ERIC Identifier: ED477614
Publication Date: 2003-12-00
Author: Abdullah, Mardziah Hayati
Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
The Impact of Electronic Communication on Writing. ERIC Digest.
Electronic communication (or e-communication) places new demands on language
that leads to interesting variations in written language use (Biesenbach-Lucas
& Wiesenforth, 2001). The language of e-mail, chats, Web-based discussions
and SMS messages is marked by features of both informal speech and formal
writing, a host of text-based icons and acronyms for managing social
interaction, and changes in spelling norms (Abdullah, 1998). In addition, the
electronic medium (e-medium) provides a new context for the writing process.
These phenomena have prompted research on whether students' frequent engagement
with electronic writing (e-writing) has implications for writing and writing
instruction. This digest summarizes some insights gained from research on
writing behavior and performance in the electronic age.
Word processing and e-publishing have
brought about interesting developments in the way writers write. In general, the
malleable nature of electronic text has made the physical process of composing
more 'elastic' in that writers are quicker to commit thought to writing and to
reorganize content because it is simple to make changes on the electronic screen
(Leibowitz, 1999). Even young children find it easy to insert and manipulate
images and video or audio clips in their texts (Karchmer, 2001). In addition,
writers who publish on the Web perceive it as a new rhetorical space that
provides options for using non-linear, alternative structures, making it
necessary for them to anticipate how audiences might physically navigate through
their hypertext compositions. This consciousness creates complex perspectives
and a "heightened awareness of traditional rhetorical elements" in a way that
text alone never could (Mason, 2002).
There is also a tendency toward playfulness in e-communication. Danet (2001),
in studying visual and multimedia aspects of digital communication in email and
Internet Relay Chats (IRCs), found playful digital greetings, "jazz-like,
improvisational writing," and a prevalent passion for visually extravagant
digital fonts or what she calls "font frenzy." Trupe (2002) also observed the
playful construction of "multiple writer identities" through linguistic
techniques such as word choice and syntax. These aspects of e-communication are
part of an emergent cultural diversity in written communication. Consequently,
Danet points out, there is a tension between the informality of email
communication and traditional norms governing the form of official letters that
writers have to deal with.
Despite changing trends in e-communication, Abras (2002) found that writers
in online discourse still adhere to the "principle of relevance" present in oral
discourse, which presumes that when speakers say something, they will help
listeners reach maximal understanding with minimal processing effort. To achieve
this aim in oral discourse, speakers use visual cues provided by paralanguage,
kinesics and synchrony to complement verbal language. Although these cues are
unavailable to writers in online contexts, they still attempt to communicate
them through text-based emoticons, punctuation and other politeness markers; and
their use of these politeness markers increases once they realize that it helps
to avoid misunderstandings.
Hailed as a powerful educational
resource, the e-medium has not only revolutionized the composing process but has
also been found to encourage participation in writing activity. One reason for
this is that e-mail and online chats provide a non-threatening atmosphere in
which writers feel less inhibited about expressing themselves, encouraging even
timid students who usually refuse to speak in face-to-face discussions to
actively participate in online chats (Kupelian, 2001). Another reason is that
the Web provides an arena for writers to present their work to a real and larger
audience that extends beyond classroom and school boundaries (Karchmer, 2001).
When students realize that they are going to put their work on the Web for
readers in the real world, they are motivated to write (Leibowitz, 1999).
The online domain has also substantially increased opportunities for
collaboration in writing. Karchmer (2001) observes that teachers are using the
Internet to create complex partnerships among their students and post the
results online. Online collaborative tools allow students to exchange critiques
synchronously or asynchronously (Leibowitz, 1999; Kupelian, 2001). Students
learn to reference each other's texts, thus developing "threading and
synthesizing skills" as well as a heightened awareness of audience (Trupe,
2002). This sense of audience motivates them to write carefully and to be more
accountable for their writing (Leibowitz, 1999). Collaborative writing activity
has prompted researchers such as Honeycutt (2001) to compare the use of
synchronous chats and asynchronous e-mail in providing peer response for aiding
revision. While there was no difference in terms of the usefulness of comments,
it was found that students made significantly greater use of e-mail for detailed
reference to the contents and rhetoric, while they used chats for brainstorming
and exploring the topic.
