Computers in writing and reading workshop: helpful or harmful?

The other day I observed something in writing workshop that led me to ask the question above. I watched Destiney first see if she was going to be able to get an available computer, then, when it was clear she was out of luck, she came up and asked to go to the nurse. As soon as she got back, she got on a computer and feverishly went to work.

It struck me that Destiney would not have gone to the nurse had she immediately had computer access. Which led me to ask, are computers in writing/reading workshop helpful or harmful to overall production of finished pieces of student work?

Where our computers came from: The Lord has provided us with five computers for our classroom workshop. One is “my” computer (all teachers at our school get one), two are old models that Ms. Shannon and Mr. Scriven allowed me to take from the scrap heap, and two are a pair of brand new Dell desktops that were allotted to Title I teachers in our school this year. It’s up to the Lord to see what we’ll have available to us next year.

How our computers are used: During writing workshop, we use our computers for word processing only. After school, provided that they aren’t in use for word processing, I allow students to play games on them that aren’t blocked by the district’s servers. (Thinking of this, I’d like to start limiting these games to typing games only.)

How I manage computer use during class: At the start of status-of-the-class conference (see Nancie Atwell’s book or ask me more), I tell students which group is on the computers. We cycle through the groups day by day. If someone is absent or chooses not to use a computer, other students may use them (this is how Destiney’s situation arose). I require students to stay in their seats until SotC is over (avoids the shuffling and typing that used to distract from SotC as students logged on). There is a printer next door for immediate publishing. About twice as many computers would be ideal, because more students love to us them than can possibly use them in one day. Also: when we are within a week of a deadline, I ask those who have met the deadline to yield their use to those who have not.

How computers are helpful to writing workshop:

  • Some reluctant writers (e.g., Lawrence) will write endlessly (almost too much for me to keep up with) on the computer.
  • Some seem to attempt larger pieces of work on the computer than they do on paper (e.g., Rashad’s play The Worst Year Ever).
  • Work is easier and quicker to edit for both myself and the student.
  • Handwriting is a non-issue when word processing (though I still think handwriting is an essential skill for all students).
  • Students are familiarized with the shortcuts and intricate workings of Microsoft Word in an authentic, writerly way, rather than in the sterile “Computer Apps” course that I remember taking. E.g., students learn to double space a piece by highlighting the whole thing then either going into “Page Setup” or hitting Ctrl + 2, and they know that this skill is essential because their editor will hand back claustrophobia-inducing single-spaced pieces. I can go on and on with the joys of teaching students to be able, efficient Microsoft Word users.
  • Work published on a computer when compared to work published by hand is incomparably better looking.

How computers are harmful to writing workshop:

  • Computer lovers tend to rely entirely on computer time for getting work done, making them either:
    • a bother when it’s not their turn to use the computers, constantly looking over for free computers or sneaking over to see if they can talk someone to letting them get on.
    • a workshop management issue when they are not on the computer.
  • Computer lovers may produce less than they would if they mastered both on- and off-computer writing.


  • Create a list with students during a mini-lesson on how to make the most of on- and off-computer times. Some things that can be done off the computer are: marking edits on printed drafts; brainstorming new pieces; updating writing territories; drafting new pieces; testing multiple leads next to each other; soliciting peer writing conferences; etc.
  • Post the class-created list on the wall.
  • Encourage students daily to study the craft of both on- and off-computer writing.

About davestuartjr
Dave Stuart Jr. is a full-time teacher who writes about becoming better, saner teachers at He is a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband to Crystal, and a father to Hadassah, Laura, and Marlena.

3 Responses to Computers in writing and reading workshop: helpful or harmful?

  1. Sarah205 says:

    When computers are used correctly in a literature or composition class, they are wonderful assets to learning. Instead of students using them to merely type an essay, there are so many more fun things you can do!
    Here are some fun examples:

    *WITH THE PERMISSION OF PARENTS, have them create a myspace page for a character of a book they are reading. Ex: For Gatsby students could pick a character such as Daisy. In the blog category they could write about her innermost thoughts. In the friends category, who would be there? Which characters of the book would be found there? Fill out her interests category and general info category. What is she like? What does she like to do?
    *Students get in to groups and Create a wiki book review page.
    *Do a mulit-genre project for a creative writing class. Students can use graphic design software for drawings, podcast a monolgue, design a “want-ad” or newspaper clipping. Search the net for examples of pantoums they want to model theirs after etc.

    There are many things you can do with computers, it is just a matter of practice. Explore what types of things work with one group of students, and what works with another group.

  2. amayala says:

    I love Sarah’s comments. If you also want to include technology, have them use a blog site as a writing portfolio as an ending project. If you are having difficulty with them going to extremes since they can type rapidly, give them pre-writing tools (like graphic organizers and outlining requirements) so that they have to plan and organize before sitting down and typing at the computer. I know teachers who allow their students to plan, write and post youtube videos that serve as public service announcements, newscast, short skits and all manner of things. They can write book reviews on their blogs or write and film documentaries. The possibilities are endless with technology, and with forcing them to plan before typing, you will eliminate that endless rant exercise.

  3. amayala says:

    P.S. Sarah, if you would like a job as a middle school English teacher working in an American international school, let me know. Our Christian school is now hiring in Panama, and it is a fabulous place to live and work! We currently need a middle school English teacher! http:/ Check it out and pass the word!

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