2(4), August 1985, page 17

Who's Making the Decisions--People or Machines?

Craig Etchison

In 1969, quite a few years before the advent of microcomputers, Noam Chomsky made a singularly relevant statement about education and technology--a statement which every composition teacher at every educational level should keep in mind when deciding how to use the microcomputer in the writing classroom. Chomsky (1972) said:

There are strong pressures to make use of new educational technology and to design curriculum and teaching methods in light of the latest scientific advances. In itself, this is not objectionable. It is important, nevertheless, to remain alert to a very real danger: that a new knowledge and technique will define the nature of what is taught and how it is taught, rather than contribute to the realization of educational goals that are set on other grounds and in other terms. (p. 101)
In looking at the wide variety of computer programs available for the writing class, and the pedagogies recommended in conjunction with these programs, it would seem that many are based primarily on what the machines can do most easily

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instead of being based on our knowledge of how students best acquire the written code. And, all too often, information about microcomputers and writing software ignores the single most important element connected with teaching composition--writing quality. Perhaps it is time to start moving closer to a position that makes the development of writing quality the central feature of any evaluation of the use of microcomputers. For as Bridwell, Sirc, and Brooke (in press) and Burns (1983) have asserted, improving writing quality should be at the heart of all writing instruction, regardless of whether it is taught in a traditional manner or with microcomputers.

If improving writing quality of students become the yardstick for the assessment of microcomputers in the classroom--and I do not mean to suggest quality in arbitrary terms, rather that instruction and use of microcomputers leads to increased quality of writing using each student's starting point as the benchmark--then how an instructor incorporates the microcomputer into the classroom would be based on the best research and theory available about the writing process (Sommers, 1982).

Shuy (1981) has defined two distinct approaches to teaching writing, and most writing pedagogies fall into one or the other of these. Shuy calls the one approach reductionist because this view of writing suggests that language (the written code in this case) be broken down into its smallest elements--parts of grammar, rules of punctuation, syntactic structures--working to a point where enough elements have been learned that a complete discourse (a theme or essay) can

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be written. Mastering discrete elements first--the forms of language--is necessary before students can master larger discourse structures, and to make meaning with those discourse structures. Form before function.

Shuy calls the other approach to teaching writing constructivist or holistic. In this approach students begin with a whole piece of writing, one in which they are attempting to communicate meaning to an audience. Shuy argues that only within that larger context of making meaning do the smaller elements of language begin to make sense and have importance for a student. Graves (Green, 1984) states emphatically that learning discrete elements of writing first will not transfer to actual writing, a position similar to that articulated by Hartwell (1983) when he states that developing literacy involves a thick interaction of learner and environment, not a narrow mastery of discrete skills. Only as students get involved with transmitting ideas to an audience will they begin to master the needed forms. And in fact, many writing researchers, theorists, and teachers argue that it is only when students are motivated to transmit meaning to an audience that those same students will feel any need to master the elements of form--the conventions of the written code.

There is a great deal of evidence from composition research and theory to support Shuy's view that writing is best learned holistically rather than piecemeal. Moffett (1968) asserts that ". . . only in the largest context--the whole composition--can meaning, style, logic, or rhetoric be usefully contemplated" (p. 5). Moffett is opposed to a particle approach to

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teaching writing. Rose (1983) agrees, stating that writing instructors need to teach holistically and not reduce the discipline to neatly segmented units. Collins (1981) believes that asking students what they mean within the context of a whole piece of writing is the single most important question an instructor can address to a student--and the one question that may lead students to write better prose.

At the same time, there is a large body of evidence which suggests that learning discrete elements of writing first will not help improve writing quality. For example, a large, three year study conducted by Elley, Barham, Lamb, and Wyllie (1976) found that there was no difference in the quality of student writing or in errors committed whether students were given instruction in traditional grammar, transformational grammar, or no grammar at all. Bamberg (1978) found that the most important factor in students improving the quality of their writing was instruction in writing--and the least important factor of nine factors studied was grammar instruction. Perhaps two quotes best sum up most findings of the extensive research into the role of grammar in composition instruction. Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer (1963) write:

In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based on many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing, (pp. 37-38).

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O'Hare (1971) agrees completely when he writes: "Study after study tested the hypothesis that there was a positive relationship between the study of grammar and some aspect or other of composition. Result after result denied this hypothesis" (p.5).

