Composing and Computing by the Writer With Head Trauma

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Composing and Computing by the Writer With Head Trauma

Ann Marie Malachowski

"In 1977, 8,779,000 people were estimated to have sustained head the United States. The incidence of skull fracture and injury is approximately one-fourth of this total or about 2,211,000" (Cooper, 1982: 1). Most victims of head trauma resulting from such injuries in traffic accidents, swimming and diving mishaps, etc. are in the age group of 15-24 years, the population served by those of us who are secondary and college teachers. Often these victims find themselves severely physically incapacitated and learning disabled.

Trauma centers located throughout the country are now equipped with medical personnel and life-saving technological equipment which is saving thousands of lives that heretofore would have been lost. Computers often play major roles in these rehabilitation processes, from providing diagnostic information to physicians to programming therapy aids. But once the acute care stage of medical treatment in the trauma centers is over, patients are sent home to face depression, lack of independence, boredom, and a bleak future.

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Some patients with mild to moderate impairments are able to get help from vocational rehabilitation programs and become trained in job situations. Many more of these young people would like to return to school, but their inability to cope with academic demands makes them discouraged, and they drop out. Most schools are not equipped to offer these young people the slowed-down programs they would need to prosper. Many teachers are not trained to cope with head-trauma victims. This population of disabled students is a fairly new one on the education horizon, so we don't know a lot about how to deal with the student's particular problems. These problems might include difficulty with concentration, impulsiveness, disinhibition, and hyper-responsiveness; difficulties with vision and attention, particularly when there are distractions; memory difficulties; language difficulties; and difficulties with problem solving. All of these are skills necessary for success in school settings; most of these problems interfere with the students' ability to read and write and, therefore, to learn.

New ways to meet the needs of head-trauma patients in the community and in the school need to be found. Writing as a discipline needs to be part of any rehabilitation program for trauma patients whether in a sheltered workshop setting, a skilled care facility, or a classroom.

Learning to write is especially important for these young people because of writing's unique contribution to learning. Writing is a powerful mode of learning because it is amenable to storage, review, and revision. It is a problem-solving activity (Flower & Hayes, 1984). Writing involves objectifying language, making it manipulable and separate from the writer (de Beaugrande, 1984, Elbow, 1985). Writing requires analysis, "the breaking up of entities into their constituent parts; and synthesis, combining or fusing these often into fresh arrangements of amalgrams" (Emig, 1977:127). Because it is a slower process than talking, writing allows for making sense of language by allowing the writer to work with the words she produces.

But writing performance on every level, from recording to copying to composing, demands the complex interaction of the physical writing network: the hand, the eye and the brain (Emig, 1975). Head-trauma victims need help in coordinating this network.

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Head trauma results in brain dysfunctions of the left and right hemispheres. Because of the diffused damage which usually results from trauma, brain function problems cannot be easily localized, and the motor, perceptual and cognitive skills demanded for writing are severely impaired . This situation sounds discouraging for prospective writers with head trauma, but it is not hopeless.


The research of Omstein (1972), Luria (1973), Galin (1976), and Myers (1983) involving brain-damaged subjects instructs us about left and right hemisphere functions and cognitive styles. Ornstein identifies the basic division for language activity in the brain: the left hemisphere is responsible for linear and logical aspects of language; the right hemisphere contributes visual/spatial functions and holistic abilities. Luria conceives each of the brain hemispheres as being involved in the three basic functions: first, the regulation of the arousal level of the brain; second, the reception, integration and analysis of sensory information; and third, the planning, executing and verifying of behavior. The two hemispheres of the brain have contrasting cognitive styles as shown in Table 1.

Left Hemisphere:		Right Hemisphere:

Temporal			Spatial 
Sequential			Simultaneous
Successive			Parallel 
Analytic			Holistic 
Rational			Intuitive
Logical				Emotional

Table 1: Contrasting Cognitive Styles of Left and Right Brain Hemispheres (Davis, 1983:56).

