9(4), November 1993, pages 59-79

Modeling The Student Writer's Acquisition of Word Processing Skills:
The Interaction of Computer, Writing, and Language Media

Martha C. Pennington

Over the last decade, the amount of research on word processing by native and non-native writers has been steadily increasing. Many of the studies that have appeared during this period indicate word processing's potential to produce positive effects in these students' writing. The positive effects demonstrated in the published word-processing research [1] can be classified into the areas of quality of written work, writing activity, revision behavior, and affective/social outcomes.

Evidence of positive effects in written-work quality when word processing is employed comes from studies reporting higher holistic ratings of student compositions (Sommers, 1985; Williamson & Pence, 1989), higher analytic ratings in categories such as organization, content, and language (Dalton & Hannafin, 1987; King, Birnbaum, & Wageman, 1987), or assessments of more thorough development of content (Friedlander & Markel, 1990). Other measures of word processing's effects focus on outcomes related to amount or type of writing activity. Many investigations have found that students spend more time writing or write longer compositions when word processing is employed (Bernhardt, Wojahn, & Edwards, 1990; Brady, 1990; Cochran-Smith, Paris, & Kahn, 1991; Etchison, 1989; Williamson & Pence, 1989). Regarding type of writing activity, there is research evidence which indicates greater experimentation with language and aa more flexible writing process when the writing medium involves word processing capabilities (Cochran-Smith, Paris, & Kahn, 1991; Poulsen, 1991; Schwartz, 1984; Sommers, 1985; Williamson & Pence, 1989).

The research on word processing also demonstrates effects in the type or amount of revision behavior engaged in by student writers. Some investigators report that word processing facilitates the revision process (Bradley, 1982; Madigan, 1984; Schwartz, 1982, 1984). Other investigators report that word processing environments support a great number and variety of revisions overall (Bean, 1983; Bradley, 1982; Chadwick & Bruce, 1989; Cochran-Smith, 1991; Cochran-Smith, Paris, & Kahn, 1991; Collier, 1983; Daiute, 1985a; Dalton & Hannafin, 1987; Monohan, 1982; Sommers, 1985; Womble, 1984), a greater quantity of meaning-related or deep-level revision (Chadwick & Bruce, 1989; McAllister & Louth, 1988; Pennington & Brock, 1992), and fewer surface-level errors in compositions (Daiute, 1986).

In addition, the research on word processing supports a variety of affective/social outcomes as related to computer use. These include reduced writing apprehension and positive attitudes to writing (Chadwick & Bruce,1989; Cochran-Smith, Paris, & Kahn, 1991; Dalton & Hannafin, 1987; Etchison, 1989; Hawisher, 1987; King, Birnbaum, & Wageman, 1984; Neu & Scarcella, 1991; Pennington & Brock, 1992; Phinney, 1991; Phinney & Mathis, 1990; Piper, 1987 Schwartz, 1982, 1984; Sommers, 1985; Teichman & Porris, 1989; Williamson & Pence, 1989 ), an ability to view one's own writing with greater objectivity (Daiute, 1983, 1985b), and more collaboration among student writers (Cochran-Smith, Paris, & Kahn, 1991; Daiute, 1985b; Dickinson, 1986; Poulsen, 1991; Selfe & Walstrom, 1986).

Not all studies, however, have yielded positive results, and the effects of word processing are moderated by a number of variables (Pennington, 1991a, 1991b; in press). These include the characteristics of the learner, the characteristics of the teacher, the setting of computer use, the amount of time spent on the computer, the nature and quantity of instruction offered in computer use and in writing, the types of hardware and software employed, and the way in which the computer effects are measured. In particular, the experience and the proficiency of students--as well as of teachers--in the areas of computers, writing, and language are an important determinant of the manner of use and of the effectiveness of word processing for both native and non-native student writers.

Although the research on word processing is substantial and growing, there have as yet been few attempts to develop a comprehensive framework or theoretical basis to tie together the results of different studies and to guide future research. The present paper makes a first attempt at developing such a framework by laying out a general theoretical orientation and a research program on word processing in relation to language learning and the acquisition of composing skills. This theoretical framework aims to describe learning in a computer-mediated environment in a way which makes it possible to formulate testable hypotheses and to tie together diverse research efforts under one broad conceptual umbrella. Based on what is known about word processing, the starting points and targets for student writers in a computer-assisted writing curriculum are modeled in a preliminary way, as impetus for future research and as conceptual guideposts for educational applications of computers.

