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February 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 5

Real-Time Writing Instruction

A writing lab with a computer for each student is the model teachers need to guide students toward becoming effective writers.

Real-Time Writing Instruction - thumbnail
"By this time next year, we'll have two computers and a printer in every classroom in the district." The announcement from our district's director of technology to the administrative cabinet met with general approbation, and having served on the technology committee, I knew that any dissent was likely to be seen as sour grapes. But as the district's director for English language arts, my conviction was that a very different arrangement was needed to use technology to its greatest effect.
I had argued that the plan was detrimental to literacy instruction; it would give our schools the appearance of being cutting-edge while dismissing the reality of how middle school teachers were most likely to use the technology. I had lobbied for the creation of an additional writing center, knowing that the two existing computer labs—each housing 22 computers—could not accommodate the district's two dozen 6th, 7th, and 8th grade language arts classes, to say nothing of keyboarding and web design courses. My plea was for equipment that would make possible real-time writing instruction. I envisioned an English department committed to teaching composition, with the majority of that teaching and learning taking place in a lab where students composed their writing on computers while instructors guided them.
I lost that fight. As I prepared myself to deliver the bad news to my English teachers, I knew that for the foreseeable future, our students would be doing what, even in the 21st century, continues to be common practice in middle schools: drafting with pen and paper.
Six years later, as I prepare to teach preservice teachers a course on teaching writing to adolescents, I know that little has changed. The writing instruction offered in middle schools is still usually delivered in a conventional classroom away from word-processing technology, while the writing that students do at home on a computer occurs away from a teacher's guidance. For all our attention to writing process, we've yet to bring the two together.

The Genesis of Writing Centers

The impetus to create computer labs began with an anxiety over equity in the early 1990s. No one doubted in those days that computer technology had the potential to change education dramatically, but what really had people concerned was the digital divide. Universities and community colleges developed computer labs in response to this concern. Within a few years, these spaces morphed into writing labs and learning centers. What began as a way to provide free access to technology became the birthplace of some of the best research on literacy and composition theory.
Much of this happened more by accident than by intention. On college campuses, graduate students and junior members of English departments were assigned to teach freshman composition, and often their duties included staffing the campus writing center or being available for one-on-one tutoring. It's virtually impossible to be stationed in a writing center without being approached with a question, and what often begins as a technical query soon develops into a conversation over essential aspects of text. Some of the best lessons on writing begin when a student asks, "Could you read this?"
Within a few years, the professional literature on rhetoric and composition exploded with insights born in the writing lab. Articles by writing lab teachers, both practical and theoretical, were among the most helpful commentaries on how students think during the composition process. Publications such as The Writing Center Journal and Computers and Composition examined the dynamics of computer-assisted composition, the relationship of the writing lab to the larger academic culture, protocols of peer review, issues of authority and cooperation in one-on-one tutoring, and much more. In particular, writing center instructors became experts in strategies for helping English language learners and other capable students who, in spite of their struggles with literacy, achieved success in many other academic courses.
The question of equity was also a powerful rationale for school boards intent on demonstrating that spending for technology was essential. And throughout the 1990s, K–12 schools made enormous gains in terms of hardware, infrastructure, and support staff. However, the potential of technology to benefit a writing curriculum was largely unrecognized. Instead, computer labs were more likely to be used for technology courses or left available for students who wished to drop in to work independently. Labs' transformation into writing centers proved elusive.

Instruction for Real-Time

Writing Needs

Writing labs with banks of computers make possible what I call real-time writing instruction—a teacher giving a student individual instruction as the composition process takes place. Once student writing is visible on a computer screen, it becomes subject to instant teacher intervention. What was once a task done alone at home becomes an opportunity for conversing about an emerging text.
Middle school English teachers know how often an assignment can go wrong in the earliest stages, and when writing is relegated to homework, the situation is exacerbated. The rubrics we spend hours constructing end up at the bottom of the locker; the double dialogue entries of which we are so proud sit somewhere in a backpack, and the model texts we painstakingly reviewed on Monday are a distant memory by the end of the week.
Written work done in class with paper and pencil is only a —al improvement. For years as a department leader, I observed diligent teachers in a writing workshop environment call students up to the desk and struggle to make sense of handwritten work. They sometimes succeeded in reaching a few students during the period. Overall, however, it was an exercise in frustration.
Real-time writing instruction alters these old habits. It puts the teacher in motion around the room with the ability to look at screens for a few minutes at a time or sit next to a student and read text together. What emerges is something like an apprenticeship model, with the teacher providing immediate, explicit feedback on actual performance. Under these circumstances, the rarely followed advice to read your text aloud becomes a reality. None of this comes automatically, of course, but with repeated visits to the lab and a consistent protocol of reviewing on-screen work, students and teachers become accustomed to a method of instruction embedded in the real-time needs of students.
Another remarkable consequence for middle school teachers is the transformation in student behavior that takes place when classes convene in the computer lab. When conferencing with students in a conventional classroom, the teacher must always divide his or her attention to keep a wary eye on the rest of the class. Lab conferences have a very different dynamic. At the start of the class, students are generally too engaged in the processes of booting up, signing on, or locating a saved file to engage in distracting behaviors with the peers seated next to them. In an ideal configuration, with writing stations along the perimeter of the room and an open space in the center, teachers can monitor students whose backs are turned to them, view screens even from a distance to be sure writers are on task, and use proximity to discreetly reengage attention when necessary.
Along with an improved work environment comes the prospect of longer, more frequent, and more meaningful writing conferences. Student and teacher can now wrestle with concepts barely touched upon in class discussions in a way that forces clarity, attention to diction, and precision of expression. This is certainly true for analytic responses to literature. And it's just as true for imaginative writing or personal narrative. As a result of reading aloud to the teacher, students became conscious of clichés, errors, and the demands of audience.

