2(1), November 1984, page 11

[conclusion of Roth article at top of this page]

Composition Students Experience Word Processing

Samila S. Nickell
31 10 JKHB
Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah 84602

How can a composition teacher with no formal departmental access to computers, with no funded pilot program, with students who have no computer experience use word processing as an effective tool in teaching writing? Having my own personal computer made me realize what a difference a word processor can make in the writing process. I saw my own revising process change dramatically; I happily tore into my paper, knowing that I would not have to retype the entire text just to make changes. The advantages of word processing for my students began whispering in my ear. But what could I do? How could twenty-five freshmen share my humble Apple II+? They could not, and lack of departmental access to word processors compounded my frustrations.


Obviously computers are the focal point of many an incoming freshmen's program; I realized that I did not need to provide the computers. They were already available. All I needed to do was tap into the sources. With a little checking I found that in the lounges of all the Brigham Young University dormitories were small word processing centers. These computers were free for the freshmen to use and even came with a teaching assistant four hours a day to answer any questions. The computers were primarily Apple IIe's featuring the Magic Window word processing program.

Even my students who lived off campus were covered. They could use the library's word processing center for an hourly fee (IBM PC's with WORDPERFECT). In addition, several of my students had access to Commodore or Atari computers in their own homes or the homes of friends. Thus, availability of computers was not a problem.

Having my students use several different computers actually turned out to be advantageous. Because the commands, format, and keys are different on WORDPERFECT than on Screenwriter and virtually every other word processing program, it was impossible to spend class time actually instructing on word processing. But the majority of word processing programs come with a tutorial that the student can constantly refer to. Those without tutorials had teaching assistants or library supervisors on hand if they got stuck.

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Several other apparent disadvantages similarly turned out to be advantages. Students who lived off campus who had to use the library's word processors, and the students who lived in the dormitories had to schedule the computers in advance. These students found that having to schedule the computers forced them to finish their papers earlier. And as one student commented, "I had to sign up for time on the computer which made me have to get my paper done. I wasn't able to wait until the last minute to write it."


Now that I had found computers for the students to work on, what about the problem of "computer literacy"? Sixty-four percent of the students had no experience with a computer. Some even lacked typing skills. I thought it would be difficult to convince students to learn to word process on their own time outside of class. I worried an entire weekend away trying to think of ways to persuade them. On Monday I suggested the possibility that they all find and use computers to write their papers with, and they accepted the idea immediately. I had to mask my surprise at their youthful enthusiasm, but inwardly I was elated. After a week I passed a sheet around the class asking the students to list what computer and word processing program they were working on. Then we talked for a few minutes about the inevitable "first time" mistakes they made.

I was pleased to find a wide variety of word processors in use. I had told my students to use word processors anywhere they could find them, and that's exactly what they did. The word processing programs varied from the complex IBM WORDPERFECT to the elementary ATARI WRITER. Apple and IBM were the two most used systems (the Apple microcomputers were in the dorm lounges and the IBMs in the library), although Kaypro and Commodore had several users.

Most of the literature I read concerning using computers in composition used one standard operating system in a lab situation with the teacher instructing. Obviously those were not my conditions. Locations of the computers my students used ranged from the library to the dorm to their boyfriend's apartment. The problem of correlating and overseeing their instruction terrified me, especially because I was not familiar with most of the word processing programs they were using. I kept thinking that one of them would walk up to me and ask me to explain how to place a text embedded command in his/her particular program and discover my ignorance. I had a working knowledge of only two of the eight word processing programs they used.

I was also impressed with how fast students picked up their computer skills. I was worried that the students would spend their entire semester learning to use the word processor instead of learning to write better. The class spent an average of 2.7 hours "getting the hang" of word processing. After that initial 2.7 hours they felt comfortable enough to type their first paper. This is an interesting statistic in view of some theories that students must be "computer literate" before trying something like this. Not having to spend any time in actual computer instruction gave me more time to spend in applying their computer skills to the writing process.


But simply having students learn to work on computers did not change student writing processes, as a writer from my fall class made me realize. Fall semester I had not asked my students to learn to word process, but two or three of them regularly turned in word processed papers. When I gave my fall students a questionnaire on their writing processes, I was especially interested in the response to the question "How did the word processor affect your revision process?" Both students answered that there was "no difference." Here was a good example of not integrating word processing capabilities with the writing process. The students had not failed. I had failed.

Aware of the need to combine word processing skills with the writing process, I began to plan the next semester. I tried to incorporate what I had learned from my own experience on my computer with what I had read on computers and composition in various journals. Most of the articles I read dealt with thing I didn't have--funded pilot programs, software that wasn't available yet, software that required a main frame system, a lab set up with computers for the class to go to and receive instruction. I translated the absence of articles dealing with my situation into a challenge. I wanted to see what kind of results I could get using a variety of word processing programs with the students learning the computer skills outside of class.


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From experience I learned that word processing had the greatest effect on revision, so we focused on that aspect in class. I told the students how I lost the first paper I ever put into my word processor by hitting the wrong control character; by then several students had experienced similar mishaps. Being able to share my experiences with them made me a user friendly teacher, and that made all the difference in the class attitude toward computers--and toward writing.

From the questionnaire my students filled out at the end of the semester, three areas of possible improvement in my teaching of writing by computer became evident: (1) the number of drafts; (2) approach to revision; and (3) attitudes about writing.