Constructing a Learning Theory

As noted by Cochran-Smith (1991) in her review of the literature on children's writing, "developing writers [can be] thought of as builders of theories about how written language works and how it is used and interpreted in various settings..." (p. 109). These developing writers not only "construct and test theories of language in use but also constantly rethink and reconstruct them" (Cochran-Smith, p. 109). Taking our cue from Cochran-Smith, student writers can be viewed as constructing a theory of writing and as evolving that theory over time. The components of these theories are drawn from oral experience with the mother tongue and from the previous literacy history of individual writers, including in some cases a history of second language learning which provides major or minor input to developing writers' experiences of oral language and literacy. In a like manner, writing teachers operate according to a theory or set of theories--about writing, about students, and about language--that drive(s) their teaching practices and that change(s) with time and experience.

All learning is, in a sense, the building of theories, or mental models. In the process of acquiring knowledge, [2] learners construct a mental structure of new pieces of information as they elaborate and interrelate these within the existing mental schemata of ideas. Accordingly, a learner typically begins a new learning task with a highly impoverished--and potentially incorrect--subjective theory [3] or schematic model of the object of learning, which is gradually developed and incorporated into the existing cognitive structure. For complex learning tasks, the learner constructs a set of schematic models representing the components of the task, along with a meta-model, or meta-theory, specifying the relationships among the components.

In this conceptualization, the learning process involves the progressive development over time of these mental models and metamodels, starting from the learner's initial mindset. The object of learning is then the final model, or meta-model, in a whole series of models generated in the learner's mind, each more highly developed and closer to the target than the one preceding. In this orientation, a theory of computer-assisted writing will specify the content of the models and the meta-model at each stage, beginning with the user's initial state of mind and leading to the user's final state when the desired educational outcomes have been achieved.

The basic thrust of the proposed research program is to examine the evolution of both learners' and teachers' conceptions of the computer-based enterprise in which they are engaged. This evolution will be operationalized as four types of models related to the computer context:

  1. Model of the Computer: a view of the nature of the computer, what it is good for and how it is best employed to accomplish the user's purposes;
  2. Model of Language: a view of language--in particular, of English--conceptualizing its form and function for the learner;
  3. Model of Writing: a view of what writing is, of how writing skill is defined, and of how writing is operationalized in practice;
  4. Meta-Model of the Relationships Between 1, 2, and 3: a view of how computer use affects and is affected by use of and skill in English; a view of how computer use affects and is affected by writing processes and outcomes; and a view of the relationships among computer use, language, and writing skill.

Each of these models will incorporate behaviors, attitudes, and cognitive skills that reflect the user's notions of the three aspects of the computer-assisted writing enterprise computers, language, and writing--and of their interactions.

The research program's goal is to characterize the user's initial models, or subjective theories, in each of these four areas and then to chart the ways in which, and the degree to which, each of those initial views evolves through exposure to computer-assisted writing. This research agenda is sufficiently broad to allow for a wide variety of computer-assisted writing treatments while providing a focus for comparison of different learner populations, teacher characteristics, settings of use, time periods of the implementation, instructional approaches, software and hardware, and measures of effects and effectiveness of computer-assisted writing.

A Tentative Characterization of the Models

At the present time, we can speculate about the early and advanced stages of these models, providing tentative characterizations based on findings of word processing research and on general notions about learning, language, and writing. These characterizations suggest hypothetical initial states and targets for students'--as well as teachers'--beliefs and behaviors in relation to the media of computers, English language, and writing. A general model of the nature of learning a new medium is first proposed. This forms the basis for modeling the early- and late-stage conceptions that might guide a student writer's process of learning to use the computer medium. In an analogous way, the model describes possible representations of a student writer's early- and late-stage models of the English language and of writing. Each of these models can also be seen as possible representations of teachers' views of the computer, of language, and of writing and, additionally, of their perceptions of students' developing usage in each of these areas.

