Anyone who has learned a word-processing program and uses it regularly on a computer at work or home might be disappointed with reports to date on the impact of the computer on student writing. Features of word processing which allow a writer to revise quickly produced hard-copy drafts should, it seems, effectively serve writing instruction; but until the time students have enough access to computer work-stations to practice and become comfortable with word processing while they are learning to process written language, it is probably too early to judge how effective the computer will become in improving student writing.
Computers are becoming more common in schools. In 1983, Withey predicted that the computer "may have a firmer hold on the future than do English teachers." That same year, a survey (Ingersoll, Elliott, and Smith, 1983) estimated that there were over 200,000 microcomputers in U.S. elementary and secondary schools; and it predicted a 60-percent annual growth rate for the following years. That would suggest that well over two million computers are now accessible to elementary and secondary students and teachers; and in the light of initiatives launched by Federal agencies and some states to develop computer-assisted instruction, that figure may be conservative.
A search of documents entered in the ERIC database between 1983 and 1987 identified over 50 reports on computer-assisted writing instruction; but a review of these documents suggests that the influx of computers into schools does not assure students regular and sufficient time to learn to write on them. It appears that in most schools, computers reside in a computer laboratory shared by all the teachers and students in the school. Students participating in special writing programs usually must leave their more familiar classroom environments and go to the computer laboratory.
Several of the reports in the database indicate that many students learning to write with computers are lucky to get 30 minutes experience a week. Whether the atypically larger amount of time and experience the students in the Canadian study had with the computers was sufficient to allow them to become very proficient word processors is not clear.
Yet the studies which have focused particularly on revision do not support the notion that writing on computers should encourage a student to revise. Daiute (1985) found no difference either in quality or quantity of revision for junior high students writing with and without computers. In another study, Daiute (1986) found that students writing on computers revised less than those using pens and pencils. The computer writers, however, got higher scores on their finished products after getting lower scores on their first drafts, suggesting that computers may have led to more effective revision.
Nor did the college students in Hawisher's study (1987) revise more than those not using computers; but, interestingly, this study found no positive relationship between revisions and quality of writing. For younger children, there are several simplified word-processing programs available, but even with these, it appears that students who are being taught to write on computers do not get enough time-on-task to become comfortable with simple word-processing features like "insert" and "delete" or to use them freely in making revisions--let alone enough time to learn to "block" text, move it for reorganization, and then print and analyze the results for subsequent revision. A recent guide from Phi Delta Kappa (Schaeffer, 1987) outlines the teaching of writing with the microcomputer as a seven-year procedure. Although students in classes following this process are learning simple revision commands in the second grade, the program sensibly reflects the fact that it takes a reasonable amount of time for students to learn word processing.
However, a report by Dean (1986) questions the potential for computer-assisted writing instruction. Dean found that on a college entrance exam, college freshmen who were not trained to write using word processing outperformed those who were trained to write on computers. Dean expressed concern about the cost of the computer-assisted writing program and the extra instructional time it required. Hass (1987), on the other hand, found that experienced writers who wrote letters with pen and pencil took longer to complete the task than subjects who followed the guidance given by a computer program and that the letters of the latter group were better.
There are other exceptions to Hawisher's indication that computers did not encourage critical reaction to what was being composed, and they are reported in studies which involved some form of team or peer editing and reaction. Dickinson (1986) found that when collaborating on a writing project at a computer, first-grade children developed language skills while planning and evaluating their project. Heap (1986) reported on a program that teamed a writer with a peer as "writing helper"--a kind of in-process editor--and another classmate as a "technical helper" to advise and discuss solutions to word-processing problems. Piper (1987), Smutek (1986), and Heap each found the computer effective in assisting teamed writing instruction for students learning English as a second language.
Some teachers of writing at higher levels involve students in the development of their own software programs to guide their writing. Walton and Balestri (1987) discuss studies that link instruction in computer programming and college freshmen composition which they feel help students understand writing as a design discipline. Bruce (1987) cites such approaches as the precursors of the computer's potential in facilitating thinking, creativity, and language development.
In addition to computer software which guides a writer through the formation of his or her own ideas, there are, of course, programs of preformatted exercises that many teachers consider important to writing instruction. Smith (1986) discussed "a plethora of skills and drills software" that often lacks quality because it is not theoretically based. Such programs present, in effect, a kind of electronic workbook, which may have the potential to hold student interest through programmed practice but which may not relate to the process of writing.
