Website review by James Denby, Common Sense Education | Updated June 2020

Writing Mentor

Text analyzer offers solid tips but not enough support

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Grades
4–12
Subjects & Skills
English Language Arts, Communication & Collaboration

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Pros: Integration with Google Docs. Tries to address many aspects of good writing.

Cons: Feedback covers many aspects of writing but isn't easy for students to implement independently.

Bottom Line: It's potentially useful for adept writers, but most students will need help to apply it effectively.

For students who struggle with paragraph structure, it's easy to have them use the templates provided by Writing Mentor to help work through the process of crafting a coherent paragraph. They can practice on their own using the built-in prompts, create their own prompts, or use prompts from the teacher. It doesn't take the place of writing instruction, modeling, or conferencing, but it's meaningful, structured practice.

Beyond analyzing writing conventions, the Extended Writing mode in Writing Mentor doesn't really provide students with much feedback that they can use on their own. Students who struggle with writing will likely not know what to do with the information Writing Mentor gives them. The feedback isn't descriptive enough for a student with weaknesses in an essay, for example, to go back and address the problems. You could, however, have students use Writing Mentor before individual or small-group writing conferences, and then use that information as a starting point to guide them in addressing one or two specific elements in their writing (e.g., transitions or development of a topic).

 

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Writing Mentor is a Google Docs add-on that functions both as an instructional tool and as a support for students in the revision and editing phase of an assignment. As an instructional tool, Writing Mentor works with writing prompts (either generated by Writing Mentor or entered by the student) for three possible text types: informational, argumentative, and narrative. It then supports students in developing a better understanding of paragraph structure by providing a guide that is something like a graphic organizer to formulate a clear topic, add supporting details, and then formulate a conclusion. After completing the suggested sentence stems, students can add that as a base text to construct their paragraph around. 

As a revision and editing tool, Writing Mentor's Extended Writing mode provides feedback on standard writing conventions and more subjective elements of good writing, including support for ideas, clarity/coherence, and even whether or not the writer was convincing. As an example, for coherence, Writing Mentor considers the flow of ideas, the use of transition terms, sentence length, organization of the text (section headings, etc.), and pronoun use. To help students determine whether or not their ideas are sufficiently developed, Writing Mentor scans a document for topics and then looks for words that might be related. If a text contains many mentions of related terms, students can extrapolate that they have addressed a topic fully. 

Teaching writing is complex, and, if it doesn't come naturally, it can be a discouraging process for students. Writing Mentor has tried to help students unlock the mystery of good writing with natural language processing analysis. For a subjective element of writing quality like coherence, Writing Mentor helps writers visualize how well they support a point of view by analyzing a document and highlighting related words. Though this is something a good writing teacher would also do with students, the weakness here is that there is no one to talk through what all this information means. As a result, students may receive feedback and not know what to do with it.  

With the more basic skill of constructing effective paragraphs, Writing Mentor is more effective, but it relies on the same approach that many writing teachers have been using for years: sentence stems and organizers. Though these work, it's unclear whether doing this within Google Docs is any more effective than doing it on paper before beginning to write a first draft. And, on a logistical level, if students forget that they need to port their writing back over to Google Docs to save it there, they may forget they need to access it via Writing Mentor. So, with lots of scaffolding and guidance, students might be able to use Writing Mentor to reinforce self-editing skills and writing analysis they're learning, but it'll take a lot of up-front instruction to make it work.

Overall Rating

Engagement

Students who understand how to apply the tool will find it helpful, but because it's not clear how to use the feedback from Writing Mentor, many students won't take full advantage of it. 

Pedagogy

Writing Mentor does alert students to the complex elements of good writing to help students understand how to improve, but they need to have a basic understanding of those elements. 

Support

Writing Mentor offers good materials introducing what it can do, but support on how to actually use it effectively is weak.


Common Sense reviewer
James Denby Educator/Curriculum Developer

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