ERIC Identifier: ED376474
Publication Date: 1994-00-00
Author: Simic, Marjorie
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Computer Assisted Writing Instruction. ERIC Digest.
Two factors contributing to the change in writing instruction have been the
research investigating the way writing is taught and the computer. Research has
found that most teachers are concerned with the final product of writing, but
have little understanding of the process that successful writers use in creating
that product (Hansen, 1987; Harste et al., 1988). Traditionally, students have
been asked to produce compositions on demand, with little guidance on how to
work through the steps that quality writing requires.
Proponents of the various writing models endorse writing as an ongoing,
multi-stage process, with equal emphasis given to each of the stages. But
whether writing is taught by the process approach or by a traditional method,
one of the barriers to producing good writers is that students must use pencil
and paper to transcribe their thoughts and ideas. Many children are able to
express thoughtful experiences, but have difficulty with handwriting; they labor
over the first draft. To them, making revisions and recopying becomes an
overwhelming burden. It is heartbreaking for a teacher to see a child, out of
frustration and despair, tear up and throw away a composition because repeated
erasures have made holes in the paper. The original enthusiasm the student had
for the writing assignment may evaporate, and the student may approach the next
assignment with anxiety and apprehension. Some writers, especially young
writers, will make only those changes that do not require copying, regardless of
how much the revision would improve their compositions.
Educational computing has undergone a change of focus regarding how the
microcomputer should be used in language arts, and especially in writing (see
Cochran-Smith, 1991). No longer are computers seen as tutors and drillers.
Instead, educators now are realizing that the computer is a tool for handling
information. A word processor can become the centerpiece for an effective
writing curriculum, encouraging early language production and providing students
with opportunities to connect reading and writing. When integrating advanced
technology into any curriculum, the teacher must always be aware that it cannot
"eliminate" problems. But with instruction and support from the teacher and
peers, most students can experience success in writing through the use of a word
processor (Bright, 1990).
As a tool for practice in writing, the word
processor's usefulness is unparalleled. Writing researchers have long advised
that the key to fluent writing is to write as much as possible. The key to exact
writing is to revise repeatedly.
Newman (1984) discusses two important issues: the first is the relationship
of recent research on learning to write to word processing. Newman says writing
improves more "by experimenting with many aspects of the process at the same
time" than by mastering separate skills and blending them. Word processing
allows rapid alteration and manipulation of the text, helping writers sustain
the mental images they are trying to capture while experimenting with language.
The search/replace capability encourages synonym substitution, and the immediate
access to a clean copy stimulates further language play.
Newman's second point is that there is a difference between using computers
for drill and practice and using them for word processing. With drill and
practice software, the computer is in charge--this software tells the user what
to do and controls what is learned. With word processing, however, it is the
learner who exerts control both in using the computer and learning to write.
The word processor was designed for revising and manipulating language. For
inexperienced writers (who tend to make corrections at the word level),
proofreading is easier on the computer. As writers become more experienced, they
tend to make more complex changes. These "reorganizational" changes involve
moving sentences and paragraphs around, reorganizing whole sections of articles,
inserting new materials, and discarding writing that no longer fits or serves.
Even a beginner can use the delete, strikeover, and insert functions to make
simple changes. Later, with a brief period of practice, more complex changes,
such as changing the order of the sections in a paper or adding passages written
in another draft, can be made.
Ideally, freewriting also can be done at the computer. This would encourage
students to engage in learning and self-discovery rather than to focus upon the
mechanics of exact writing. The word processor can release the writer from
restraints that inhibit the free flow of words and ideas. Students can feel free
to take risks in their writing because they see that they can always change
Teachers can get around the typical
problem of too few computers in the classroom by having children write on paper
first. Then at the word processor, students can "fine-tune" their papers.
Concepts presented in the first draft can be examined for clarity and sufficient
elaboration. Additional information can be added, if necessary, to make ideas
more concrete. Finally, the text can be checked for minor errors and
Before word processing, this instructional model of writing was not
implemented due to the amount of time involved in extensive rewriting or
retyping. Most teachers and students were not convinced that the benefits of the
revision process were worth the time-consuming mechanics of repeated writing.
Students were often apprehensive of even beginning to put their thoughts down on
paper because of the work and time involved in making corrections.
The word processor has helped realize the advantages offered in process
writing. Rewriting and revising are allowed to be the cognitive processes they
should be, rather than being dominated by the mechanical aspects of actually
putting words down on paper. Students learn to approach their writing errors
from a different point of view by struggling to understand what causes problem
phrases, sentences, or paragraphs.
Besides revising and editing, another benefit of using a word processor is
that multiple copies can be printed for reading in peer-editing groups. Final
copies can be displayed on a writing bulletin board or in a collection of
writings, without any student's work showing to a disadvantage because of poor
handwriting. And the additional benefit to the student is having an audience
other than the teacher.
The word processor offers great
advantages but also makes great demands. For effective use of the word
processor: (1) the school must make a commitment to its use; and (2) the
classroom teacher must make an even stronger commitment, since the teacher must
invest a great deal of time in teaching students how to use it. Additionally,
teachers must become familiar with the word processor themselves before using it
in the classroom. Teachers must also decide when and how to give word processing
instruction to their students.
If the entire class will use the word processor, the ideal situation would be
to place the teacher at the front of a computer for whole-class instruction.
However, a peer-tutoring system can also work. This requires a minimal
investment of the teacher's classroom time, and it can be just as efficient. A
peer system can be set up by showing just one group how to use the word
processing program. Then have each of these students teach at least one other
student word processing. Teach the commands as the students need them. A small
group of students can learn quickly from the teacher, or they can use the
tutorial that comes with some word processing programs for back-up.
In any case, the key is as much "hands-on" activity as possible. One does not
learn to word process by listening to the teacher talk about it; one learns by
doing it. If composition by computer is to become as natural an act for children
as composition by handwriting, they must be allowed sufficient time to develop
proficiency with the keyboard and with the specific word processing commands.
Teachers may be concerned with the fact that only one student at a time can
use the word processor and printer. Many activities can be structured so as to
allow "advisers" to work with the person typing. Researchers have described this
"sharing" process as central to writing instruction. Working in a group helps
make writing an interactive activity. Children receive immediate feedback from
others, making them aware of the need for clarity and for expressing their ideas
so that they can be understood by others. This interactive feedback is extremely
helpful to writers engaged in revision. It also provides each writer with
experience in helping others revise their writings.
Composition teachers have recognized that word processing is revolutionizing
writing. Revision, long advocated but ignored by both teachers and students as
too mechanical and painful, is now possible by pressing a few keys. However,
computers do not change the central role of the teacher. If writing and revision
can be made easier through effective writing instruction and word processing,
then, hopefully, students will begin to write because they enjoy it rather than
because they are forced to do so.
Bright, T.L. (1990). Integrating Computers into
the Language Arts Curriculum. Paper presented at the Indiana Fall Language Arts
Conference. [ED 326 884]
Cochran-Smith, M. (1991). "Word Processing and Writing in Elementary
Classrooms: A Critical Review of Related Literature." Review of Educational
Research, 61(1), 107-55. [EJ 425 124]
Hansen, J. (1987). When Writers Read. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. [ED 282 226]
Harste, J., et al. (1988). Creating Classrooms for Authors. Portsmouth, NH:
Heinemann. [ED 320 168]
Newman, J. (1984). "Language Learning and Computers." Language Arts, 61(5),
494-97. [EJ 304 044]