A General Model of Learning a New Medium

Based on a review of the word-processing literature and what is known about how people use computers and how they acquire language and writing skills, we can plot a general trajectory for the development of expertise in media usage as shown in Figure 1. This figure presents a general characterization of the psychological, cognitive, and behavioral changes that occur in learning a new medium. The figure captures the idea that as a person increases experience with any medium--including the media of computers, of language, and of writing--the natural order of development is from a surface level to a deep level of usage and from a separated orientation to an integrated orientation of usage. The characteristics on either side of the arrows represent endpoints of continua, symbolizing the learner's gradual movement over time from usage with the early-stage or elementary characteristics on the left to usage with the late-stage or advanced characteristics on the right. The figure presents a general model of the starting points and endpoints, of media usage and the direction of development. In the present context, this general model can serve as a framework for examining student writers' initial experiences and their developing expertise in computers, language, and writing.

According to this general model of learning a new medium, in the early stages of familiarization, there is a natural tendency for people to view a phenomenon or artifact in the most obvious way. Thus, unskilled or early-stage computer users, language users, and writers tend to conceptualize these three media in terms of their most transparent properties and their most apparent and immediate functions. As usage of computers, of language, and of writing progresses from a surface level to a deep level, the user will gradually move towards attributes of those media which are less obvious and less easily accessible. These deeper features may be hidden from the user at first, in that access is less direct and often requires more complex, higher-level cognitive or physical behaviors. In addition, the utility of these features is often obscured by the more obvious characteristics and immediate value of the medium's transparent features. Thus, as noted by Kozma, Belle, and Williams (1978), "The obvious physical characteristics and capabilities of a medium can often overshadow other attributes" (p. 60). The non-immediate properties and functions of media are therefore not generally realized without considerable experience. As outlined in Figure 1, the more transparent and immediate early-stage usage of a medium tends to focus on local rather than global features, the minutiae rather than the gestalt, and on its formal rather than its abstract features. Early-stage usage, therefore, typically centers on physical activity involving visual, tactile, and auditory properties rather than on psychological activity involving cognition and users' affective response. In contrast, late-stage, or advanced, usage of a medium will intricately involve users' thinking, personality, feelings, and individuality. The progression from an early-stage to a late-stage level of usage can be viewed in a general way as one from a bottom-up to a top-down form of information processing. What is characterized in Figure 1 as early stage, bottom-up usage is based on immediate, individual aspects of experience. In contrast, late-stage, top-down usage is more removed from immediate experience; it is a more concept-driven form of usage.


Transparent --> Hidden
Immediate --> Non-immediate
Local --> Global
Formal --> Abstract
Physical --> Psychological
Bottom-Up --> Top-Down
Unidimensional --> Multidimensional
Individual --> Unified
Partitive --> Holistic
Periphery --> Core
Solitary --> Social
Outside-In --> Inside-Out

Figure 1. A general trajectory for the Early-Stage and Late-Stage models of computer, and language, and writing.

As for orientation of usage, it is natural that in the early stages, when one is functioning at a surface level rather than a deep level, one views a phenomenon or artifact unidimensionally in terms of its most prominent individual aspect or aspects. Thus, in the early stages, the medium's properties are viewed and its functions are manipulated in a disjoint or partitive manner. Only later will the user come to see the medium from a holistic perspective, as a unified, multidimensional complex of attributes and functions. In addition, as early-stage users focus on the most obvious and accessible characteristics of computers, language, or writing, it takes them some time to discover these media's more essential characteristics. Thus, we can say that the trajectory from early-stage to late-stage usage of a medium is most likely to be from periphery to core, i.e., from usage based on its peripheral properties and functions to usage based on its core properties and functions.

Another aspect of what I am calling separated usage involves users' physical separation from others. In early exploration of a new medium, users tend to isolate themselves, focusing on individual, isolated acts rather than on employing the medium for social acts. This occurs partly in the early-stage--the attention of users is absorbed in learning the basic features of the medium and the routines necessary for smooth and automatized performance. Because users are at that stage beginners and not entirely familiar with the medium, they function as outsiders who have not been fully initiated into the special features-- the "secret wonders"--of the medium and who do not fully understand or use its properties. Only after considerable experience can users hope to become insiders who are fully familiar with the properties and functions of the medium and who, in a sense, own or possess the medium.

