A digital storytelling project to motivate reluctant writers and to enhance narrative writing skills among primary ESL pupils
by Felicity F. Malanggin
Most of the year 6 pupils in SK Kota Marudu 2 performed poorly in their writing tests because they disliked writing. The lack of motivation also contributed to their reluctance to write. This project will look into how digital storytelling can help ignite pupils’ interests in story-writing and improve their performances in story-writing tests. The tools used for developing digital storytelling had to be limited to offline resources with Microsoft PowerPoint as the main platform due to constraints involving the availability of hardware and software as well as poor Internet connectivity.
Background and Context
SK Kota Marudu 2 is massive, with blocks of concrete sprawling across a vast area. It is located about 100 kilometres from the state capital. I have worked in this school for nine years, before moving to my current school in the district of Penampang, Sabah in mid 2019. In my final year of teaching in the school, it records an enrolment of about 400 students. Despite its rural location, the school is well-equipped with facilities such as an ICT lab, personal computers and netbooks. The Internet connectivity, however, was almost non-existent.
I admit that I am probably not very good with technology, but I love it very much. I used to drive for three hours to the state capital about once or twice a month to participate in a series of workshops organised by the Going Digital learning community. I enjoyed exchanging ideas and learning about tools and apps to integrate technology in my ESL lessons with other members of the community. Although not all of the tools and apps shared were directly applicable to my rural classroom, I appreciate the new knowledge that I gained.
One of the most valuable things that I learned through the community was the concept of making learners as the doer, and the teacher as the facilitator. To help learners, teachers should let the pupils learn through exploration without worrying about them damaging the computer. This idea inspired me to unearth all the netbooks provided by the Ministry of Education from the ICT lab and to rediscover their uses and functions. The netbooks had been in the school’s possession for two years, yet teachers never used them for fear that the pupils might destroy them.
Introduction – The Planning Stage
From Learning to Practice
The idea of getting pupils to be the doer sits well with my teaching philosophy. I wanted to improve my pupils narrative writing skills and to get them more excited about writing, so I decided to conduct the digital storytelling project. The inspiration came after learning about an app called Voki, which exploited the combination of images, voices and texts to tell a story. I thought it was a fun app to use in my classroom, but due to the poor Internet connection in my school I was not able to share it with my pupils.
I started to explore alternative ways to use technology without having to rely on powerful Internet connections. My main goal was to make story-writing activities more engaging for my pupils. I realised that basic Microsoft Office applications such as the PowerPoint were provided for free in all the school’s computers and netbooks – and that they required no Internet connection. I decided to use PowerPoint as a tool to help my pupils blend images, voices and texts to create their own digital stories.
The project involved 28 pupils, aged twelve years old from SK Kota Marudu 2. They are of various proficiency levels.
How impacts were measured
The pupils’ views were investigated through a series of semi structured interviews. In these interviews, pupils were required to answer questions pertaining to their understanding of the use of digital storytelling in writing lessons. The type of questions asked were a mixture of close-ended and open-ended questions.
I also conducted a pre-test and a post-test. Pre-test was conducted before the digital storytelling was introduced to the pupils. After the intervention, I conducted a post-test to see if there were any improvements in their performances.
Challenges during the Development stage
One of the main challenges during the Development stage was to change the pupils’ mindset on what story-writing is. They seemed to associate story writing with mundane routines or just another task in the classroom. Here are some examples of the pupils' responses:
“Story writing is when we use pen, pencil and paper to write something.” – Gerallyn
“We have to read before we can write something.” – Rizal
“We write story according to the title given by teacher.”- Chris
In response to the interview question on whether they enjoyed writing stories, pupils seemed to offer divided views. Below are some examples of the pupils' responses:
“Yes, I do like writing because I can use my imagination.” - Rizal
“Yes, writing is fun, I can create my own story.” - Chris
“No, I don’t like writing, it is difficult, I have no idea what to write.” – Adlyn
“No, because I have less imagination.” – Hanani
How challenges were overcome
I developed a context so the pupils could see the purpose of the tasks given to them. I made it clear to the pupils that the digital stories that they were to come up with were supposed to be written for an audience. By giving the pupils a purpose for embarking on the project, they ceased to see the task as ‘just another task given by teacher’. Sense of purpose gave the pupils new-found enthusiasm in story creating.
For the Implementation stage, I decided to adopt Kolb & Kolb's (2012) experiential learning theory. The pupils underwent a four-stage learning cycle as follows:
The diagram below summarises the stages in the project implementation:
For most pupils, a major turn-off while creating the digital stories was the school’s outdated computers plus super-slow Internet connection. Some admitted they almost gave up as their work took longer time to complete. The following are some excerpts from the interviews with the pupils:
“I don’t like the computers in the school, it’s very slow, I have to wait long.” - Balqis
“Sometimes I couldn’t save my work because the computer is not working properly.” - Adlyn
“The internet line is so slow, it keeps going round and round. I have to wait and wait.” - Rizal
“I had to ask my teacher for help to get the animated pictures I need for my digital story.” – Hanani
How the Challenges were Overcome
I understand how frustrating it was for the pupils to have to work with poor Internet connection and low-performing hardware. I tried to reduce the frustrations by providing Internet connection back-up using my own Internet data. I also let a few pupils use my laptop computer. I created a database of copyright-free images and gifs so the pupils did not have to spend too much time on searching and downloading images. They just had to copy the images and gifs that they needed from my laptop computer.
