7(1), November 1989, pages 49-63

Literacy Theory in the Classroom:
Computers in Literature and Writing

Helen J. Schwartz

The study of literature and writing is coming together in new and interesting ways in current theory and research, and computer use can provide a way of integrating these new ideas in classroom practice. In literary theory, poststructuralism insists on the role of the reader in interpretation as well as on the ways that a community or culture sets the terms for interpretation (McCormick, Waller & Flower, 1987; Tompkins, 1988). Interest in culture--both the reader's and the writer's--has broadened the focus from the New Critics' intensive focus on the literary work itself to a wider view that invites the work of new writers into the canon of privileged texts. Publishers now tout nontraditional textbooks (the nonwhite or nonmale anthology), and courses can focus on nontraditional text forms in literature classes: letters, speeches, and travel literature, for example. In a new pedagogical vision for English studies, Robert Scholes asserts:

What students need from us . . . now is the kind of knowledge and skill that will enable them to make sense of their worlds, to determine their own interests, both individual and collective, to see through the manipulations of all sorts of texts in all sorts of media, and to express their own views in some appropriate manner. (1985, pp. 15-16)

Scholes' definition calls for English studies to deal with both the consumption of texts (reading) and the production of texts (writing). Research on reading and writing reflects this new kinship between the production and the consumption of texts. Shanahan and Lomax (1988) propose that an interactive theory, in which reading and writing affect the learning of one another, accounts for data better than a theory that shows influence only one way--that is, with reading as an aid to mastery of writing, or writing affecting reading. And recent studies of adult readers (Flower, 1988; Vipond & Hunt, 1984 ) suggest that reading is an active process sharing some of the same recursive, goal-setting behavior observed in essay writing (Flower & Hayes, 1981).

The implications of this research for the classroom include integrating the teaching of reading and writing--both published and unpublished texts, both imaginative and nonfiction texts. The computer can contribute to this integration by offering new ways to teach and learn whether we are talking about the ways of language (style and grammar) or the schema and conventions of text (genre for literature and creative writing, organization for essay reading and composition). In addition, computers can provide a new sense of community among readers and a shared exploration of cultural contexts. The following pages illustrate how these educational goals are already being reached in classrooms with existing software and hardware.

Text as Playground

Whether with word-processing or computer programs, students can study published texts with the same methods and access that are available for their own texts. Modeling writing is a time-honored tradition; students, whether in composition or creative writing classes, read and analyze professionally written texts. Students are expected to learn some of the conventions and techniques of writing, although their mastery is not expected to reach that of the expert. To counteract this situation, many teachers and some textbook publishers now feature or include student essays in the textbooks students read.

Computer programs that guide analysis of both student and professionally written texts can help students learn from models. These programs do not make students feel discouragingly inferior. Nonjudging programs with open-ended questions encourage exploration and playfulness, electronically produced text may be saved, deleted, printed, revised, or reformatted for use in a word processor. Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) offers structure, with a number of prewriting programs offering guides for invention. Many of the programs can be applied to the analysis of professional writing as well as student texts. PROTEUS (1986), HBJ WRITER (1986), William Wresch's WRITER'S HELPER: STAGE II (1988), and my own ORGANIZE (1988) all contain segments that can be applied to different modes of writing (description, analysis, cause-and-effect) or to persuasive writing.

Let me illustrate how these programs work by explaining the prewriting program ORGANIZE. As the map of the program shows (Figure 1), students must first answer questions about "Basic Terms" (topic, thesis, audience, and purpose).

[FIgure 1]

Figure 1: ORGANIZE map

The students must also indicate whether they are analyzing their own plans for writing, the published essay of another writer, or the manuscript of a fellow student. The four Basic Terms are then used within the sixteen tutorials in the four segments of ORGANIZE. A teacher doing a unit on comparison and contrast, for example, might want to assign a model professional essay. The teacher might have his/her students use the Comparison-and-Contrast tutorial in the Development segment of ORGANIZE to analyze this essay. Then students would be assigned to write an essay comparing and contrasting two items of a topic. ORGANIZE is designed to help students conceptualize their topic in terms of purpose, thesis, and audience. Once students have written their papers, peer groups can respond to the student essays by answering the tutorial questions on the basis of another student's paper (just as students analyzed the published essay earlier). Any discrepancies between the reader's perception and the writer's purpose become clear, and students' fears about critiquing the work of their peers are lessened.

Other computer programs described by Madden (1987) and Schwartz (1984) enable the student to analyze literature from a number of different perspectives. For example, SEEN (Schwartz, 1989) includes tutorials for analyzing characters, plotting in literature, and organizing essays. SEEN also allows an open exploration of student responses (each tutorial is accompanied by its own bulletin board on which students can read and comment on the work of other students). SEEN uses the student's chosen topic to individualize the generic questions which follow. A student who chooses to write about Romeo in Romeo and Juliet claiming that Romeo is "very impulsive" will see these choices embedded in the next question: "What does Romeo do in Romeo and Juliet that shows Romeo is very impulsive?" If he/she had chosen to claim that Ahab in Moby Dick was "willful," however, the question would have read: "What does Ahab do in Moby Dick that shows Ahab is willful?" The tutorials function as reading aids and as pre-writing prompts, because students realize that the questions apply to most works of literature. This realization causes students to pay more careful attention to the kinds of evidence needed to back up their topics as they read new texts (Schwartz, 1984).

