Imitation as the best form of flattery and writing success?

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 described in our prior post, Liquid Interactive’s Writelike is designed to strengthen a writer’s craft through analysis, writing exercises, and emulation of master authors. How does this design translate into strengths and weaknesses for the user?

What are Writelike’s most notable strengths?

Writelike’s greatest strength is the creative way in which it exposes students to numerous authentic literary excerpts and strong texts that they can read and emulate. The interactive exercises are fun and will likely keep students engaged, while helping to improve important writing skills such as writing in different styles, rearranging sentences into the correct order, and proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar (grammatical elements notably get more sophisticated treatment than in typical grammar texts: fragments are handled in a category amusingly entitled “four and a half types of sentences,” for example).

The activities themselves are also user-friendly. Exercises and drills allow users to check their answers instantly as they progress, and the site also offers ongoing assistance for students struggling with a given exercise (students having trouble with a timed memory exercise can access a certain number of “peeks” back at the original text as they attempt to replicate it, for example, or can retry the exercise). Writelike also embeds student-friendly encouragement at difficult moments (for example, “If you’re confused, that’s good. This is a big topic. Let’s get to work”). Overall, it sends an important message to students: Even professionally published writing can be subject to revision.

Writelike’s resources are also impressively expansive: The variations in drills, lessons, and courses appear endless because the user can keep requesting new text excerpts to analyze and emulate and can progress with as few tries or hints as possible. And in line with Common Core’s shifts for English language arts (ELA) and literacy, the activities require students to analyze and engage closely with a variety of texts.

It’s also fairly easy for teachers to search for activities to fit an instructional need. Courses, drills, and lessons are tagged for easy browsing, including the time required for participation, text and genre type, and difficulty level; each activity also includes an overview description and purpose. Teachers also have the ability to create their own course, drill, or lesson, and inquiries submitted via the site’s contact page were responded to quickly and helpfully.

Finally, and critically for educators on a tight budget, Writelike’s content is completely free after setting up an account (and teachers can even sample exercises, drills, lessons, and courses prior to registration).

What are Writelike’s areas for improvement?

Writelike is a unique site offering a host of engaging (and free!) writing activities for students, but there are several aspects of the site that could be improved. First, given the variety of activities available, Writelike may be initially overwhelming to a teacher looking for specific activities to incorporate into the classroom. The addition of a brief overview page or PDF clearly explaining Writelike’s content and capabilities for educators would be hugely helpful. And though Writelike clearly supports goals of the Common Core’s ELA standards, links to the Common Core are not made explicit, so adding more information on which activities best align to specific standards (and allowing educators to search by those) would also be valuable.

Certain literary texts may also be too sophisticated for the typical middle school audience. For example, while Weitz’s A Century of Genocide is successful contemporary nonfiction, one segment presented by Writelike references rape within the context of specific ethnic fighting. Such a segment, especially out of context, could alarm or disturb students, especially those who may be using the tool in an environment without an adult.

And finally, although the program is designed to require students to produce writing at particular intervals before proceeding to more advanced learning within each lesson, there is no requirement that a particular number of words be produced at any given point—even one character in a box will allow the learner to proceed. In other cases, instructions were a bit too informal: Writelike avoids naming specific grammar rules (for example, using “the things” rather than “the nouns” in highlighted text elements), where it would be more helpful to use the exact terms.

Final thoughts

Although Writelike never advertises it, the site’s focus on style in written texts directly supports several Common Core anchor standards for writing (such as “producing clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” and “develop[ing] and strengthen[ing] writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach”). In fact, despite its designers’ articulated interest in a middle school audience, Writelike’s content would be appropriate for many high school students and even some college students. Its methods of analyzing and writing about texts transcend middle school limits, and the content itself is of high quality and on topics that would interest a wide range of learners. Clearly, a classroom teacher could link the possibilities of Writelike to other curricular resources that help students build writer’s craft in analyzing both their own writing and the writing of others. Even slight changes in a text make a difference, and that’s where deep revision sidles in. The game-like design of Writelike is alluring, and when it comes to developing a strong sense of writer’s craft, allure is not to be underestimated!

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.