The Polliwog Journal

A weblog about teaching English & integrating technology

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Designing Web space

September 16th, 2007 · 4 Comments · CyberEnglish, Web design

One of the first things we do in CyberEnglish9 is create Websites. Right now, my 86 9th graders are beginning to imagine themselves as Web designers. More than that, they’ve begun to understand that the content they create for the Web and the way they present that content will have a potentially larger audience than they’ve ever been asked to consider before.

“Make it public” is one of the main tenets of CyberEnglish. It is, in fact, the most important one, I think. Because CE students publish their writing on the Web, anyone could read it. We have agreed that “anyone” includes me, their teacher, but also it includes their parents and other relatives, and of course, their peers. I’ve told this group about Mary Stillwell in New Brunswick who is beginning her CE journey this year. I told them I imagine Ms. Stillwell’s students might be looking at their sites, too.

With this wider audience comes a greater responsibility also. No one wants to look or sound dumb in public, so students generally attend to detail and revise with care. What eventually occurs is the sense that “I am writing for them, but I need to be satisfied with the result myself.” Gone are the days of writing just to please the teacher.

And because the writing is on a Website, presentation (that always fuzzy trait, the plus one trait that seemed so inconsequential) takes on a much greater significance, too.

This week we spoke about readability on the Web. Akin to having good penmanship, I suppose, making design decisions about font and color do affect readability. We never want our audience to be squinting to read.

My daughter, Laura, who works for the Kohler Company as a technology support specialist, is reading a book called Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works, by Janice Redish. As I am the only other person in the family (besides her grandfather) who is geeky about Web design, we were looking at it last week. I was pleased to see many of the same concepts I “preach” about in my CE classes included in this book for adult professionals.

For example:

  • Text should not be too big (screaming); plus it’s hard to read. We laughed about this as she told me the story of a woman who only had a small paragraph for a page so she thought she should make it really big to fill the page. Of course, I’ve seen memos on paper created out of that same misapprehension.
  • Colors need to enhance text and readability, not interfere. Dark backgrounds make it harder to see text. And certain colors are simply too harsh. For some reason, after reading a student essay on a lime green background, my eyes feel as if I have been staring at the sun.
  • Sans serif fonts are easier to read on the Web. Conversely, serif fonts are easier to read on paper. I think it’s interesting and don’t know why this is so, but it’s been studied apparently. I do agree. I think it may have to do with the fact that a computer screen is actually moving constantly. Maybe the serifs have a trailing effect that, while nearly imperceptible, does tire our eyes more.

There are many more important design aspects that good Web designers should keep in mind. The key thing for my students to know is that their design decisions affect their audience.

I know that English teachers talk to students about the importance of audience all the time, but honestly, if students are just writing a daily journal entry in a notebook, their only audience is the teacher and hopefully, themselves. The real power comes with a real audience. And no artificial audience from class workshops to bulletin boards can come close to the power of the Web.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Bill

    This is the first school year since I met you that I won’t be starting the year by teaching web design and HTML. It’s an interesting prospect but one that I’m ready for. In my new role I’m trying to get the teachers in my district to explore the possibilities of publishing online. Additionally, I’ve been talking to teachers about the same aspects that you have been addressing with your students. Now that I’m working more with teachers than students, I am beginning to understand the challenges that most people have when it comes to web design.

    Good luck with your students this year. I’ll keep looking for your work and theirs in my aggregator.


  • Art


    I can’t tell you how strongly I agree with the importance of having a wider audience. My students write initial drafts on paper and/or Google Documents, but are aiming at posting their work on their space on our class wiki. We just got started and the week before I got the computer stuff straightened out and ready to go was rough. Once they get to type their work up and post it on the web, most problems seem to smooth on out. And as my students have a variety of assignments and a great deal of choice about the order to work on them, there is not room for boredom in here. Not for them and certainly not for me! Thanks for writing this. I think you made excellent points.

  • Sally

    Dawn –
    I am a grad student in English Education and I love your technologically saavy approach to the instruction of writing. In class we are constantly looking for ways to update teaching methods to meet 21st century needs – CyberEnglish9 is a class for this purpose exactly! The importance your students will feel from posting their writing in a public domain will certainly make them more careful about composing their thoughts coherently. Do they interact with one another’s writing in any in-class discussions of the things that they have posted?

    I will be checking back in with your blog for more insights into modern English teaching.
    Thanks for the insights!

  • Dawn Hogue

    Hi Sally,
    Glad you’re checking in. I’m also glad that your program is focusing on 21st century skills. As for interacting with each others’ work in class, yes, they do. Your post makes me think that I need to use this blog to make what goes on in our class more transparent. In the meantime, you can visit our class website and the students’ pages at

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