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New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education's Blog

What's the Story? 

Making the world a better place for gifted kids, one yarn at a time.


Budding Young Writers

Using online tools to engage kids in writing





"I HATE writing!!", and off storms my child. Sound familiar? This was a pretty solid mantra for a couple of years in our house, right up there with a total refusal to draw. I'm not generally one to stereotype, but a lot of experience and reading suggests that this "lack of interest" in writing is often a "boy thing", but of course I may well be wrong. And well, no guesses how giftedness is raring its head here - asynchronous development and the sheer intensity of feelings and expression. But I can happily say now that this is "so last year" - well, the response to writing anyway - because nowadays, the conversation (generally) goes more like this ...


Mum: "I thought I asked you to hop off your game already?"

Child: "I did, Mum. I am working on my story now."


This is not to say anything is "the go" for writing - it is all still highly selective, linked tightly to personal interests and goals, and needs to be produced on the computer. Regardless, this is a massive and exciting step forward; in self-belief, attitude, resilience when it comes to frustrations in planning and spelling, and persistence to continue with, and in some instances, even complete, written projects.

I wish there was some sort of magic, instant recipe that I could pass on for all those kids who share these challenges with writing, but in all honesty, this has all just taken time, along with the removal of any pressure (which in our case came with a change in learning context - from school to homeschooling), a raft of open-ended, no expectation, interest-based opportunities, oh, and a chance for entrepreneurial spirit to be able to take a place at the table, so to speak. Money can talk apparently - for this child anyway - when it is a self-driven project. But we can talk about project learning another time.

As it is, I thought it might be useful to share some of the free online tools that we have trialed through this part of our journey (and a few that I have tucked up my sleeve for use later on). Some of these have played a significant part in shifting how the process and purpose of writing has been viewed in our household. But these are tools. It is all about how we use them with our kids that really makes the difference.

As ever, there is rarely a "one-size-fits-all" approach. I know, I'm preaching to choir here about that. I encourage you to check these tools out to see what might work for you and your young people. The wonderful thing is that these can be great for learners across the board, from those who love writing through to our reluctant writers. My hope is that something in here will prove to be an inspiration for some other young budding authors.

If you are looking for an opportunity for real-life engagement and writing with a purpose and real audience, why not spend some time with your kids, choose some online writing tools to try out, and get blogging for the up-coming Gifted Awareness Blog Tour which kicks off in June. Submissions are open now. If you are looking for writing prompts (which is an approach that works for some but not others), you might like to try Scholastic Story Starters for younger writers, or take a look at The Literacy Shed, ReadWriteThink and Creative Writing Prompts which each cater for a range of interests and abilities.


So here goes. These are our Top 10 Free Online Tools that can help foster the development of skills and beliefs associated with written expression. Many of which can, and are, used in professional contexts. The tools are presented in no particular order. 


Flipgrid (Web, iOS and Android)

Our kids are verbose. They could talk the hind leg of a donkey if the topic is something they love. Sound familiar? It seems only right to draw on this natural inclination when it comes to expressing other ideas. Flipgrid is perfect for this. A stimulus video and questions can be created/added and participants invited to share their responses in a short (less than 90-seconds video). The length can be a challenge for some. They have to refine their thoughts to get down to the nuts and bolts of what they want to share. Equally, the very notion of recording ideas to begin with can be challenge - enter the perfectionist. Providing a safe, quiet space and plenty of time for recorded responses to be made can be a great way to alleviate feelings of pressure that may be underlying any angst about recording ideas. In terms of privacy, Flipgrid can be password protected. Video Ant is a similar programme, but responses to questions (which are placed at various times during the video) need to be written in text rather than video format. In addition all users need to be signed up to Video Ant, whereas with Flipgrid they don't need to be.




Screencast-o-matic (Web)

What does your child love to do on the computer? Why not get them to share it with you by creating a screen-cast video? Also perfect for creating how-to videos, Screencast-o-matic allows a user to record what is on their screen, their voice and, if desired, a video of the user talking/presenting. With a 15 minute time-limit on the free version, they can share their knowledge and ideas about content and process on any number of topics. They can even use this to kick start a YouTube channel if having a real-life purpose with a larger audience has an appeal. Anything created on Screencast-o-matic can be saved to your own computer so remains private unless you choose to share it via email or on some other platform.




Touchcast (Web and iOS)

Like the aforementioned Screencast-o-magic, Touchcast allows you to record yourself and show on-screen information, but it has some 'wicked as' interactive features. The presenter can add what are referred to as 'Vapps', into their presentation. This allows the presenter to add pop-ups such as images, webpages, videos, maps and more, which users can access in real-time within the presentation by clicking on the pop up. Users can scroll through a webpage or watch a video in the pop-up screen while the main presentation continues or, view them full screen, pausing the main presentation which they can then return to when ready. There are other features as well, such as a green screen function and whiteboard. It is lots of fun to play with. One thing to be wary of is that if used to create a Touchcast as a plain non-interactive video, it can be saved to your own camera roll or folder, but if you want the interactive features to be available then it has to be saved publicly on the Touchcast site, which is publicly searchable.