A Boon for Teaching Grammar and Research

On a more mundane note, real-time writing instruction helps ease middle school teachers' guilt-ridden dilemma about how to teach grammar engagingly. The oft-cited mantra "teach grammar in the context of composition" is seldom more successfully followed than in the computer lab. Suddenly, student-generated examples of subject-verb disagreement, dangling modifiers, and passive voice appear on screen, contextualized in the student's own constructions, where correctness is more likely to matter than in some abstract example.
Too often, educators falsely assume that students will edit their writing on their own before they turn it in. This assumption deprives teachers of valuable opportunities for skills instruction. More important, it views editing as somehow separate from composing. In reality, the editorial stage of computer-assisted writing is more integrated with the drafting stage, occurring in those gaps between composing and reading one's own writing, as well as periodically throughout the creation of the whole piece. This fluid process is different from a pen-and-paper process because it "dissolves distinct segments of the writing process into one seamless flow of prose." Text that is easy to view is easier to edit. When emerging writers do not have to contend with reading their own penmanship, they become more willing and skilled self-editors, going beyond surface errors to tackle substantive questions of structure and usage.
Perhaps the time when students most need real-time instruction is as they create written products that contain research. The notion that teachers can help students become critical readers capable of evaluating both the accuracy of web-based information and the agendas of various Internet sites is mere wishful thinking when students' research is relegated to homework. Teacher intervention at this juncture is a crucial component of a critical literacy that goes beyond the basics of how to cite sources. After all, finished products with meticulously correct bibliographies tell us little about learners' process of source evaluation. The way to help students evaluate Internet sites is to sit beside them as they research online sources and encourage them to think more critically about what they find.
Another useful model is collaborative research. If students working on a common topic sit at adjacent computers in the lab and share research, they can exercise their evaluative capacity by explicitly challenging their sources and one another.
These benefits of real-time writing instruction are well known to English teachers who have access to a computer-equipped environment. Yet the majority of middle school writing assignments are drafted much the same way they were before the advent of word processing. Ironically, because the personal computer has become as common as the television in most households, schools have less motivation to provide writing labs.
But educators shouldn't think like technocrats, more concerned about whether schools are keeping up with emerging technologies than about whether those technologies are serving learners in the best way possible. Yes, the digital divide is being breached. But the literacy divide yawns in its place.
Mandated tests exacerbate this situation because they provide a handy excuse for the notion that students must become accustomed to writing by hand—so they can perform well on tests. Nothing could be less true or authentic. Many students take a giant step backward in their English classes when they are required to draft on paper. To be sure, there's a use for handwritten work, such as for class notes and brief journal entries. For students to become writers, however, we have to allow them to do what real writers do and make use of the common tools of the trade.

What Should Schools Do?

If U.S. schools are serious about promoting a writing agenda, at least one-third of all class days in English language arts should take place in a computer lab. Students should do substantive writing assignments in such an environment, with at least one teacher present to read, respond to, and guide students' unfolding drafts.
In the absence of a writing center with a computer for each student, many teachers make do with rolling labs or carts equipped with laptops. These at least allow students to bypass the tedium of handwriting; however, the arrangement has many drawbacks. The portable lab makes viewing student work more cumbersome. Teacher mobility is compromised, and time required to set up and take down equipment competes with writing time.
The laptops and personal digital assistants many students possess will be newer, faster, and glitzier than anything we can provide in school; what these devices can't duplicate is the essential function of a writing teacher. Ironically, in the midst of a technological revolution, English teachers have been stymied in our ability to guide student writers through a fluent composing process. No one would argue for using outmoded methodologies of data collection in a science lab, nor would anyone who has witnessed instruction with an interactive whiteboard make a claim for the value of chalk and slate. Why, then, don't we insist that writing instruction take place under optimal conditions for learning the craft?
End Notes

1 Takayoshi, P. (1996). The shape of electronic writing: Evaluating and assessing computer-assisted writing processes and products. Computers and Composition, 13, 245–257.

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