periods are much shorter than the recommended two hours it takes to finish a Drafting Board lesson.

Another significant weakness is the limited content currently available on Drafting Board. Though iCivics plans to significantly increase its resources in the future, currently only seven argumentative-essay writing lessons are available.

Several other improvements would help the Drafting Board learning experience for students. First, the site could provide students with more information about the difference between mediocre evidence and great evidence (evidence in support of a claim may be judged by Drafting Board to be “not the most effective,” but the site does not explain why). Some explanation of the criteria for effectiveness of evidence would help students internalize criteria for this important writing element and learn to differentiate between evidence that is weak, solid, or strong.

Moreover, the program does not appear to judge the quality or even quantity of students’ responses. For the segments that require students to create original sentences, they could progress even if writing very limited text. And although most text has accompanying audio, the voice with the text is not that of an authentic human reader. Because the audio cannot be disabled, there exists the temptation for students to be distracted by the audio even when reading the text silently would suffice. Another issue is that in many writing situations, citation of text evidence is required. At least a nod to the importance of that skill would be valuable. And finally, although state social-studies standards are referenced, the Common Core literacy standards for social studies are not, though they could easily be shown to relate.

Final thoughts

Overall, iCivics Drafting Board is interactive, easy to use, engaging, and real-world relevant, although limited in its current offerings. It is also clear about what it intends—and does not intend—to do. For example, it is not designed to assess the quality of student writing. This means that after a student spends potentially two hours on a Drafting Board task, teachers themselves must review that student’s work product and assist with further revisions.

Drafting Board is likely most appropriate for students in grades 6–10, given the fairly regimented linearity of its essay writing and the level of readings supplied as sources. What Drafting Board provides to those students is the structured experience of writing an argumentative essay on a topic of true significance, which requires them to persevere through turns of detail and logic on that essay-writing path. As the students who would most benefit from work on argumentative writing are those most apt to get frustrated by what they see as the repetitive nature of essay development, Drafting Board helps demonstrate that essay development need not be repetitious to be thorough.

Jonathan Budd is a K–12 director of curriculum, instruction, and assessments in Connecticut with nineteen years of prior teaching experience. His particular expertise is literacy, with a focus on text complexity. Victoria McDougald is the research manager at Fordham.