In sum, we can say that the early-stage user functions with the computer, with language, and with writing from the outside-in, viewing the medium in terms of its non-essential properties and using it wholly or primarily in a non-integrated way to perform relatively modest and incidental functions. Only gradually does the user come to view and to use a medium from the inside-out, (i.e., for her or his own purposes and in the central and complex functions which the medium makes possible).

I now turn to an examination of how these general notions about learning a new medium might help us to conceptualize the student user's early- and late-stage models, or subjective theories, of the computer, of language, and of writing.

The Model of the Computer

According to the general orientation presented in the preceding section, as students and teachers move from early- to late-stage usage and from elementary to advanced views of the computer, they will be moving from a surface level to a deep level of usage, and from a separated orientation to an integrated orientation of usage. As illustrated in Figure 2, this movement is conceptualized as a shift from the obvious conception of the computer as a machine, an electronic device, to a conception of the computer as a medium, as both tool and writing environment. Also, as students and teachers continue computer use over time, the desired direction of development will take them beyond the limited view of the computer as a fixer and toward a notion of the computer as a facilitator of their myriad purposes as writers. Word processing writers who make a good adaptation to the technology may view computer usage in the early stages as a kind of play (Schwartz, 1984), with sensory feedback stimulating them to write a great deal, though not necessarily of high quality or at a deep level of thought (Gerrard, 1989; Hawisher, 1987, 1989). The target for advanced behavior is that computer use will stimulate not only the physical act of writing but also the cognitive activity (Perkins, 1985; Salomon, Perkins & Globerson, 1991) that inspires generation, exploration, and synthesis of novel ideas into linguistic expression. As a workspace, the computer tends to be viewed by electronic writing novices in a limited way, as a kind of notepad for writing down and storing information. The target is for them to see the computer not merely as a place to put down words, like a pad of paper, but as an environment in which to develop and explore ideas. Similarly, writers at an early stage of computer use tend to view the typing capability of the computer in the most transparent way, i.e., as a typewriter. Over time, one would like to see the learner's perception of the computer move away from an analogy with an earlier generation of writing devices. Moreover, with continued usage, it is desirable for both student and teacher to progress beyond the notion of the computer as applied only or primarily in the final stage of writing (Curtis, 1988). Thus, they should be moving toward a view of the technology as aiding not only in the transcription of language onto paper, but also in the generation of text and the creation of ideas. In this way, users will come to view the keyboard not merely as the keys of a typewriter but rather as a means of access and an entry point to the computer's powerful capabilities.


Status Machine Medium
Function Fixer Facilitator
Sensory Feedback Stimulus to Writing Stimulus to Thought
Workspace Notepad Exploratory Environment
Typing Capability Typewriter Text Generator
Mechanical Assistant Transcriber Creative Tool
Local Text Changes Error-Corrector Editing Tool
Block Text Changes Organization Aid Revision Aid
Saving Files Final Text Shortage Current Text Storage
Printing Files Task Completion Redrafting Aid

Figure 2. Early-Stage and Late-Stage models of the computer.

In relation to local text changes, the desired trajectory for users' perception is to progress from the limited view of the device as primarily an error-corrector that aids in a clean-up operation to a view of its function as more of an editing aid that assists writers in going beyond editorial clean-up to the fine-tuning of text that matches the writer's internal "felt sense" (Perl, 1980). The computer then becomes a device for mapping thoughts to words, helping the writer to match an internal representation of ideas to an external representation of those ideas in printed text. In another desired progression, users should be able to move beyond the typical early-stage view of "block change" functions as a feature of word processing that facilitates organization of already generated text. A more advanced conception of this feature is as an aid to revision in initial and non-initial drafts which makes it possible for users to elaborate and refine ideas by juxtaposing text from different parts of the same file as well as from other files, and by combining and recombining text generated in different revision episodes. In this way, "block changes" extend advanced computer users' physical and mental resources in continual development of meaning and coherence through which conceptual structure and text structure co-emerge.