The number of drafts increased substantially once the students began using the word processors. Although the number of drafts is not necessarily indicative of writing improvement, I felt it was a positive indicator. During the fall semester when the students were not on the word processors, students averaged between two and three drafts per paper. This is typical of my experience with freshmen writers--they usually write one draft by hand, type a draft, and barring any glaring errors, turn that draft in. The fall students rarely retyped their papers. On the other hand, my winter semester students, the ones on the computers, averaged between four and five drafts per paper. They usually wrote one by hand, typed their second draft into the word processor, ran a copy, revised, ran another copy, polished, then ran a final copy. I think in this instance the number of drafts indicates the time and effort students were willing to spend with the paper. There were two major psychological advantages to the computer entry of the paper. Once they typed the paper in, they never had to completely retype it. Also, having that hard copy to revise seemed to give them extra incentive. In class, we discussed how much easier it is to spot errors in a paper that is typed and formatted correctly. The typed copy distances us a little from our own writing, often just enough to recognize errors.


When the students realized how painless it was to run more drafts, more effective revision began. My fall semester students averaged thirty minutes revision per paper. Of my winter semester students, six students spent thirty minutes in revision, six spent an hour, and thirteen spent more than an hour. It did not surprise me that nineteen (seventy-four percent) of my winter semester students spent an hour or more in revision, but what did surprise me was the kinds of revisions they made.

Several writers of journal articles concerning computers and composition have felt that computers did nothing to improve in-depth revision. I understand why those conclusions are drawn; the same thing happened to me the first semester when I had not connected word processing with the writing process. But winter semester was a different matter; this time I let the computers enhance the revision process. I incorporated activities that capitalized on the ease of revision the computer offered. Weekly I invited the students to bring their rough drafts from the word processor to class and either in groups or pairs revise each others' papers. Knowing that the "core" of their paper was safely on their disk, the students happily tore into each others papers. It was exciting to hear them advise each other to "cut out that whole paragraph," or to "bag those three sentences."


Teaching the students to revise effectively is one of the best ways to use student word processing capabilities. Computers make revision almost enjoyable. Early in the semester I made a distinction between what we called editing errors or "flesh wounds," and revision errors or "mortal wounds." Editing errors are surface errors dealing with punctuation, typographical, spelling, and word choice errors. We talked about how these kinds of errors distract from a paper but usually aren't the paper's downfall. I also pointed out that software is available that can check most of these problems for them. What I emphasized are the areas susceptible to "mortal wounds," thesis, organization, support, and development problems that can "kill" a paper. I found that the students needed guide sheets, or at least a set of questions to answer, to get them started seeing revision. I had them fill out critiques of other students' papers with such questions as "Is the major point of the paper clear to you? What is it? Does everything in the essay relate to this point? Was there anything in the paper that you found unclear or difficult to understand?" The fall semester students viewed the group and pair critiquing as an

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assignment. But my winter semester looked on the group work as a chance to revise their papers before I put on the grade. They looked to each other more to help them find their "mortal wounds."

For many of my students, in-depth revision was a new experience. They were used to taking a finished copy out of the typewriter and never thinking about it again. But when they knew they could make as many changes and copies as they wanted, they were much more willing to rethink them.

Another area in which the word processing strategy is successful is in writing conferences. When students came to my office with their word processed copies they were eager to discuss ways to improve their papers because they realized that adding and deleting on the word processor is virtually painless. Writing conferences I conducted with my fall semester students, who hadn't word processed, were much more tentative; in these conferences students tried to point out the kinds of errors that would not call for major retyping or structuring of the paper. They weren't really willing to become involved with in-depth revision because of the time it took to retype their papers. But this situation changed in the writing conferences I conducted with my computer-using students.


But the dimension of the students' writing most affected was their attitude. Their remarks on the difference word processing made make my statistics seem unimportant. Here are several of their comments:

Before this class I would write one, maybe two handwritten drafts, then I would type it up and turn it in. Now I spend a lot of time in revision. I feel that word processing has helped me improve as a writer, my thought processes have changed so now I look to see how I can tear apart my paper. Before I used to just write and not look at the "mortal wounds" because I knew that things would be wrong and I didn't want to have to type it all over again. . . I've already used the word processor in a few of my other classes.

Another said:

Using the word processor has really improved my writing process. I'm not afraid to change entire paragraphs or even completely delete them. I'm able to get my thoughts down and then organize them without the pain of retyping the entire paper. My skills on the word processor are ones that I'm taking to my other classes.

Another commented:

Learning to use the word processor has dramatically helped the efficiency of my writing process. I now spend more time looking for errors, both in little errors and major errors. I had previously never typed, and using the word processor is still easier because once it is typed I can, with one touch, run hundreds of drafts. I now use the word processor in all my classes where papers are required and my grades in those classes are higher than, I feel, they would have been otherwise.

The student remarks about taking their word processing skills to other classes are important. The students seem to be applying their word processing skills to other papers. These are the skills we are trying to get them to take with them when they walk out of their freshmen English classes. For such students the impact of freshmen English extends beyond the class, beyond the year. As one of my students wrote: "by using the word processor as a means to an end rather than as an end (as in a computer class) I learned more and now I have a working knowledge that I can use the rest of my life."