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Reflective Summary Teaching as Inquiry - Using e-learning to improve achievement in writing

School type

Sacred Heart is a Catholic Full Primary school, in Timaru, with a roll of 170 students, and a decile rating of 5.  There are 7 multi-levelled classrooms from New Entrant to Year Eight. 


Sacred Heart is a member of the Aoraki Rural Cluster, along with 10 other schools from the South Canterbury region.  All teachers in the cluster schools conducted a "Teaching as Inquiry" for their 2011 ICT PLD.

Each school's inquiry question focused on how ICT tools, strategies and thinking could be used in teaching and learning to improve student achievement in a chosen aspect of learning.  Lead teachers used the focus to complete a "Teaching as Inquiry" while guiding their colleagues through the process.


The inquiry focus question for Sacred Heart was “How can we use ICT tools, strategies and thinking in our teaching and learning to improve student achievement in writing?”

Baseline assessment data taken in Term 1 showed achievement levels for recount writing were generally below the National Standard, in my class (Year 7/8).  As well, commenting on student blogs was only being done occasionally by students and hardly ever by parents/whānau.  In my ‘Teaching as Inquiry’ I wanted to boost achievement levels in writing through giving specific feedback/feedforward against success criteria, motivating the students by writing for real audiences, and providing opportunities for family/whānau involvement in the students’ learning.  The first step was to upgrade from a free blog portal, to a paid portal.  This was needed to allow easier access for parents and students, in regard to commenting, and also to open up the blogs to a wider audience (a paid portal was required for their writing to be visible to the public).

At the Ulearn Conference in 2010, I discovered the ePals site and realised the benefits of signing up my class.  The ePals site is safe and secure, as all students have to have signed parental permission before registering, and all emails from and to students are moderated by their teacher.  Ideally, I wanted my students to buddy up with a class from a Spanish speaking country, as this would not only allow them to write for a real purpose, but they would also be able to try out their Spanish.  I signed up my class with http://www.epals.com/ and soon found a teacher and class in Mallorca (Spain) to e-mail.  Not only did my students receive e-mails, but they were also sent (by post) projects about Mallorca, with a request that they reciprocate with projects about Timaru.  We decided to complete an e-project – Photo Stories about Timaru.  This would involve group work, planning, letter writing to request help from parents, photography, description writing, as well as developing the technical skills involved in putting the Photo Stories together.

 Impact on the students

The students were very excited when they received their first e-mails from their ePals and were motivated to write replies immediately.  Some students even took the time to write part or all of their first letters in Spanish, which was pleasing to see.  A number of students voluntarily took their login details home so they could write replies for homework.

The ePals Photo Story projects were also a great motivating force for writing.  Students sorted themselves together into groups according to what they wanted to showcase about Timaru.  They planned the steps needed to complete their Photo Stories on a graphic organiser and wrote letters home, outlining what they wanted to do and asking for parental/whānau support, as the photos would need to be taken out of school time.  Some students were able to get themselves and their parents organised quickly, and returned to school soon after, with their photos.  These students began drafting their descriptions and organising their Photo Stories.  The problem came for those students who were not able to get the support required, and in the end they resorted to finding images online, rather than taking their own photos.  Another issue was that the school year for the students in Mallorca finished on 22 June, which meant my class was without e-Pals for a number of months, as the other attempts made to find new e-Pals were unsuccessful.

Changing to a paid blog portal opened up the blogs to a wider audience and increased the students’ motivation to post their writing on their blogs, and made it possible for them to write comments on other students’ blogs in another class.  Teacher modelling of how to write specific feedback/feedforward according to the success criteria also helped students to write more meaningful comments as well as focus them in on the success criteria.  There has been a definite development in the quantity and quality of student comments on the blogs.  Commenting by parents has not yet reached the level I had hoped for, so this will continue to be an area to develop.

Improvement in writing achievement occurred across my whole class, apart from two students who stayed at the same level. 

Next Steps

The students will continue to write to their e-Pals for the rest of the year.  I know now that I also need to find Southern Hemisphere as well as Northern Hemisphere e-Pals, so my students have e-Pals all year round.

I would also like to try out some of the other ePals online projects available, rather than just e-mailing.  Over the Term 3 holidays I registered my students to receive e-mails about featured projects from the ePals site, so that they have the opportunity to select projects according to their own interests.

Since over 100 families have now signed up to our school Twitter account, I will endeavour to Tweet reminders about reading and commenting on student blog writing, in the hope that family/ whānau involvement increases.