My pupils enjoyed creating digital stories very much. However, sometimes they were frustrated by the low-performing hardware provided by the school. Although I realised that the outdated equipment provided extra challenges for the project, I was determined to do it because the pupils enjoyed learning using computers and the school was the only place where they could get access to computers. The project helped my pupils acquire more vocabulary through the use of the built-in thesaurus in PowerPoint. My report also showed evidence of increased interest in writing among my students, and their performances in writing tests improved significantly as well.
But that was not all there was to it. I admitted to using technology as a bait to attract my pupils to learn English in a different way, or to put in in the words of one of my pupils - "the high-tech way.". Knowing that they would have the opportunity to use computers to convert their stories into digital format made the pupils excited about writing, in a way that they had never done before.
Impacts of the Project on the Learners’ Motivation to Write
Despite the challenges, the pupils’ general feedbacks on the project were overwhelmingly positive. When asked whether they would like to do it again in future lessons, everyone responded with a unanimous “yes.” Here are some of the responses:
“Yes, I learned something new and it’s fun.” – Hanani
“Yes, because I can combine my ideas with my pair and create our story together.” – Chris
“Yes. I can learn how to use the computer and share my story using a computer.” – Adlyn
“Yes, because I enjoy writing stories using the computer.” – Rizal
“Yes, because I want to improve my digital story and now I have more confidence in writing story.” – Gerallyn
“Yes. I will learn new words from new stories.” - Balqis
Impacts of the Project on the Learners’ Writing Performances: Pre-test and Post-test Analysis
The pupils’ performances in the writing tests showed significant improvements. To provide a glimpse of how the digital storytelling project has impacted the students' performances in the tests, I am sharing here the data from six of my most struggling learners i.e. those in the 'weak' and 'satisfactory' bands, based on the marking rubrics for the Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) for the narrative writing section of English Paper 2.
(Note: This was based on the marking rubrics for UPSR English in 2016, the year this project was conducted).
Revision - What's Next?
The success of the digital storytelling project inspired me to conduct similar projects in the future, perhaps in a larger scale. I acknowledged that the project did consume a lot of time, but I did not see this as an obstacle. Even though digital storytelling is perhaps more time-consuming than other learning activities we carry out in school, it is an all-embracing task not only for the teacher but also for the students. One must always consider time spent versus gains derived.
When I shared about this project in a local conference a few years ago, a member of the audience asked me,: “Why PowerPoint? Are you aware of the existence of hundreds of other tools for digital storytelling?” Then, she went on to list down a plethora of the most trending and fancy tools for digital storytelling that I should consider. Admittedly, the question made me slightly embarrassed, but it also encouraged me to reflect deeply on the motivation behind my choice of tools.
So will I continue to use PowerPoint? Or will I explore other more sophisticated, more glamorous tools? My answer is: it depends. It depends not just on what is available and most convenient, but also on what is most effective for the group of pupils I would be working with, in a particular school or classroom, within its unique setting and context. This first attempt at integrating technology in my language lesson has taught me that digital tools - just like any other tools - are just tools. A lesson is most meaningful when the right tool is combined with the right type of activities and an environment that supports learners and learning in the most optimal ways.
For future projects, I hope to explore the use of digital storytelling to improve my pupils’ listening and speaking skills.
Samples of Students' Work
I am sharing here some of my pupils' digital stories. I am sharing them in their unedited, raw form - with uncorrected grammar and structural errors as well as spelling mistakes. It is important to point out that these pupils used to be reluctant writers who struggled to come up with even a single sentence in English. The fact that they could come up with something as creative as these was mind-blowing for me.
Also, I believe it is important to note that 99% of these students had never seen or used a computer before. This project gave them access to a computer for the first time, and at the time this project was conducted, most of them were still learning how to type on the keyboard and to use the mouse properly.
I started this project with the main intention to make my pupils more interested about narrative writing. I did not intend to focus too much on accuracy. Their improved performances in UPSR-format writing test was a pleasant, unexpected bonus for me.
References / Useful Links
Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2012). Experiential learning theory. In Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning (pp. 1215-1219). Springer US.
Ohler, J. B. (2013). Digital storytelling in the classroom: New media pathways to literacy, learning, and creativity. Corwin Press.
Published on: 14 November 2020
Felicity F. Malanggin has over 15 years of experience as an ESL teacher, and has taught in three primary schools. Currently, she is teaching in SK Kibabaig in Penampang, Sabah. She holds a Master of Education (TESL) from Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS). Felicity is passionate about exploring the potentials of experiential learning theory and project-based learning in enhancing language learning and teaching, particularly in rural and under-resourced classrooms.
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