ERIC Identifier: ED293130
Publication Date: 1988-00-00
Author: Tone, Bruce - Winchester, Dorothy
Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills Bloomington IN.
Computer-Assisted Writing Instruction. ERIC Digest Number 2.
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
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.
HOW MUCH TIME ON TASK?
The presence of computers in regular
classrooms may not guarantee that students will have ample opportunity to use
them. A Canadian study of 90 teachers and 180 elementary students in three
grades (Larter et al., 1987) placed computers in regular classrooms. Each
teacher worked with one student learning to write on the computer and with one
writing in longhand. This report, which is replete with data on various
time-on-task analyses, does not clarify how the teachers scheduled the
experiment while teaching their classes. Each experimental subject, nonetheless,
had access to the computer in his or her regular classroom; and the average time
spent writing on it over a six-month period was an hour a week. Students who
logged the most hours on a computer averaged about 60 hours over six months.
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.
WHY DON'T COMPUTERS ENCOURAGE REVISION?
time-on-task may explain why so many of the reports in the database fail to
mention the benefits of computer-assisted instruction in encouraging revisions
and why several reports specify that the students did not get opportunities to
print and see their efforts in hard copy. Such applications provide no
opportunity to evaluate the feature of computer writing that recommends itself
to many practiced writers: the almost immediate opportunity to see and react to
what one has written and then to make changes which can be quickly reprinted.
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.
ARE THERE BENEFITS?
Most of the reports in the database
have, nonetheless, found that computer-assisted writing instruction has some
effect--if not dramatic impact--on both the quantity and quality of writing
(e.g., Stine, 1987). Most of these evaluations rely on informal teacher
observation and product review; but the frequency of cautious endorsement of
computer-assisted instruction across many of these reports suggests that
differences reported are reliable. Some of the relatively rare experimental
studies in the database have reported similar results.
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.
IS WORD PROCESSING THE ONLY APPROACH?
Also in the database
are reports on the use of computer software which assumes a strong instructional
and interactive tutorial role. Most of these programs guide the student writer
through the identification of topic, the brainstorming and then organizing of
jot notes on the topic, and the application of the resulting outline to produce
a written document (e.g., Huntley, 1986). Strickland (1987) conducted a case
study using such a program and found it effective. Styne (1986) reported on how
a computer program that guides students as they compose poetry generated
enthusiasm among college freshmen.
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
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
WHEN CAN WE KNOW?
The computer's great promise to writers
who know how to compose on one is its facilitation of revision. As Withey
described it, the computer can be "a blank page on which the student can write,
revise, and edit...." What the writer who uses a particular word-processing
program needs to keep in mind, however, is how long it took him or her to become
comfortable with the new tool. What kind of familiarity with both the keyboard
and the written word did the writer have before sitting down to learn word
processing? How many hours of writing in front of a computer monitor did it take
before the writer learned how to use the features o the program comfortably?
When did focus on the computer software stop competing with getting the best
words in the most effective order? After how many hours did word processing
first begin to serve effective composition?
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
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Daiute, Collette. "Do
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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