Early-stage users tends to save files either when class is over or when a draft is finished. Accordingly, the "save" function is seen as a way of ending a unit of work, perceived as either a period of time or a completed draft. In a more advanced conception, the "save" function is used more frequently, as users open and close different files and begin to view text in more emergent, temporal terms (Cochran-Smith, 1991) involving the balancing and shifting of cognitive modes and writing goals (Kozma, 1991; Smith & Lansman, 1989). Saving text then becomes a waystage for temporarily freezing current content and ideas while attending to other goals and their associated cognitive modes. Analogously, novice computer users generally view the "print function" as representing completion of the writing task. As the concept of writing becomes a more fluid one in which many drafts are generated, hardcopy comes to be seen as a redrafting aid to be alternated with work online (Haas, 1989).

The Model of Language

Computer usage is supported by both students' and the teachers' view of language. For, as Rutherford (1987) observes, "whatever conception of language we are disposed to carry around with us has a direct bearing on anything we say or do where something about language is involved" (p. 66). Like the model of the computer, the model of English that learners bring to the learning task in writing with a word processing program may be described as either early-stage-- elementary or novice--or late-stage--advanced or expert. Some properties of the hypothetical early-stage and late-stage models of the English language are shown in Figure 3.


Status Foreign Medium Second Medium
Power Limited Limitless
Purpose Undefined Definite
Function Artificial Real
Essence Syntax Semantics
Elements Segmented Connected
Unit WordConcept
Structure Rules Regularities
Form SetFluid
Focus Correctness Expression
Goal Knowledge Performance
Event Solitary Interactive

Figure 3. Early-Stage and Late-Stage models of language.

To the degree that English, or written English, is seen as "foreign" to the learner or the teacher, to that degree will it be approached at a surface level with usage which is not well integrated. Hence, to the degree that (written) English is conceived of as a "foreign" medium, to that degree will it be viewed as a minimal resource of limited power employed for undefined or restricted purposes (Kachru, 1982) which in the classroom results in mainly artificial pedagogical tasks. In a more advanced conception, English would be viewed as a second language or written English as a second, auxiliary, medium--as a rich linguistic resource of limitless power alongside the oral medium and/or the mother tongue, to be used, like other second languages, for a wide range of real functions and definite purposes (Fishman, 1982).

An early-stage or elementary conception of English or of written English can be seen as a unidimensional one, often centering on syntax as the essence of language (Richards, 1985). In such an early-stage view, the elements of language are segmented and disjoint. The language unit is individual words, strung together in syntactic structures according to set rules that can be memorized and followed without exception (for discussion and critique of this view, see Rutherford, 1987). The implication of this conception is that learning and production of language should focus on correct recognition and reproduction of forms and rules (e.g., for testing purposes). In a more advanced conception, language will be viewed multidimensionally, in terms of connections between linguistic elements and systems (Rutherford, 1987). It will also be viewed in an advanced conception as more about semantics (i.e., the making of meaning) than about syntax, and more about expression than about correctness (Corder, 1981, p. 78).

In this advanced, late-stage conception, the unit of language is more essentially the concept than is the individual lexical item or syntactic structure, and the speaker uses language not to reproduce forms and items, but to express concepts (Fredericksen, 1986). The structure of language in this advanced view--e.g., as in connectionist models (Pinker & Prince, 1988) is not absolutely fixed in exceptionless rules but is relatively fluid, captured in regularities that inhere in sets of lexical items, phrases, and discourse patterns. Accordingly, language will be seen less as a body of knowledge to be learned and more as something which is expressed and performed (Richards & Schmidt, 1980), will be seen less as a solitary pursuit of study and practice in the language laboratory and more as a process of interaction with other speakers of the language.

The Model of Writing

Computer usage is also supported by students' and teachers' views of writing, which can be modeled as in Figure 4. Because writing is associated with school, beginning learners and inexperienced teachers tend to think of it as an academic activity. In early stages, student writers--and sometimes their teachers as well--will see writing as a locus of external power that has what are for them only vague, poorly defined purposes (Ulichny & Watson-Cegeo, 1989). In the beginning stages, writing functions as a way of performing [(e.g., for the student to show the teacher what has been accomplished or learned (Emig, 1977)] or to satisfy other kinds of external demands such as the writing of error-free sentences in tests or homework (Connors, 1985). A more advanced conception of writing is as an activity which extends the bounds of human cognition and expression (Daiute, 1981; Smith & Smith, 1991) offering additional resources for thought and language beyond those inherent in speaking or in the more constrained tasks of reading or listening. Writing thus becomes a powerful internal resource for accomplishing writers' clear and specific purposes in communication.


