Why so many students fail to harness the skills of writing well and how one set of mobile apps can help

Michael Niles

Niles Technology Group was founded in 2007 to develop software for emerging technologies and has developed a series of mobile computing applications dedicated to teaching superior writing and logical thinking skills. With its experience in the technology and content required to develop full-featured products for students, Niles Technology Group is already in the top 25 of all iPhone app publishers and the Achievers Writing Center and Essay Writing Wizard apps have sold successfully worldwide. The key to Niles Technology Group’s success is specificity. Each app is specific to the writing task at hand. Michael A. Niles, the founder, was formerly, for eight years, the President and CEO of The Right Education, Inc. (TRE), a web-based educational technology company that developed The Learning Accelerator. He looks forward to continuing to bring top-line education products to the mobile computing marketplace. Copyright (C) 2007-2010 Niles Technology Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Apple, the Apple logo, iPhone, iPod, and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries.

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Several times, parents have asked our company, Niles Technology Group, the following question, "When tested, why do the writing skills of students always seem to be the lowest scoring?"  And each time, we reply with two questions of our own, "What made you ask? And, what does your school consider writing skills?"  The parents' answer to the first question is invariably the same - either on the SAT or Standards of Learning tests, writing is consistently the lowest score reported by their school.  Interestingly enough, the second question also receives an invariable response - "We do not know what you mean?  Isn't writing, writing?"


Before dissecting these answers by parents, here is another response we received from a teacher with a Masters in writing, after reviewing our mobile essay writing apps.  The teacher said, "I do not get this. An analysis essay is pretty much the same as a critical essay, and I also see no need to have so many forms/versions of what is basically an expository essay."  Our company's response was rather stoic, but poignant -- "We accept the fact that they are basically the same to you, a holder of a MA in writing.  But, do your students know that 'basically the same' really means there are minute, yet crucial, distinctions depending on the essay type?  You have the knowledge to adjust your writing for these differences, but are you teaching your students those finer details?"  The teacher’s answer was rather basic, yet defining -- "We teach what is tested."  To which we responded, "Colleges are expecting students to know this whether or not it is tested."

Before elaborating on the above, we would like to emphasize that this post does not address systemic issues such as funding, overcrowding, teacher technology training, or other issues that affect schools.  And, since each school is different, there obviously needs to be varied approaches dependent on conditions.  In addition, systemic changes take time, but as each year goes by, more students are left behind; therefore, the students are the main focus, so do not view this as a ‘blame the teachers’ article.  The goals, for this post, are rather simple -- define the problem and provide a solution that can help now.  Your comments are welcomed.

The most important question above is the shortest one by the parents, "Isn't writing, writing?"  The answer, from the Niles Technology Group perspective, is "no" and that is what we tell parents.  When pushed further, the parents start talking about grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary.  Yes, these are all parts of writing, but actual essay writing is so much more.  Teachers know that writing an essay is really the development of an argument(s) and the lucid explanation of the same.  This is evidenced by the fact that all the perfect grammar and paragraphs in the world does not give more or better meaning to an illogical argument.  So the fundamental question remains as to why parents and students see a skewed focus on the mechanics of writing and less on the development of the true vehicle and end product of writing, the essay? This is not meant to diminish focus on the mechanics, but something is amiss when parents and students cannot clearly define, as a whole, what is writing.

It is not too hard to see why the mechanics-driven approach is so entrenched.  A quick look at the dedicated essay writing apps in the iTunes store shows the focus of the apps is basically mechanics.  Only the Niles Technology Group apps address the actual development of specific essays to the level of the unique logic required by each.  Our Science Writing app was featured in the US store’s Back to School Apps section for six weeks, so clearly Apple saw that Niles Technology Group apps provide something different AND needed.  A trip to the local bookstore shows the same; many mechanics-focused books and a lot fewer actual essay instruction books.  The essay instruction books usually have only the basic four types of essays with the student then fending for himself to understand the complexities of individual essays.  The second part to understanding the focus on mechanics is this is what is mainly tested; just as the teacher responded above.  We understand the reason for this and would not change that testing because mechanics are important.  However, the fact that remedial writing is one of the largest college entry-level classes (at least in the US) should give pause for reflection about the resulting efficacy of the current writing curricula.  Testing is not an excuse since any test can only test but so much, so clearly something is truly missing.

The above exchanges and current marketplace products illustrate why Niles Technology Group created the Achievers Writing Center and Essay Writing Wizard series of mobile apps.  The apps address three issues simultaneously:  1) They give students a dependable set of instructions to distinguish between different essay types.  Written in the same voice, with concise instructions, and each with relevant examples of what is expected, students learn how to think logically and appropriately for each essay.  This simply cannot be found anywhere else.  2) They provide teachers the capability, without creating separate lessons plans, to teach students the finer critical-thinking skills so important to writing well.  And, 3) they give parents, whose schools do not have the resources to get this specific in their curriculum, the opportunity to purchase a product that helps their children avoid entering college with only remedial-level writing skills.

The emails of endless thank you notes, reviews, and blog write-ups, which are received from students and educators alike, are a good indication that the apps fill a need and serve the purpose for which they are designed.  That is, to improve students’ writing skills through helping them to think more clearly about what is writing; by showing how to properly prepare to write; and, by providing a platform to immediately apply those skills to the essay at hand.  Writing well is the product of good preparation, research and pre-writing; all of which stem from strong thinking skills.

Are Niles Technology Group essay writing mobile apps perfect?  Of course not, no product is.  Will the apps help every student?  No, we know of no product that is a panacea.  So exactly, what are these apps? The apps are an excellent comprehensive way to teach students that writing an essay is not solely about sentence and paragraph mechanics, but mainly about logic and argument development with mechanics as the supporting act.

In summary, to answer the question that is the title of this post, students fail to harness the skills of writing well because the education system is expecting more of writing from students than they are actually being taught.  We hope that Niles Technology Group mobile apps are the beginnings of a change in this area. Any teacher or school that would like to assist in expanding this effort is free to contact us with any ideas and suggestions.  And, of course, do contact us if you are interested in using the apps in your high school, college or university.

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