Canva (Web and iOS)

Most people are familiar with the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Canva exemplifies this, providing loads of stunning templates ready for your own images and text. While it has a limited range of free images, you can upload your own (or make use of Flickr Creative Commons images) to design posters, social media graphics, invitations and much more. Perfect for visual spatial learners to express themselves without any hefty planning involved, this tool offers an opportunity to explore how images and text can be used sparsely, yet effectively, to convey a message. Images can be downloaded to your computer for use.




Haiku Deck (iOS for free, but web at a cost)

Again, with lots of visual impact and space for a few words, Haiku Deck is an excellent way to share ideas - in this instance, in a presentation format. A number of themes and page formats are available to choose from and free images can be searched within the app or uploaded from a device. For those who like word-play, I can recommend this as a way to creatively match images with words.


Storium (Web)

Storium provided us with our break through moment. A collaborative writing game, this is perfect for those who are perhaps reluctant to write but enjoy strategic thinking. While it takes a wee bit of time to get your head around to begin with, this is a great platform to share ideas in a collaborative space - especially for young gamers. With privacy settings to ensure the writers remain in a safe space and the ability to invite players to join in to create and play characters, stories can quickly evolve even with the play of single sentences. The free version allows one narrator and up to three characters per game.




Google Docs and Forms (Web, with Docs also on iOS)

We had a natural shift from Storium to Google Docs as confidence in writing grew. Docs still provides a forum to collaborate but doesn't require it like Storium does. As such, this is a great way to progress writing, collaboratively or independently, and with the means to share work with 'safe' readers who will appreciate the writing and, depending on where the young author is at, provide a wee bit of feedforward to continue building on success. Also within the Google Suite, Forms is a really powerful way for students to engage in real-life projects. Observed through the use of this is that, gathering data and potentially achieve something important can be done with limited amounts of writing. Rather than focusing on writing screeds, this instead, provides an opportunity to reflect on what kinds of information are sought to meet the intended goal, how this will be elicited, the order of questions and very importantly, how the information gathered will be used. Brevity is an artform in itself. Ethics can also be brought into this for consideration, exploring participant consent, with or without participant anonymity.


Adobe Spark (Web and iOS)

This is a personal favourite. This intuitive programme is visual appealing, easy to use and has the capacity for inclusion of images (from the search function within Adobe Spark or your own), text, videos and hyperlinks. The final creation scrolls like a webpage and remains private unless shared via URL. I recommend a play with this to appreciate the functions and visual nature of this tool. For writers who struggle to start, this can provide a means of easily setting up a structure for a document to help provide a framework to work within. 


Madmagz (Web)

An e-book or e-zine in the making, Madmagz provides all your child needs to quickly create, independently or collaboratively, a stunning online book. Templates are provided with placeholders for images and text. An upgrade can be done to include videos and hyperlinks as well, or to be able to print the book out. We have utilised this as an e-portfolio but have since shifted to Seesaw for that purpose. Now it is a place to work with other kids to make an e-zine (electronic magazine) to share; a great way to work with others, but with independent contributions and, together, reaching a real audience. Uploaded images can be a bit of a nuisance as often it comes up with a message that the image is too big or small for web and/or printing quality. Sometimes it just takes a few clicks more to make it upload. Alternatively, a picture resizer might be required or, in some cases, the upload of a completely different picture. Flickr Creative Commons is a great place to source images if kids don't have their own, however I would encourage kids to use their own drawings or photographs (consent needs to be considered if sharing the e-book). When published the e-book is available via URL.



Inklewriter (Web)

Pick-a-path books - familiar with them? You don't see them around often these days, but here is the chance for your child (and you too if you want!) to make your own. You can add images and then publish it to read as an interactive book. Alternatively, this can be used as a platform to plan a short interactive pick-a-path Youtube video - using real life action or perhaps stop-motion. There are some great examples of interactive pick-a-path videos online. This particular app takes a lot of planning but can provide much enjoyment in the processes of both writing and reading.




A note about using images in projects

As many of these programmes can include images, there may be an inclination by some to use images from the internet. This is an ideal time to teach about Creative Commons licensing. A great place to start with this is with Creative Commons Flickr which enables users to search by the attribution type you want, i.e., free to modify and use, free to use commercially etc. The following is an example of an attribution.

Image name (hyperlinked to url of image source) by image creator is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (or whatever CC attribution is required).

Just as we don't allow children to plagiarise others' words, we need to ensure they understand that images too are the intellectual property of others and should be acknowledged as such by providing an attribution. 

Have Some Fun!!! 

I think more than anything, this list of tools is an invitation to have some fun with your child or children. Be a part of the creative action (but be led by your kids - no taking over, getting competitive, or correcting/criticising your child's work!). Try the apps out, talk to your kids about how professionals use these sorts of skills and tools in real life, and ... oh yeah ... did I say already? Have fun!!! We'd love to hear how you get on! Let us know in the comments.



'What's the Story?' is a new blog section which is being written for the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education, with posts being added regularly. The purpose of this space is to share musings and anecdotes relating to giftedness and gifted education to provide a form of information and support for those living with and/or teaching gifted learners. Please do share them along.


We would love to hear from you.  Grab a virtual cuppa and share your story in the comments.

What's the Story? Making the world a better place for gifted kids, one yarn at a time.


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Please note that the views expressed in these blogs are those of the author and not necessarily representative of the views of the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

Image credit: Nita by Trompe L'oeil is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. The image has been modified. 



Budding Young Writers

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