Diane F. Thompson
Basic writers are almost never "basic speakers"; their speech is usually fluent, and they display adequate, if not elegant, command of English when chatting with friends in the cafeteria. Yet, when they must generate written language instead of speech, they often seem at a loss for words. It is oddly appropriate that a powerful new approach to teaching weak writers was initially developed by Trent Batson for teaching deaf students at Gallaudet University. English Natural Form Instruction (ENFI) is a computer-based technique for teaching writing by means of writing (see Editor's Note). ENFI uses networked computers with special utilities to allow all the students and the teacher to "talk" with one another in writing.
The value of this approach for deaf students is immediately obvious because they cannot readily communicate in speech and sign language is not the language they must write in. However, the ENFI approach is also promising for basic writers because it offers them a link between their generally adequate oral language skills
and their weak, reluctant writing. With this in mind, Northern Virginia Community College purchased ENFI networks for three of its Campus Writing Centers.
ENFI allows students and teacher to talk by writing messages in a private space on their screens. They then send these messages to the public network in real time using a utility called CB that works like a text version of a CB radio. Each work station displays all the messages sent, and each message is tagged with a prefix identifying the author. Students and teacher respond to one another's messages as the written conversation scrolls slowly up the screen. This interactive process lets students bring their oral and social language strengths into the writing situation by encouraging them to talk in writing with their peers and teacher. The computers are also used for individual composition, group revision, and individual revision, so that interactive and individual writing can be blended into a linked process.
The cognitive demands ENFI places on students are different from either speech or ordinary non-interactive writing. Although typing is slower and more difficult for the students than speech, the teacher mediates the discussion on ENFI, assuming most of the burden of "composing" the discourse. Each student is responsible for initiating and/or responding to questions or statements and for keeping track of the discussion, but not for keeping the discussion on track or for keeping it going. This teacher-led organization allows the students to concentrate on writing as response, getting the pleasure of social interaction by writing, without the cognitive burden of having to organize their material at any level higher than short bursts of words similar to the idea units which Chafe considers the basic speech unit (1982). (1)
Another simplification for basic writers is the presence of an immediate, interactive audience. The audience on ENFI is as real and present as the same group talking casually in the cafeteria. There is no need to perform the complex task of imagining an audience while writing, an unfamiliar convention for many basic writers (Shaughnessy, 1977). The audience is there, providing input and feedback. ENFI thus offers basic writers the opportunity to experience writing for an audience with a minimum of effort applied to that aspect of the writing task.
While students are writing back and forth in short bursts, the teacher guides and intervenes within the writing process itself, providing modeling and detailed feedback. Students on the network ask for clarifications, the meanings of words, directions about the computers, and task instructions. The teacher echoes a phrase and corrects it while doing so, completes an idea that was incompletely expressed, or asks for more information when a statement does not make sense as written. Peyton and Batson, who have been doing research on ENFI at Gallaudet, point out that this kind of interaction between teacher and students on the network is "much like the interaction that occurs between caregivers and first language learners" (1986, p. 5).
The ENFI network allows this feedback to help several students at the same time, as they share conversational writing with their teacher, making the use of instructional time more efficient and interesting than one-on-one conferencing. Students invariably are curious about fellow students' writing, although they are usually uninterested in models of writing presented to them from outside the group. Furthermore, the group writing provides interaction and feedback from fellow students as well as the instructor, allowing students to draw on their strengths as speakers and social beings to develop writing fluency.
Basic writers' problems with written English generally involve both reading and writing. They do not follow written directions well, nor are they comfortable reading their own writing, which makes it almost impossible for them to revise productively. When such students are asked to read what they have written on the computer screen, they often read instead what is in their heads, ignoring many of the details on the screen; (2) This seriously impairs their ability to revise because, as Flower, Hayes, et al. point out, "the reviser's ability to detect problems depends on her ability to provide an accurate representation of the text itself, separate from her own internal representation of meaning"(1986,p.32). ENFI encourages the participants to read both their own and others' writings carefully, so that their written responses will make sense to the group. If many of the words on the screen come from their peers and teacher, the students cannot rely on the words in their heads and must look at the screen for all of their information about what is happening. This situation is analogous to a conversation,
when students must pay attention to what others say and to what they say themselves in order to keep up with the flow of talk.
Important writing lessons can be tucked into a casual conversation on the ENFI system:
Perhaps the word context best sums up what ENFI can do for basic writers. They have written in a vacuum until now; writing has almost always been for the teacher, not for their peers. ENFI provides a context within which every word needs to fit and communicate. Because ENFI is slower than speech, immediate audience understanding cannot be taken for granted. Within the scrolling text, questions and responses--or sequences of statements--on a topic are often separated by other statements. Consequently, each message must be written with enough context so that the audience can understand it, even when the question that evoked a response has left the screen and is half forgotten, as in the following segment:
DIANE: I most hate to drive in the winter when it's sleeting. Does anyone here work and go to school? READY: YES DIANE: Where do you work, Ready? SUSAN: not yet I have to review some math Come to New England not I JOHN: That when its more fun DIANE: Do you mean it's more fun to work and go to school, John? READY: I'M A WAITER AT A CLUB. DIANE: Or do you mean it's more fun to drive in sleet?