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Writing requires a complex interaction of both hemispheres. Good writing instruction which concentrates on students' needs offers help in mastering processes for learning by structuring the approach to writing and offering a collaborative environment where the writer and teacher confer about the text. Conferencing, as an instructional method, offers the student and teacher a chance to be actively involved in the learning process. This type of writing instruction is particularly meaningful for the student who has experienced head trauma.


Computers, when combined with meaningful writing instruction, can be invaluable composing aids for head-trauma victims. I offer an example.

As a writing teacher at SUNY Buffalo's Learning Center, I teach composing and computing in a College Writing Course and an Advanced College Writing Course. It was in this capacity that I first met a young woman (referred to as M.D.), who was a head-trauma victim. This student came to me for help after she had received negative comments on a research paper she had written. M.D. told me about her accident and subsequent writing problems and asked for my help. Her problems ranged from the motor skills necessary to hold a pen or pencil, to the higher cognitive skills of putting words and thoughts together. Even typing copies of papers was difficult because of a weakness in her hands. As a consequence, she was also unable to use good writing practices and produce multiple revised drafts. Because she had to pay so much attention to the physical act of writing, she was unable to think much about what she wanted to say.

One of my suggestions to M.D. was to have her consider the use of the computer and word-processing software to help with her writing assignments; another was to have her meet with me for regular conferences where we would discuss her texts as they took shape. She took advantage of both suggestions, and our work together began.

That meeting took place three years ago. The work on every paper she needs to write is slow and painstaking (even more so than non-traumatized students). We work on small sections at a time and

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set appropriate deadlines. M.D. is making slow but steady progress in her degree program, is now a published writer, and received positive comments on her "almost professional writing ability" on her last paper.

Both of us, student and teacher, have gained a great deal from our conferences and continued friendship. I asked M.D. to use her own words to testify to the computer's assistance in her writing tasks. I recorded the interview, transcribed the tape, did some minor editing so that the conversation follows an understandable order and would like to share the interview with you. First I asked her to describe for me her problems when she had to write by hand:

M. ...before it was was such an energy zapping thing that know.... The last thing that I wanted to do in the world was write. My main concern was getting the job done. I didn't care if it were pearls or....

A. Did you have to write everything out by hand? Did you use the typewriter to compose before?

M. Typewriter...yeah. See because doing things by hand.I like.... Last time I went to visit Dr. G., I was meeting a friend in the cafeteria. And I had about an hour, so I brought some stuff with me to.... This stuff, the book and some paper, and I wrote long hand. I got one page, one side of the paper done, in about an hour's time. My whole body hurt. I was exhausted. You know it's just because I have to concentrate so hard on the actual process of writing that I'm not able to.... See and I was just copying out of a book. Whoever invented the computer, let me tell you. Oh, my God! It's like a dream come true in terms of um...not I get the organization, but see it's a big thing for me to be neat. Well, look at. ..look at this (gestures) this, you know.. .this had to be perfect. It's just one of my idiosyncrasies.

A. You're talking about the way it comes out of the printer?

M. No. You know like...

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A. Well, first let's hear about how the computer helps you to organize?

M. By being able to put things down...and seeing them. It's using another sense. It's reinforcing, reinforcing that I wrote it, that I am able to write something that it is there to stay. But also by.... It's like there are a whole bunch of capsules....You know the computer capsulizes, and....

A. Wait a minute...let's not leave that...the computer capsulizes...what do you mean by capsulizes?

M. You know it.... You can make little things for each area. This is A....

A. Then you can save that and put it away.

M. Right. And B and C also.... Once you got it on the computer, it's gonna be there. You don't have to keep remembering it.

A. But that didn't happen when you wrote it down?

M. No.

A. Why not?

M. 'Cause I'd lose it. I'd forget where I put it.

A. So when you've got all the capsules in the computer A, B and C. How do you put them together?

M. Then you can go over them. And you know...make any changes or combine them or whatever. But they're all there.... It's just a feeling of closure.

