Quelling writing problems with Quill

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.

If you are in the market for online writing worksheets, check out Quill. The site is essentially an online database of digital worksheets aligned to the Common Core English language arts (ELA) writing standards. This tool offers many advantages but also raises several concerns.

The positives

Teachers will find Quill very easy to use. They can sort activities based on grade level, type of activity (writing or editing), or writing and grammatical concepts (such as adjectives and adverbs, comma usage, commonly confused words, prepositions, and punctuation). They can assign students an individual activity, a premade pack—put together by the site—that bundles several activities keyed to a single grammar concept, or a custom pack devised by the teacher that tailors activities to the needs of the class or individual students. These activities are simple to assign to one student or the whole class. Plus, assigning them as homework means that teachers don’t need to worry about worksheets being lost in backpacks.

Teachers can sign up for Quill via their email or their Google user information. If teachers utilize Google Classroom, they can simply import the Google class roster; otherwise, they must manually add each student’s name. The teachers give students a class code to create their logins. Although I found this process simple and intuitive, the site does offer step-by-step PDF guides and videos for creating teacher and student accounts.

Students will also find the site easy to access and use. They can log into it from school computers or home devices. Quill has computer, tablet, and smartphone capabilities, although it’s hard to imagine effectively completing writing tasks on a smartphone. The site runs on most browsers, including Chrome, Safari, and Firefox. All of the site’s activities are self-explanatory with a nondistracting background and an easy-to-read font.

Another nice feature is that the site is equipped with a live-chat feature to ask questions of the Quill team, so if students work on Quill from home, they can get their questions answered in real time. Teachers can also use this live-chat option, which may be particularly helpful as they are familiarizing themselves with the site.

Teachers will also soon be able to assess student needs quickly by using the site’s forthcoming diagnostic tool, which automatically creates lesson plans based on the results of the diagnostic. Teachers can view the class-wide results of the diagnostic test to help plan whole class lessons or can dig into individual student scores to see how each student performed or answered a specific question.

The grading system that Quill utilizes is a definite plus. Students receive immediate feedback on their work, which saves teachers time in grading worksheets. Students have two opportunities to respond to the activity prompt, so they cannot get stuck on a single prompt. Quill uses immediate error correction by providing the correct response to erroneous answers, so students aren’t left repeating errors or guessing.

One particularly useful feature of Quill is that teachers can easily view class reports that place students in proficiency groupings of green (“at proficient” 76–100 percent), yellow (“nearly proficient” 75–50 percent), and red (“not proficient” 49–0 percent). After students complete their assigned activities, teachers can view basic reports for the class and for individual students. As students complete activities, the boxes will turn green, yellow, or red, depending on their proficiency level. Gray boxes indicate that a student has not yet completed the activity. The free version of Quill allows teachers to access this basic level of student reports and tracks information such as lowest-performing students and the most difficult concepts for your class. The additional paid features include reports to show progress on Common Core standards and enable teachers to export student data.

The negatives

Quill is not a game-based educational tool. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but students who need the motivation of earning points or a cartoon avatar to keep them engaged may not be excited by this site. The activities are set up as work, not play.

The activities and basic reporting on student performance are enough to make the free version of Quill useful to teachers. However, for detailed reports on individual student proficiency, teachers must purchase the premium package, as described above. Quill can’t be used as a progress-monitoring tool for individual students unless that premium package is acquired. If teachers want to collect writing-proficiency data on individual students to inform a recommendation of RTI or special-education services, they would need the premium package.

Another disadvantage of Quill is the lack of information posted on the site regarding accessibility features for students who may require accommodations. The site lacks some built-in accessibility features found on other sites, such as screen readers. When I contacted customer service for more details on their accessibility options, they responded that although they do not offer a built-in screen reader, their site is compatible with most screen-reader software programs. Students who are not yet able to read fluently may struggle to read and respond to writing activities on their own. That said, I do not believe this site is targeting remedial learners; it is geared to measure student proficiency at grade level.

This is also not the right site for writing lengthy essays. Activities focus on grammar, editing, and sentence-writing skills. Because grammar is the primary focus, there are far more activities for elementary students. Only two grammar activities are designed specifically for twelfth grade Common Core standards. Quill is therefore most beneficial for teachers in an elementary school setting.

The Common Core calls for a balance of text types and specifically states that science and history texts should be integrated with traditional literary texts. Although Quill does an excellent job in providing historical readings and a variety of fictional and mythological passages, it does not provide texts related to science and other STEM areas. That’s disappointing.

Final thoughts

After poring over this site and exploring its activities, I definitely recommend it to elementary language arts teachers. The most significant advantage is that the tool measures proficiency on the grammar-specific skills that students are expected to acquire under the Common Core standards. It also reduces the amount of grading, so it will save teachers time—and with the growing number of responsibilities that teachers have, that is a beautiful thing!

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