The ratio of computer stations to students may have to provide more time-on-task before we can adequately evaluate the computer as a tool for writing instruction. That kind of access, it seems reasonable to point out, is going to involve considerable investment in expensive hardware that has an annoying way of becoming obsolete; it also means that teachers interested in using the technology need to be trained to use it productively. With those factors in place, writing instruction will--as has always been the case--rely on the enthusiasm, abilities, and effective methodologies of good teachers.
The teachers and other researchers who are now experimenting with computer-assisted instruction are building an important database that will be analyzed for guidance in developing effective methodologies. The computer is a technology that will almost certainly become more and more accessible in the lives of students, including the young writers involved in the studies reported to date. Many of these students will be writing regularly using computers. Whatever the limits of the experience they got using computers, it can become a valuable one.
Bruce, Bertram C. "An examination of the role of computers in teaching language and literature." In The Dynamics of Language Learning: Research in Reading and English, James R. Squire (ed.), National Conference on Research in English and the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, 1987. pp. 277-294. [ED 280 080]
Daiute, Collette. "Do writers talk to themselves?" In The Acquisition of Written Language: Revision and Response, S. Freedman (Ed.), Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex, 1985. pp. 133-159.
Daiute, Collette. "Physical and cognitive factors in revising: insights from studies with computers," Research in the Teaching of English, 20 (2), May, 1986, pp. 141-159.
Dean, Robert L. "Cognitive, pedagogic, and financial implications of word processing in a freshman English program: a report on two years of a longitudinal study." Paper presented at the 26th Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research, June, 1986. [ED 280 384]
Dickinson, David K. "Cooperation, collaboration, and a computer: integrating a computer into a first-grade writing program," Research in the Teaching of English, 20 (4), December, 1986, pp. 357-378.
Hass, Christina. "Computers and the writing process: a comparative protocol study." CDC Technical Report No. 34, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Communications Design Center, Carnegie-Mellon University, 1987.
Hawisher, Gail E. "The effects of word processing on the revision strategies of college freshmen," Research in the Teaching of English, 21 (2), May, 1987, pp. 145-159.
Heap, James L., and Moore, Shawn. "Collaboration in word processing," Education and Technology Series, Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1986. [ED 278 456]
Huntley, John F. "Beyond word processing: computer software for writing effective prose," EDUCOM Bulletin, 21 (1), Spring, 1986, pp. 18-22.
Ingersoll, Gary; Elliott, Peggy; and Smith, Carl. "Microcomputers in American public schools," Educational Computer, 3 (6), October, 1983, pp. 28, 30-31.
Larter, Sylvia, et al. "Writing with microcomputers in the elementary grades: process, roles, attitudes, and products," Education and Technology Series, Toronto: Ontario Department of Education, 1987. [ED 284 261]
Piper, Alison. "Helping learners to write: a role for the word processor," ELT Journal, 41 (2), April, 1987, pp. 119-125.
Schaeffer, E. Marilyn. Teaching Writing with the Microcomputer, Fastback series, Bloomington, Indiana: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1987 [ED 281 216]
Smith, Carl B. "Computers in the classroom," Language Arts, Macmillan In-Service Bulletin, 3 (2), August, 1986.
Smutek, Malinda. "English as a second language: in search of an acquisition rich environment." Comprehensive paper for ED.D. requirements, University of Massachusetts, 1986. [ED 278 276]
Stine, Linda. "Answers and more questions: a survey of computer use in composition instruction," English Quarterly, 20 (1), Spring, 1987, pp. 26-27.
Strickland, James. "Evaluating computer-tutors: a protocol study." Paper presented at the 38th Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition, 1987. [ED 280 029]
Styne, Marlys M. "Poems by computer: introducing poetry in a high-tech society." Paper presented at the 1st City Colleges of Chicago National Conference on the Future of Literature in the College, 1985, and the 21st Annual Meeting of the Midwest Regional Conference on English in the Two-Year College, 1986. [ED 273 964]
Walton, Richard E., and Balestri, Diane. "Writing as a design discipline: exploring the relationship between composition and programming," Machine Mediated Learning, 2 (1), 1987, pp. 47-65. Withey, Margaret M. "The computer and writing," English Journal, 72 (7),
November, 1983, pp. 24-31. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills Indiana University Smith Research Center 2805 East Tenth Street, Suite 150 Bloomington, IN 47405 (812) 855-5847