A. And how do you compose? Do you compose in sentences, do you have to compose in words or do you have to compose in letters?

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M. I think in sentences. See with the computer, another highlighting
point is that you can put it down and then you can change it. You can revise it so you can put it down in sentences, and then if it doesn't say what it means. You can change it.

A. Do you do that with each sentence? Or do you do it at the end of a big paragraph? Or at the end of a page?

M. Um...I think after a number of sentences, after a thought, I go over it and then make any changes that I feel, and then go on to the next thought. Which may not be a new paragraph; it may just be a new...a new thought.

A. Does it tire you out as much to work at the computer as it did....

M.'s's exciting.

A. (laugh) Why is it exciting?

M. It's exciting because...because I like mechanical things and I'm amazed at how it works. See a typewriter is not exciting because a typewriter doesn' know, you can see how a typewriter works. It's right there in front of you, and ah.... I guess it's the mystery of the computer.

A. Well tell me if you approach a writing task any differently? Do you do anything differently from what you did when you didn't have a computer?

M. Oh. It's far more enjoyable. Writing itself.... Because now its kind of like an adventure, whereas before it was such a drudgery. If I typed it, I would have to erase and type it over seven million times. And I know that what I put down can be erased or revised with no great amount of trouble. And you know...I go up to my study and um... with almost anticipation of what I'm going to turn out, what's gonna, you know, what pearls am I going to put

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down. You know, when I go upstairs to work on the computer it's almost a security, or a piece of mind, knowing that what I put in there is going to stay. And that if I want to change it, I can; it's no big deal. And it's just fun to watch what it does. It's amazing.

What does this testimony mean in terms of cognitive skills used in the writing process? According to Flower and Hayes (1981), who have devised a writing process model widely accepted in writing research today, writing includes planning, generating, translating, evaluating, revising, and monitoring plus various subskills which are illustrated in the model. These skills require a writer to be able to move easily between short and long-term memory, perceive relationships, encode into language symbols and attend to a wide array of signals and messages. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Flower and Hayes Cognitive Process Model for Writing

M.D. relates that the computer has enabled her to record mes-

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sages from her short-term memory and save them; divide her writing tasks (problems) into solvable "capsules;" store these capsules in the computer's long-term memory; retrieve these capsules at will and combine, revise, or erase them. All of these abilities are left-hemisphere brain skills which would have been difficult or impossible for her to perform without the computer. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2: The Computer Takes Over Some Left-Hemisphere Skills.

The computer makes possible the right-brain skills of visual reinforcement for her writing, the ability to print a clean, legible copy, and offers the affective advantage of making writing pleasant, even enjoyable.

Conferencing with a writing instructor means that M.D. is

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better able to integrate left and right hemisphere brain skills. She gets regular writing assignments in sections that she can confidently handle; gets feedback from an interested reader who is familiar with her strengths and weaknesses, thus helping her to evaluate her text; gets a problem-solving collaborator, who will listen to and comment about ideas and approaches to the text; and a helpful monitor who assists her in keeping track of her progress. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3: Conferencing Helps Integrate Left and Right Hemisphere Skills.

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Thus the writing process is able to be performed and a text completed. M.D. is now able to compose at a terminal with a minimum amount of effort, store her information on a disk, print out her text on the printer, and produce nicely finished copies. She now revises after conferring with me. During our last conference, she also confided to me that she is now writing letters to friends and relatives, something she hadn't done in years. The microcomputer has given her a new sense of freedom and flexibility. Appropriate writing instruction has given her a way to communicate her thoughts to people on a par that is comparable to other students.

As a teacher of composing and computing, I appreciate the fact that microcomputers for the average writing students are convenient and enjoyable learning tools. My work with M.D. has made me realize, that for learning-disabled students who have suffered head trauma, microcomputers and writing instruction through conferencing can be the vital links between their acquiring knowledge and communicating it. Writing and, therefore, learning, become not only possible, but also enjoyable and effective. Ann Marie Malachowski teaches composition at SUNY Buffalo and Niagara University.


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