Status Academic Activity Human Activity
Power External Internal
Purpose Vague Clear
Function Perform Communicate
Essence Handwriting/Print Thought-Word Mapping
Unit Line of Point Discourse
Elements Disjoint Unified
Structure Linear Non-Linear
Form Concrete Abstract
Focus FormMeaning
Goal Reproduction Production
Event Unitary Multiple

Figure 4. Early-Stage and Late-Stage models of writing.

For beginning learners, the physical nature of writing, as captured in handwriting or print, is its essential feature (Cochran-Smith, Paris, & Kahn, 1991), whereas the expert views writing as a process of mapping thoughts onto words, of making the words match the writer's internal sense of what she or he wants to say (Perl, 1980). In early stages, the elements of writing are seen as disjoint, "acoherent" letters or words forming a line of print (Edelsky, 1982, 1986). Only later do writers begin to see elements--letters, words, sentences, paragraphs as components out of which larger coherent units are formed (Sommers, 1982). For early-stage learners, writing is seen as having a linear structure and as being realized in the form of its concrete and physical products. The form of writing is, therefore, embodied for novices or beginners in a spatial manifestation, as completed lines of text and individual drafts.

Advanced writers, in contrast to beginning writers, recognize the unit of writing as discourse. Advanced writers thus realize that coherence resides in a non-linear structure of conceptual parallelisms and hierarchical associations, both topical and cultural (Connor, 1987). Experienced writers also realize that writing activity is a non-linear process of looping and back and forth movement (Hairston, 1982)--an activity which is both cognitive and physical, the coordinated movement of thoughts, hand and eye (Smith & Smith, 1991). Experienced writers therefore view the form of writing less as one physical manifestation than as an evolving text created over many drafting sessions (Chadwick & Bruce, 1989). Writing becomes something that can be described in abstract, process terms as a fluid temporal phenomenon rather than as a concrete spatial one (Williamson & Pence, 1989). Accordingly, although in the elementary view form is the heart of writing, in the advanced conception form is relegated to meaning--i.e., form serves the interests of meaning (Taylor, 1981).

For elementary or early-stage writers, the goal is a reproductive one, to write in a way that best reproduces the language and ideas of others, but for advanced or late-stage writers, the goal is production, creation of new language and ideas. For elementary writers, who view writing from a unidimensional perspective, each writing episode represents a complete event. In this view, writing is a phenomenon of unitary events, each one producing a finished product: the event and the product are coterminous. In contrast, for advanced writers, writing is conceptualized as a multidimensional phenomenon made up of multiple events (Smith & Lansman, 1989).

Exploring the Models and Their Interrelationships

The validity of each of the proposed models and the relationships among them are entirely open at the present time. It is hoped that by making them explicit, the discussion will encourage others to develop new approaches to computer-assisted writing instruction and to conduct research to test and elaborate the models. One of the interesting questions of this research will be the degree to which users differ in their initial and later stage models and meta-models. By looking across several different settings of computer use, researchers can attempt to tease out the variables associated with these differences as a basis for further investigation. It may also be possible to retrospectively construct both typical and optimal paths in the process of developing and refining hypotheses about users' construction of their evolving models and meta-models.

By examining the evolution of learners' and teachers' subjective theories in the computer context, researchers can increase their understanding of the nature of the knowledge and the skills in the three media (computers, language and writing), and of the factors which determine and constrain their interactions. It may be discovered, for example, that a person's subjective theory or mental model of writing with a word processing system is highly constrained by the person's existing model of the computer, so that evolution of a user's writing model cannot progress without a prior alteration in the individual's computer model. Conversely, it might be discovered that learners' and teachers' models of the computer are dependent on their existing theories or models of writing, in that the computer tends to be exploited only to the extent that it is seen as conveniently implementing users' preexisting approaches to writing. In the area of language, it seems likely that both teachers' and students' views of language and learners' proficiency in English constrain computer use for the purpose of writing, while both teachers' and students' restricted knowledge of computers and of writing constrain the development of learners' full linguistic repertoire.

