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WATSON COLLEGE OF EDUCATION

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Debbie Powell Launches Uni-SPIRE and the Universal Writing Continuum

Friday, May 09, 2014

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) believes everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught and teachers can help students become better writers.

Debbie Powell agrees. Over the past decade, Powell, an associate professor in the Language and Literacy Graduate Program, has conducted extensive research on national and international standards for writing. Based on this research, she experimented with the development of a tool to enhance writing instruction and assessment. It evolved into an online instructional model aligned with Common Core standards, but not limited to the standards.

With support from Watson College of Education, UNCW’s Research Foundation and 38 undergraduate and graduate students from across campus, Powell developed a comprehensive web-based product designed to help students become better writers. Over the past three years, she has worked with more than 100 teachers in five states to fine-tune the product, called Universal Writing Continuum.  It was introduced to teachers, schools and districts this spring. The product is offered through Uni-SPIRE, a small business Powell founded in association with UNCW.


The Universal Writing Continuum  enables teachers to view an electronic portfolio of work, assess the writing skills of individual students and the class, measure progress over time and refine individual and classroom instruction to help students improve their writing. The tool helps teachers assess 10 different features of writing, and provides 42 progress points from Pre-K to a level beyond grade 12. Exemplar writing samples for various text types at every level are available for comparison while assessing students’ work.  Teachers can also access a glossary of language and writing terms with examples.

Writing is an art that needs to be developed, but too often it gets short shrift in the classroom because teachers are busy and assignments are evaluated independently using a static rubric, Powell says. By contrast, the Universal Writing Continuum is a dynamic model that enables teachers to consider a portfolio of work, provide more comprehensive assessments and tailor instruction to the developmental needs of students.

Write Conf (1)Asked about criticism that schools already have excessive testing and standardized student measurement systems in place, Powell explains that the Universal Writing Continuum is neither a test nor standardized. Rather, it’s a formative assessment tool that guides the teaching and learning of effective writing.

In 2013, NCTE published a position statement titled, “Formative Assessment That Truly Informs Instruction.” The statement outlines 14 criteria of what on-going assessment of writing should do.  The Universal Writing Continuum measures up to all 14 criteria, says Powell.  The product also rates a high 80% on inter-rater reliability, meaning that 8 out of 10 teachers who score the same work using the system arrive at the same assessment.

Teachers who have used the writing tool say it is useful, comprehensive and helpful in pinpointing areas of strength and weakness with individual students. In other feedback, teachers said it’s easy to see progression from one proficiency level to the next, and the continuum has helped strengthen their knowledge of writing standards for other grade levels.

Powell acknowledges there’s a learning curve to using the Universal Writing Continuum.  Uni-SPIRE is working on professional development modules to ease the transition for teachers. Other enhancements under development include student and parent portals.

Uni-SPIRE and the Universal Writing Continuum were featured in The Star News on April 27: http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20140426/ARTICLES/140429728/1177?p=all&tc=pgall

For more information on Uni-SPIRE and the Universal Writing Continuum, visit thewritingcontinuum.com