Jill Dunn

Writing and iPads in the early years classroom

Jill Dunn Stranmillis University College, Belfast Tuesday 19 June 2018

In a recent research project I was involved in, ‘Mobile Devices in Early Learning’ (Gray et al 2017), a teacher, when discussing children’s writing, told me,

 

‘The iPad has provided an added interest in their work. I honestly believe that it has increased their motivation and enthusiasm.’

One young child appeared to concur fully when he told me, ‘It’s more funner than doing work’. This motivational aspect of using iPads in the primary classroom, and children’s associated enjoyment, has been demonstrated in many studies (Flewitt et al 2015), and both motivation and enjoyment are essential elements when teaching compositional writing. Enjoyment of writing has been connected to writing behaviour, confidence, motivation and attainment (Clark and Teravainen 2017). However, the project’s findings on literacy also indicated how the use of iPads in the teaching of compositional writing was particularly beneficial in terms of allowing children greater choice and creativity (Dunn et al 2018). These are also critical factors as we encourage children to become writers.

‘Our project’s findings on literacy indicated that the use of iPads in the teaching of compositional writing was particularly beneficial in terms of allowing children greater choice and creativity.’

Both from my former role as a primary-school teacher and my current one in higher education, it has become very clear to me that writing is essential for academic achievement and for success beyond school. However, recent reports indicate that children engage in very little writing outside of school apart from technology-based formats. Writing, in whatever medium, is a complex and onerous activity – as many of us find when we are trying to organise our thoughts and arguments into a coherent academic report, article or (indeed) blog – and many young children lose interest and motivation when faced with this effortful task.

It was Vygotsky (1978) who stated that if writing is to be more than a set of ‘hand and finger habits’ for children, it must be relevant to their lives. Contemporary teaching practices have been paying heed to the pervasive presence of technology in the textual lives of children outside of school in an attempt to bring this relevance to children’s writing. The ‘process approach’ to writing, influenced by the work of Donald Graves, is the dominant approach to teaching writing in our primary classrooms, focussing on the recursive nature of planning, drafting, editing, revising and publishing (Graves 1983). Teachers are using iPads during many of these stages. They might be using apps such WordFoto or Word Salad to generate vocabulary around a character in the planning stage; writing their stories in Book Creator or Pic Collage; or using Green Screen or Puppet Pals to present a story they have been writing. The opportunities for iPad use in this way are manifold.

Based on the current government drive to improve standards in literacy, this use of iPads in compositional writing with young children presented itself as a topic that warranted further investigation. What are the benefits and challenges of using iPads when teaching compositional writing to young children, and who better to answer this question than those who teach writing and those who are learning how to write? Therefore, in this most recent study, teachers and children were able to tell us how the iPad enabled choice and creativity, how the visual element of communication, through the inclusion of photographs, pictures and stickers, was a critical part of children’s expression, and how reluctant-writers felt empowered through enabling mechanisms such as autocorrect and predictive text and the use of sound-bites to create their stories.

Yet no-one was advocating for an end of the use of paper-and-pencil writing, and both teachers and children had an awareness of the need for a balanced approach to the use of iPads in the classroom. Challenges were mooted: in some instances children rather than teachers are more confident users of technology; and teachers are constrained by the print-centric demands of high-stakes assessment. However, these ‘insider’s’ perspectives certainly suggest that there are many potential benefits to be gained in using iPads to teach compositional writing.


‘Writing and iPads in the early years: Perspectives from within the classroom’, by Jill Dunn and Tony Sweeney, was recently published in the British Journal of Educational Technology:


Reference

Clark C and Teravainen A (2017) Writing for Enjoyment and its Link to Wider Writing, London: National Literacy Trust

Dunn J, Gray C, Moffett P and Mitchell D (2018) ‘It’s more funner than doing work: Children’s perspectives on using tablet computers in the early years of school’, Early Child Development and Care 188(6): 819–831

Flewitt R, Messer D and Kucirkova N (2015) ‘New Directions for Early Literacy in a Digital Age: The iPad’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy 15(3): 289–310

Graves D (1983) Writing: Children and Teachers at Work, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Gray C, Dunn J, Moffett P and Mitchell D (2017) Mobile Devices in Early Learning: Evaluating the Use of Portable Devices to Support Young Children’s Learning, Belfast: Stranmillis University College.

Vygotsky L S (1978) Mind in Society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press


Jill Dunn is a senior lecturer in Stranmillis University College, Belfast. She was a primary school teacher working in foundation stage and key stage 1 classrooms before moving into teacher education. Jill teaches across BEd, PGCE early years and master’s programmes, and her main teaching interests include literacy in the early years and working with parents. Jill completed her EdD focussing on children’s views on using popular culture to teach writing. She has also been involved in a number of funded research projects on literacy and the use of iPads in early years education, and has published in these areas.