Williamson and Pence (1989) suggest that an individual's view of writing directs the person's computer use. As a consequence, individual differences in computer use seem at least in part traceable to differences in individuals' subjective theories of writing. Cochran Smith, Paris, and Kahn (1991) suggest that modifications between a person's writing theory and the person's computer writing process may be bi-directional as computer use influences and is influenced by one' s conception of the nature of writing. Phinney (1989) maintains that changes in users' views of language may result from computer use. Others have noted the limitations of computer use when academic and linguistic proficiency is limited (Daiute, 1986; Gerrard, 1989; Weiss, 1988). Moreover, while an elementary writing process restricts the possibilities for use of language (Arndt, 1987), limitations of language may restrict writers' ability to fully exploit their knowledge about how to achieve their purposes in writing (Jones & Tetroe, 1987; Raimes, 1985; Pennington & So, in press). Thus, the influence between language and computer use, and between language and writing may, like that between writing and computer use, be mutual and bi-directional.

For non-native writers who have developed a high level of writing skill in the first language, it seems logical to assume that their working theory of writing from their first language experience will be adapted for composing in the second language and will guide the way in which language and the computer are employed, at least initially. For some learners, the development of linguistic proficiency through reading, listening, or conversational interaction may be the impetus for improvements in writing, which may in turn pave the way for improved computer use. It is also not difficult to imagine individual students whose initial enthusiasm for or prior experience with the computer (e.g., in games software, causes them to use it in creative ways to develop their language and their writing). Similarly, individual teachers who view the computer as an exciting new medium may be anxious to experiment with the computer's capabilities for developing writing and linguistic skills.

Although some logical predictions can be made about the relationships of students' or teachers' views on language, writing, and the computer, in most cases, the opposite scenario to the one expected cannot be ruled out. One can imagine, for example, that a student or teacher who enters the computer environment with much prior writing experience may have an easier time adapting to the computer, at least initially, as compared to those teachers and students who do not have strong histories of writing. On the other hand, it is possible that the less experienced writer will have more malleable views on writing and so be more likely, given the proper guidance, to take advantage of the computer's full range of capabilities and to make better use of the technology in the long run.

In sum, while it is of value to make predictions based on logical inference and our present state of knowledge about computer-assisted writing, research is needed to test these predictions in the different circumstances represented by the variables of the learner, the teacher, the context of use, and the type of effects of computer use that are measured.

Having come of age, research on computer-assisted writing with native and non-native students can begin to balance what has up to now been a primarily data-driven orientation with what can henceforth be developed as a more essentially theory-driven, or conceptual, approach. In particular, future research on computer-assisted writing should incorporate theories describing the interaction of writing and contextual variables; the connections between cognition, writing, and learning; and the interrelationships of users' concepts of writing, language, and computers. In this way, research on computer-assisted writing can make significant contributions to future generations of students and educators, providing unique insights into the nature of writing and of effective composition practice.

Martha C. Pennington directs research in applied English linguistics and second language acquisition as a Reader in the Department of English, City Polytechnic of Hong Kong. Her most recent book is a collection edited with Vance Stevens, Computers in Applied Linguistics: An International Perspective (Avon, England: Multilingual Matters, 1992).

  1. For an expanded listing of studies in each category, including a large number of unpublished dissertation studies, see Pennington (In press)

  2. The models presented here seek to incorporate both declarative and procedural knowledge of computers, of language, and of writing, through such considerations as coordination and automaticity of cognitive and physical movements, which must be part of procedural knowledge in these areas, are not specifically examined here. See Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987; Hillocks, 1987; and Stein, 1986, for further discussion.

  3. According to Brotjahn (1991), a subjective theory is an implicity, naive, private, or everyday theory (p. 188) which is "composed of subjective hypotheses and subjective constructs" (p.199). As individual knowledge representations (n. 10, p. 209), subjective theories are, "complex cognitive structures that are highly individual, relatively stable, and relatively enduring, and that fulfill the task of explaining and predicting such human phenomena as action, reaction, thinking, emotion, and perception" (Grotjahn, 1991, p. 188).


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