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Writing And Composition

Skills or process? Visible in the history of writing instruction is the same controversy found in the rest of the language arts. Historically, writing instruction focused on handwriting and on correctness of the product produced through emphasis on what are sometimes referred to as the mechanics of writing (i.e., sentence structure, spelling, correct punctuation, etc.) and on rules. Students were usually asked to write to assigned topics or for purposes such as essay exams. They were seldom asked to write for an audience other than the teacher and the quality of the writing was much more likely to be judged on the basis of the correctness of its content and mechanics than on style or creative expression of ideas.

Writing Process Instruction

Gradually research began to make visible the processes of writing. With the writing project movement in the mid-to late 1970s concern for teaching the writing process emerged as a strong force. In the early stages of that movement the process was often described in a linear fashion as a series of four steps: pre-writing, writing, editing, and revision. Over time those concerned with writing instruction came to recognize and acknowledge through instruction that real writing is a much more messy reflexive and recursive process. With this understanding came the push to encourage students to write on topics of their own choosing, write for their own purposes, and perhaps most significantly, write to real audiences. As with most swings of the educational pendulum, by the late 1980s writing instruction in some schools had reached an extreme point where students might write exclusively in the genre of their choice and where attention to mechanics was seldom taught and/or required, even in pieces for publication.

During the 1990s politicians and the public at large increasingly called for rigorous academic standards and writing instruction shifted once again. In the early twenty-first century, teachers of writing or composition typically try to balance their desire to have students engage in writing in which they are personally invested, with the challenges of attention to correctness issues and to writing in a range of genres. Often these demands are tied to distinguishing between private and public writing. When the intended reader is an audience other than the author, the needs and expectations of that reader must be addressed if the writer's work is to be positively received.

With these shifts in the view of the writing process came the realization that the idea that writing is writing is not valid. That is, each discipline, indeed each piece of writing, has its own demands in terms of genre, audience, purpose, situation, and even what is viewed as correctness. This realization, coupled with the belief that engaging in writing can influence cognitive development, led to the writing across the curriculum movement, resulting in pressure on all teachers, not just English or Language Arts teachers, to be teachers of writing. After all, which teacher is better prepared to help students develop the genre of lab report writing, the chemistry teacher or the English teacher? Accompanying this movement has been increased emphasis on tying reading and writing instruction together.

Technology As Tool

Within a decade of the emergence of the writing process movement, technology began to exert a significant influence on writing instruction. Early arguments centered around whether or not classrooms (especially elementary classrooms) should have a computer, and how or even if that computer should play a role in language arts instruction. Some argued for placing computers in one centralized lab, which students would visit as a whole class once or twice a week, rather than distributing computers across classrooms. Most of the educational software available by the mid-1980s provided little more than computerized versions of skill drills or workbook sheets, occasionally accompanied by programs to teach typing or rudimentary word processing. Even under these less than ideal circumstances, students and teachers recognized the potential of technology for contributing to the writing process. When one fourth grader was asked how the computer helped her to revise she stated succinctly, "you don't have to worry about the paper ripping." What she and others recognized was the power of technology to assist writers with the physical process of encoding their messages so that more time and effort could be given to the composing process.

While educators were arguing about if or how computer technology should affect classrooms, technology was continuing to evolve at a rapid pace and the accessibility of affordable computers outside the classroom soon rendered the argument moot. Children who came to school computer literate were supported by their parents in expecting (sometimes demanding) similar access at school. The impact on the school writing curriculum was profound, with computer literacy quickly becoming a major issue for both students and teachers.

As computers have become more affordable and pervasive in society at large they affect not just formal writing instruction in K–12 schools, but also instruction in other educational venues. Adult education and community college programs offer a variety of classes and programs aimed at developing computer literacy in a wide range of students and for a huge variety of uses. Colleges and university now typically expect their students to be computer literate, even in some cases providing or requiring a personal computer for each entering student.

Technology in Development of Writing and Composition Skills

These new writing technologies provide new choices and, in some cases, have led to a shifting emphasis in the development of writing abilities. Where there previously was an emphasis on traditional (paperand ink-based) products and processes, there is now an emphasis toward an evolving set of products and processes enabled by electronic technologies. Handwriting is no longer an issue. To a large extent issues of mechanics (e.g., spelling, grammar) are taken care of by employing the computer as editor.

At the same time, shifting definitions of literacy have affected technology and software use in educational settings. Moving from the early days of computer drills and grammar checkers, to expressive freewriting or "invisible" writing on computer screens, to cognitive-based heuristic programs, to social functions of networked writing, technology use in writing instruction has mirrored the important theoretical and empirical approaches to teaching writing in traditional classrooms. This emphasizes a shift from viewing writing technology as a tool for delivering instruction to a technology that engages students as socially interactive participants. A new genre of writing with its own vocabulary and conventions has been born through such technology-related venues as e-mail, chat rooms, listservs, and MOOs (Multiple User Dimensions/Object Oriented, which arose out of online game-playing in text-based virtual reality environments). Writing in hypertext, with its ability to link writing through the click of a pointing device, is one example of this powerful new interactivity for writers and readers.

Traditional writing concerns such as understanding purpose and the importance of audience awareness have a renewed emphasis in technologically rich writing environments. Some teachers have successfully used technology to show students the importance of these traditional writing concerns in a writing environment with social relevance to students' lives. For example, discussions about audience naturally follow when writing is published on the Internet, whether to a known audience, as in personal e-mail, or a potentially unknown audience, as part of a website. Likewise, purposeful writing is given new importance when writers communicate with readers via electronic mail, electronic bulletin boards, synchronous discussion, or web sites–how readers interpret meaning in these contexts may shift, and students writing electronically need to carefully consider the crucial role of purpose in their writing.

Although issues of organization and style have always been important aspects of writing and composition (though sometimes underemphasized instructionally), technology provides a myriad of new options for writers to consider. Issues that previously were the concern of copy editors, publishers, and graphic artists have become the concern of authors. Developing writing skills in technologically rich environments may include elements of visual literacy skills, such as using graphics or integrated images within a text. Word processing and publishing software give developing writers the option, or in some cases the need, to learn about document design as it relates to writing. Composing in hypertext allows the writer to insert links from one part of a document to another, or if the document is made available online, writers can link to different texts and sites available over the network. Whether a document is composed on a word processor or marked-up for World Wide Web publication, writers are presented with previously unavailable choices of font styles, sizes, colors, and other symbols, including moving or still images and graphics. Writers can vary patterns of organization manipulating texts using electronic "cut and paste" tools, and writing in hypertext offers a nearly infinite number of organizational options controlled, in part, by the reader.

Taken together, these new choices and shifting emphases represent a changing literacy landscape. In this new context, writing instruction continues to evolve as the uses and processes of writing change.


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HAIRSTON, MAXINE. 1982. "The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing." College Composition and Communication 33:76–88.

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Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation EncyclopediaLiteracy - Intertextuality, Learning From Multimedia Sources, Multimedia Literacy, Narrative Comprehension And Production, Vocabulary And Vocabulary Learning - EMERGENT LITERACY