Can Computers Change The Way People Write?

This post is based on my Masters dissertation, as well as a couple of workshops delivered at IATEFL Pre-Conference Event 2009 (Cardiff) and NATECLA 2009 (Leeds)

My small-scale study aimed to discover differences in the writing processes of ESOL learners whilst completing timed writing tasks across paper-based (PB) and computer-based (CB) modalities. We are all too aware that the main change in all areas of teaching over the last decade has been the rapid increase in the use of technology. Computers have become an integral part of any classroom. What is surprising is the fact that there is relatively scant research about the impact computers have made on the teaching and learning of writing. Researchers such as Collier & Werier (1995), Wolfe et al (1996), Lee (2002), and Lee (2004) have conducted studies into this area but often with contradictory or inconclusive results. As with all areas of investigation it will likely take several years and the work of many researchers to reach a consensus.

As a contribution to this area of research, my study set out to discover whether, and to what extent, computers have impacted writing in an ESOL context. My research, which was angled towards my specialist fields of ESOL teaching and assessment, aimed to compare traditional PB composition tests with tasks completed using only word-processing.

A cohort of ESOL students of differing levels of competence was corralled and asked to complete a series of tasks based closely on the kind they would find in ESOL examinations. In order to track their approaches and processes whilst writing I utilised think-aloud protocols (TAPs) supported by appropriate statistical analyses of their recorded utterances. I chose the think aloud protocol method because of its immediacy and accuracy in recording the real-time process of writing. Of course, individual reporting is always subjective but TAPs guard against unreliable memories during retrospective interviews and the constrictive nature of, for example, rigid questionnaires.

I was fully prepared to discover results that were inconclusive, or even showed that technology had no real influence on the writing process. However, what I discovered was both surprising and interesting to me.

The results of the analysis, although —due to sample size — not definitive, clearly showed a tendency among students to actually compose differently on a word processor than on paper. ‘Writing’ (i.e. the mental and physical sub-processes involved in composition) can be quite clearly broken into different stages: planning, editing and drafting. With the usual caveats due to sample size and the difficulty of wrangling data based on subjective individual reporting, the study shows these stages are quite clearly delineated during traditional paper and pen composition. However, when composing using a computer, the subjects showed a tendency towards blending or enmeshing the planning and editing stages of their writing.

Obviously, there are clear mechanical differences in using a pen or a keyboard. For example, word-processing allows for an ongoing editing process throughout the task until a finished draft is completed, whereas pen and paper may inspire subjects to try and be neat in their writing; something that may easily act against editing decisions. Remember that for centuries we have looked down upon our desktops and now have to look up whilst manipulating a keyboard and mouse.

The fact that there is a tendency towards enmeshing of the stages of composition might also point towards a fundamental, if subtle, change of mental and physical approach to given tasks. Clearly this indicated assertion would need a large amount of further research to solidify.

What can be concluded for teachers (especially language teachers) is that we should be aware of the potential of technology to alter the processes, or stages, of writing. Maybe then we can consider designing tasks and assessments with such potential in mind, as the future of technology is a given mainstay in our society and our classrooms

I have started working on a doctoral thesis on computer-based writing tests, using what may possibly be a mixture of L1 and L2 learners.

Collier, R., and Werier, C. (1995), ‘When computer writers compose by hand’, Computers and Composition, 12, 47-59.

Lee, Y.J. (2002), ‘A comparison of composing processes and written products in timed-essay tests across paper-and-pencil and computer modes’, Assessing Writing, 8:2, 135–157.

Lee, H.K. (2004), ‘A comparative study of ESL writers’ performance in a paper-based and a computer-delivered writing test’, Assessing Writing, 9:1, 4-26.

Wolfe, E. W Bolton, S., Feltovich, B., and Niday, D.M. (1996), ‘The influence of student experience with word processors on the quality of essays written for a direct writing assessment’, Assessing Writing, 3:2, 123–147.

A variation of this article will appear in the next issue of IATEFL ES(O)L Special Interest Group’s newsletter.

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