While the e-medium has been found to increase collaborative writing activity
there are mixed views on whether it has had a similar effect on the quantity and
quality of writing done by individual students. Because the e-medium reduces the
intimidation factor (Leibowitz, 1999) and offers attractive features, it
improves students' attitudes towards writing and practicing the target language
(Kupelian, 2001) and encourages students to produce more text (Trupe, 2002;
Goldberg, et al., 2003). In one study, Gonzalez and Perez (2001) found that
second-language learners using e-mail for their dialogue journals generated more
language than those who used pencil and paper. However, a second study, which
addressed some of the limitations of the first, indicated that the e-mail group
did not significantly out-perform the pen-and-pencil group in length of text,
grammatical accuracy or vocabulary. Thus, there is no conclusive evidence that
the use of e-mail has any advantages in terms of student performance. In
addition, while some studies show that the amount of discourse increases when
writing is done via e-mail, the length of "academic" writing does not seem to be
affected (Kupelian, 2001).
Although some researchers claim that students proofread more given the ease
with which revision can be carried out on-screen, Leibowitz (1999) found that
many others rely only on software to check spelling and grammar. Students are
also often unwilling to revisit words that have scrolled off their screen.
Moreover, rewriting is a slow process and is in conflict with the computer
culture that encourages speed. As a result, students are more accustomed to
writing in the conversational style of e-mail discussions, but not in formal
prose. Even if essays are longer and immaculately word-processed, they may be
poorly structured and articulated. There is an "additive style" in the writing,
similar to the structure of a small child's speech: "And this happened. And then
that. And so then this." While this style is acceptable in online communication,
it translates into poor structure in a formal essay.
In another study, Biesenbach and Wiesenforth (2001) examined the texts of
writers responding to writing prompts using different media: e-mail and word
processing. While there were no obvious differences between e-mail and
word-processed writing in the use of cohesive features, they differed in text
length, with e-mail responses being significantly shorter than word-processed
essays. In word-processed essays, writers make an effort to provide some kind of
background information on the topic before responding to the essay prompt, while
e-mail writers tend to begin right away by responding the prompt, doing away
with contextualized information. This research reveals yet another example of
how writing is being shaped by the e-medium.
Both the process and content of writing are
evolving in response to the increased use of the e-medium for writing
instruction and to the language of e-communication itself. Along with changes in
what and how students write, peer collaboration may result in a "realignment of
authority in the classroom" (Trupe, 2002), as students and teachers place
increasingly greater importance on student-based opinions and decisions. Whether
one views these changes as positive or negative depends on how closely one
believes writing should adhere to the conventions of formal writing we have
hitherto accepted, and how much one supports the goal of establishing the
student's authority as a writer. Some writing instructors philosophize that
since e-writing tools and e-language will continue to change, they must teach
what will not change: the connection between thinking and writing and the
ability to articulate what one knows (Leibowitz, 1999). This standpoint will
certainly encourage teachers to continue seeking more effective ways of using
the e-tools in writing instruction.
Abdullah, M. H. (1998). "Electronic discourse:
Evolving conventions in online academic environments". Bloomington, IN: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication. [ED 422 593]
Abras, C. (2002) The principle of relevance and metamessages in online
discourse: Electronic exchanges in a graduate course. Language, "Literacy and
Culture Review" 1(2), 39-53.
Biesenbach-Lucas, S. & Wiesenforth, D. (2001). E-mail and word processing
in the ESL classroom: How the medium affects the message. "Language Learning and
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Danet, B. (2001). Cyberplay: Communicating online. Oxford: Berg Publishing.
Goldberg, A., Russell. M. & Cook, A. (2003, March 10). The effect of
computers on student writing: A meta-analysis of studies from 1992 to 2002. "The
Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment", 2(1). Retrieved December 15,
2003, from http://www.bc.edu/research/intasc/jtla/journal/pdf/v2n1_jtla.pdf
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language learning revisited". Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of Teachers
of English to Speakers of Other Languages, St. Louis, MO. [ED 458 817]
Honeycutt, L. (2001). Comparing e-mail and synchronous conferencing in online
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