In a conversation, the feedback would be more rapid, so each person would be fairly sure what each statement referred to. But ENFI slows talk down, so statements must be clarified to remind the audience of the earlier context. As the instructor, I was able to ask John to clarify what he meant by "its more fun," reminding him that there were actually two topics being discussed and that I was not sure which one he was referring to. Furthermore, all the other students read my comment to John because it was part of the ongoing conversation that also included an interchange about Ready's job. This mixture of instruction and casual conversation takes advantage of the students' interest in the dialogue with their peers to lure them into reading and processing the instructor's comments about how to write.
Students follow directions on ENFI that they would have difficulty following if they were written on paper. For example, I started the first meeting of one basic writing class by typing each student's name at a terminal and just telling them where to sit. I then conducted the entire class on ENFI, explaining in writing what I wanted them to do, including instructions about how to use the computers:
DIANE: i am your teacher and this is english 002 you can read what I write and you can write to me to get a message sent, just press the key labled "F10" it is in the lower left hand side of your screen Tell me your names and where you come from for a start
As the session continued, students asked me on the network how to make capital letters, punctuate, and use the arrow keys. I responded on the network, and they were able to more or less follow my instructions, learning to use the computer while at the same time attending to the other conversations running slowly up the screen.
By the second session, the students were using the network to chat with one another, while at the same time responding to my questions. The slow queuing of the students' messages, slowed further by their hesitant typing, allowed dialogues within dialogues as their statements gradually scrolled up the screen. The
students discovered they could chat with one another when James wrote a direct comment to Burt:
JAMES: c'mon Burt, speak up! Burt responded: BURT: James, I did'nt know we were allow to type whatever we wanted.
Once this issue was clarified, the students used the network to get to know one another in between answering my questions:
BURT: Hello what store do you work at. DIANE: Do any of you think of school as a way to get into a career that you will like? JAMES: Hey Burt who are you talking to? DIANE: Tania seems to. What kind of career do you think you would enjoy, Tania? SNOOPY: THE ONLY REASON I READ WAS BECAUSE IT RAINED, JUST KIDDING DIANE: What beach did you go to? HELLO: James being a laborer is hard work. What does R & D stand for? BURT: I'm talking to Helen
Although each student's turn was brief and speech-like, the developing text became quite complex, especially when the students used the network to get to know one another between my questions. While Burt and Hello carried on a conversation about working, Burt also responded to James' question about who he was talking to. The confusion developed because Helen accidentally signed on as Hello. Attempts to clarify who Hello was continued, weaving through other discussions for the next 50 lines of text. At the same time, I was conversing with Tania about careers (the topic I was trying to establish that day) and with Snoopy about reading a homework assignment at the beach. Rather than being confused by this multi-channeled dialogue, the students paid close attention and were able to process and respond to more than one conversation at a time.
The students quickly adapted to "net-talking," and wrote back and forth about almost any topic I introduced to them. They would even write short paragraphs of five or six lines and send them to the network after a pre-writing discussion of a topic. But when I took them off the network and asked them to compose a "real" paragraph at the same computer they had been chatting at, they often froze. One student spent half an hour laboriously writing a few words, and then she deleted them. I asked her why she was writing so little now that she was off the network. The difference, she replied, was that the network writing was "just fooling around," but this writing "mattered." It mattered so much that she was unable to write.
Cynthia Selfe suggests in "An Apprehensive Writer Composes" that "high writing apprehension and lack of writing skills may be related" (1985, p. 93). Basic writers fear exposing their ignorance; anxiety about making mistakes can slow some of them down to producing a few painfully written and crossed out lines in an hour (Shaughnessy, 1977). The network offers certain advantages to these weak, apprehensive writers. First, it is acceptable to make mistakes. As an instructor, I deliberately make errors during the first few sessions to encourage rapid, uncorrected writing. Second, responsive writing is less avoidable than composition; if someone asks a question addressed to a student who does not respond, the questioner can ask again. It is difficult to avoid answering because of the social demands of the situation. Third, using computers offers students a new way of writing that may carry fewer negative associations than their previous writing experiences. Fourth, and possibly most important, the network makes each writer less visible as a person and, when we use false names, nearly anonymous. At the end of one group's first session, a student asked who "Diane" was. He had not recognized who in the room was the teacher. It has been my experience that basic writers fear computers less than they fear the English teacher in person, so this semi-anonymity is a real bonus.
If network writing only increased students' ease of generating written text, that would itself be promising as a first step. Hillocks cites a number of studies indicating that there is some relationship between fluency and quality (1986). So, increased fluency alone
might be a step toward better writing. After a few hours of use, students did seem to write more rapidly and easily while on the network, although the data from the two classes I taught in 1986 are ambiguous (see Table 1). One class shows real increase in lines of text generated, but the other does not.