But what does this have to do with microcomputers in the writing classroom? A great deal. If an instructor uses the microcomputer as a fancy electronic grammar workbook--and there is plenty of software available that does just that, such software being relatively easy to write--then the instructor has opted for a reductionist approach to writing, an approach which is arguably counterproductive to improving writing quality. The RSVP program at Miami-Dade Community College--a main-frame based program--is oriented to teaching discrete points of grammar based on student writing. When the RSVP program was field tested and empirically evaluated, findings showed that students who used the program scored higher on discrete-point grammar tests than students who did not use the system. Far more importantly, the findings also showed that there was no difference in the quality of writing between those students who used the program and those students who did not (Kelly & Anandam, 1982). And when Ohanian (1984) observed young children used IBM's WRITING TO READ program, a program currently being touted on IBM television commercials, she found the children bored and restless because the program broke language into the smallest elements and forced every child to proceed at the same pace. Such programs ignore a basic linguistic fact, thoroughly documented, that children learn language

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at different rates. Many language instructors would also say that establishing an interesting, creative, and cognitively absorbing atmosphere is essential for the best language acquisition to take place. Programs such as WRITING TO READ seem to do otherwise.

If, however, writing is viewed in holistic terms, then the microcomputer may be seen as a tool which can help foster those writing habits that have proven beneficial to experienced writers--habits such as revision, real revision, not just editing minor surface details. The microcomputer is also an excellent tool for helping teachers help students understand the recursive nature of writing. Because the power of the computer allows for easy insertion, or deletion, or moving of sentences or blocks of material, students are able to experiment with new trains of thought, revise any part of their paper at any time, or add material as dictated by the developing needs of the paper--all of this because the computer takes care of the drudge work quickly and easily. Elias (1984) sums this up nicely:

In the end, I am saying that the computer may liberate the comp drudge if it is integrated into a systematic pedagogy which distinguishes between writing behavior (which computers may help our students acquire) and higher-order cognitive skills. (p. 3)

There is one final important item which needs to be mentioned--the classroom instructor. The classroom instructor will not be displaced by the microcomputer. In fact, the evidence is that if the microcomputer is to be used most

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efficiently and effectively, the instructor may be even more important than before. In the first place, as already mentioned, the instructor must make a decision on how the microcomputer is to be incorporated into the classroom--whether it will be used to foster a reductive view of language or a holistic view of language. And the instructor cannot abdicate responsibility, for no decision merely means that someone else will make the decision--perhaps someone far less qualified in matters of teaching writing. In the second place, it seems even more essential that the instructor give students a real model of how writing gets done in the real world, for without that model students will probably not take advantage of all the power the microcomputer has to offer. Perhaps this idea is best summed up by Green (1984) speaking of Graves' view of the microcomputer: "His credo: I don't want to see students relying on the computer as a stimulus to thinking. I want to see the computer used as a facilitator of thought. And I don't want to bypass the teacher" (p. 28).

In discussing the microcomputer and the writing classroom, there seems to be at least one inescapable conclusion: It is essential that writing instructors use the microcomputer to foster the kinds of writing behavior they know will help students improve the quality of their writing. Writing teachers need to make the decisions on how the microcomputer is to be used in the classroom based on the best available composition theory and research. To do otherwise may, in effect, allow the machines to make the decisions, a real possibility with real dangers, and what Chomsky was warning against in 1969.

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CRAIG ETCHISON teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA.


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Braddock, R., Lloyd-Jones, R., & Schoer, L. (1963) Research in Written Composition. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Bridwell, L. S., Sirc, G., & Brooke, R. Revising and computing: Case studies of student writers. In Sarah Freedman (Ed.), The acquisition of written language: Revision and response. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. (in press)

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Elias, R. (1984). Will computers liberate the comp drudge? Paper presented at the Spring Conference of the Delaware Valley Writing Council and Villanova University's English Department, Villanova, PA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 241 954)

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Kelly, J. T. & Anandam, K. (1982). Teaching writing with a computer as helper. American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, Washington, DC. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 214 583)

Moffett, J. (1968). Teaching the universe of discourse. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Ohanian, S. (1984). IBM's "Writing to Read" program: Hot new item or same old stew? Classroom Computer Learning, 4 (8), 0-31.

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O'Hare, F. (1971). Sentence combining: Improving student writing without formal grammar instruction. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Rose, M. (1983). Remedial writing courses: Critique and a proposal. College English. 45, 109-128.

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Sommers, E. A. (1982). A writing teacher experiments with word processing. Computers and Composition, 1, (2), 1-3.