Jeff Scheur is no stranger to errors in writing.
A high school English teacher in Chicago, he sees a variety of mistakes in the papers he grades, among them misplaced apostrophes, sentence fragments, and errant commas.
Those sorts of mistakes all too often find their way into the work of people who write as part of their careers, tainting their credibility and muddying their message. Scheur’s job is to head those problems off by helping students learn to correct these mistakes, a task that becomes more difficult as classroom sizes balloon and student-to-teacher ratios spike. The consequence is less personal interaction in the classroom. Without the feedback from teachers, children often lose interest in developing their writing skills.
In the classroom one day, Scheur stumbled upon a way to address the problem.
“I was teaching class, and a kid asked a question about how to use a comma,” Scheur said. “I asked someone to shout out a name, to which a student replied, ‘Mr. T!'”
Scheur asked for an object that belonged to Mr. T and another student responded, “Grillz!” The enthusiasm in the room was palpable, prompting Scheur to realize that every language example should have that level of personalization.
This was one of the revelations that led Scheur to launch the startup NoRedInk.
“My drive to create NoRedInk came from realizing that grading endless stacks of papers alone would never allow me to bridge the gap between the practice and feedback students needed and the help I was manually able to provide,” says Scheur.
NoRedInk is an online learning platform that helps students improve their grammar and writing skills by appealing to their interests and assessing their individual needs. Through the platform, children select topics that appeal to them, and they complete lessons structured around the topic. For example, a student interested in sports will be asked to edit sentences about football and baseball.
Scheur understands that many people approach writing with reluctance, either because they’ve received negative feedback so often that they assume they’re “bad writers” or because they struggle with grammar.
“People fall into one of two groups,” he says. “There are confident writers who believe that writing is important. Then there are those that have deep-seated anxiety about writing.”
NoRedInk makes teaching writing—and learning how to write—a less painful process. The platform helps students who are stuck. It also enables teachers to track students’ progress and determine which areas they struggle with the most. Scheur zeroed in on the need for personalization and coupled it with what motivates kids to create a stimulating learning environment—and it’s working.
“We’ve had hundreds of teachers and students send over testimonials,” says Scheur. One teacher enthusiastically responded, “ALL my students said that they wanted to spend 15 to 30 minutes a day practicing grammar this way rather than in a book.” Another teacher shared her appreciation for the learning tool saying, “Where have you been all my life?”
In June, students were fielding 200,000 grammar questions per month, and four months after NoRedInk launched, the platform has accumulated 16,000 users without any paid advertising. Scheur plans to keep the main site free and orchestrate paid pilots with certain schools that will contain more grammar categories, tracking features, and other tools.
Samantha Hosenkamp is director of social media at PR Daily.