Meeting: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Class 1: 191 194 239 246 256 252 274 345 Class 2: 272 167 120 272 205 273 265 308 Table 1: Number of lines of text generated
Class 1 started with twelve students, or two per work station, and ended up with eight, or at least one per work station; however, Class 2 started with six students, or one per work station, and ended up with four. So, the erratic numbers of lines for Class 2 may be, in part, a result of fewer than six students present and at times as few as three. The teacher consistently had about 60% of the lines, so the steady increase in lines for Class I represents a definite increase in line production for the students in that class, even as the number of students was declining.
But, net-talking is not composition, and just writing back and forth in short bursts, even with instructional intervention, might not be enough to justify a rather expensive new technological toy. In fact, merely writing down speech might ultimately become a hindrance rather than a help to developing writers because, as Halpern points out, good writing must function "without the supports of the speech context" (1984, p.353). Stotsky goes further, suggesting that "good essay writing is not an alternate but parallel form of spoken language; rather, it is a systematically different way of creating meaning" (1986, p. 287).
However, just as the gap between speech and writing is narrowed by interactive writing on the network (Peyton and Batson, 1986), the gap between generating written text and composition may also be narrowed by using ENFI capabilities. As students wrote on the network, I involved them in structured pre-writing
activities ranging from a party with Captain Kirk on the Planet Pluto to a discussion of revision. Mediating the discussion through ENFI, I was able to keep them focused on topic, encourage them to develop ideas by continual questioning about their statements, and urge them to explore and display the connections between various ideas. The students completed these discussions by writing individually at their computers or on paper.
We then put these drafts on the network, one at a time, so that the entire group could participate in producing a joint revision which I entered at my work station while they gave oral input. I started by suggesting expansions to add clarity and detail, and gradually involved students in block moves to reorganize and focus the text. Soon, they were asking me to move chunks of text all over the place to see how they looked. We then composed transitions to tie the revised text into a smooth whole. The last stage, on a separate day, was group proofreading for errors. This process allowed the classes to move from collaborative dialogue through individual writing and back to collaborative reading and revision, strongly reinforcing the goal of writing for other people.
The ENFI system thus offers bridges between speech and writing, and between writing and composition. ENFI allows writing teachers to converse with their students in writing; model correct writing; create a "real" context for writing; and intervene in the seamless process of pre-writing, writing, and revision; all while addressing the communication needs of real people--the members of the network.
Research is needed to study the links between the written conversations on ENFI and the overall quality, attention to audience, focus, vocabulary, and syntax of the compositions the participants eventually produce. Future research could examine whether, how, and to what degree participants' writing moves beyond expressive, interactive dialogue into the more formal patterns of composition.
Since Diane Thompson wrote this article, Trent Batson and his colleagues at Gallaudet University, the creators of ENFI, have changed the reference for this acronym to "Electronic Network for Interaction." See Marshall Kremers' article in this issue of Computers & Composition for more information on ENFI.
(1) My students usually typed in one or more short bursts of words; the average student turn for two classes over a 10-week quarter was 1.34 lines. Because, on ENFI, as little as one word may constitute a line, this count tends to overestimate the amount of writing in any given turn. (2) For the problems basic writers have in seeing their writing, refer to the following articles:
Laurence, Patricia. (1975). Error's endless train: Why students don't perceive errors. Basic Writing, 2, 23 42.
Bartholomae, David. (1980). The study of error. College Composition and Communication, 31, 253-269. (3) Batson and Peyton have been doing such research at Gallaudet and are finding some positive results (oral communication). However, the issues may be different for basic writers who are not hearing impaired.
Chafe, Wallace L. (1982). Integration and involvement in speakinwriting, and oral literature. In Deborah Tannen (Ed.), Spokand written language: Exploring orality and literacy. NorwooNJ: Ablex.
Flower, Linda, Hayes, John R., Carey, Linda, Schriver, Karen, and Stratman, James. (1986). Detection, diagnosis, and tstrategies of revision. College Composition and Communication, 27(1), 16-55.
Halpern, Jeanne. (1984). Differences between speaking and writiand their implications for teaching. College Composition and Communication, 25(3), 345-57.
Hillocks, George Jr. (1986). Research on written composition: Ndirections for teaching. Urbana, IL: ERIC.
Peyton, Joy Kreeft, & Batson, Trent. (1986). Computer networking: Making connections between speech and writing. ERIC/ CLL News Bulletin, 10(1), 1, 5-7.
Selfe, Cynthia. (1985). An apprehensive writer composes. In MiRose (Ed.), When a writer can't write. New York: Guilford.
Shaughnessy, Mina. (1977). Errors and expectations: A guide for tteacher of basic writing. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stotsky, Sandra. (1986). On learning to write about ideas. College Composition and