The questions that help analyze published texts can also be used to analyze students' creative works. As with ORGANIZE, a peer who answers the questions in SEEN for another student's work provides feedback by documenting the way he/she has read the student text, rather than by directly critiquing it. For example, student Judy could run SEEN to analyze the character Brownstone in her classmate Raoul's short story. Instead of having to say what she liked or disliked, Judy could show Raoul what she inferred from the story. Raoul can then ask for more analysis by other students, or he can seek ways to modify his text to make a stronger impression or a different impression on his reader.

In addition, because SEEN is an authoring program, it allows teachers--or students--to modify tutorial questions, advice, or examples as well as to create totally new SEEN tutorials. Thus, after my students at Carnegie Mellon had worked with tutorials on analyzing characters, plotting, and analyzing essays, I asked them to write a tutorial. This tutorial's purpose was to teach other students how to read a text type of the student/author's choice. The most interesting tutorials were on "reading" love songs and advertisements. The same questions had to apply to all examples while yielding interesting responses, whether the user had chosen, for example, Donne's "Woman's Constancy," the Judds' "Mama, He's Crazy," or George Michael's "I Want Your Sex." The questions asked were often about reader response ("How would you feel if you were the audience in 'Mama, He's Crazy'?") or cultural context ("How is 'Mama, He's Crazy' typical of the issues and values in Country and Western music?"). Students worked together with both specific examples and abstract questions to test their metacognitive understanding of a text type they had chosen.

The preceding examples provide the structure of computer-assisted instruction which students apply to published texts, their manuscripts, or their classmates' manuscripts. Another technique of computer-assisted instruction involves direct manipulation of texts by the student, so that these texts--whether the student's or a published writer's--serve as a kind of simulation. Machine-readable texts can be created when students write their texts on a word-processing system, and published texts can be re-typed for the computer. These texts can also be entered with an optical character reader (OCR). The cost of this device ranges from $1,800 to $15,000, for the most sophisticated model.

Outlining is a favorite activity of teachers, though it is considered tedious in the extreme by many students. Using machine-readable text can involve the student more interactively in the outlining process. To produce text, a student writer can generate a list of ideas, reorder it, and then subordinate minor ideas to major ideas. He/she can also insert phrases to develop the points of a paragraph. To analyze text, students can list the main points in an essay from memory. Students can then reorder and add to this list of main points as they study the writer's organization and ordering of ideas in the text.

Another organizational technique asks students to find the thesis sentence in each paragraph of an essay in machine-readable form. Students are then asked to mark the thesis with an asterisk; then they are asked to delete other sentences in that paragraph. At the end of this activity, the student working with another author's text has gained practice in identifying thesis sentences and produced a d e facto abstract. By carrying out the same process with his/her own text, the student writer seeks (or provides) thesis sentences and gets an abstract of his/ her text as it exists, not as he/she imagines it to be.

Teachers can integrate the study and practice of style by using word processing techniques and style analyzers. For example, what makes narrative or description in belletristic writing different from narrative or description in the social sciences? Answering this question may involve a study of parts of speech. This information is provided with rough accuracy by WRITER'S WORKBENCH (Frase, Fox, Kiefer, & Smith, 1985). Such use of style analyzers considers computer output in terms of rhetorical purpose rather than implying that a universal norm obtains. Teachers need to be careful when students use style analyzers on their own work so that students realize that surface stylistic changes will probably not improve their papers substantively. Students also need to realize that style analyzers should not be used before the students themselves have made substantive changes in their papers-- in argument, amount of support, and organization, for example. Who wants to make such major changes after having spent time correcting spelling and style features?

A final kind of computer activity--interactive literature--helps students explore the conventions of literary texts. For poetry, Stephen Marcus' COMPUPOEM is based on a simple, imagistic model of poetry. The writer is asked to supply a noun, two modifying adjectives, a prepositional phrase, and a verb with two modifying adverbs. COMPUPOEM formats the input and produces a poem such as the following:

The snow
white, outlining
on the black branch
fleetingly, coldly

The program's interest lies in the questions and advice that Marcus provides: What differences does syntax make in the "poeticness" of a text? How can allusion pack in meaning? What can adverbial phrases add (as opposed to simple adverbs)? The larger questions COMPUPOEM asks address how culture-bound this model for poetry is: What modern poets sound anything like this? Do earlier Western poets ever sound like this? How does this formula compare to Haiku ? Another program could easily be written to generate the strictly structured Haiku form with randomly generated words (Masterman, 1971). The point of such a program would not be to create immortal Haiku but to consider the emotional charge of words in conjunction with each other.

With fiction, adventure games have introduced the concept of readers providing information or making choices that affect the outcome of the story. Children's programs, such as STORYTREE, by George Brackett (1984), introduce readers to the concept of plot consequence. Each STORYTREE text can have three kinds of screens: a story segment that simply progresses to the next screen; an option "branch," at which point the reader decides among several options ("go towards the river," "investigate the source of the growling"); or a "chance" branch, in which the reader is sent along one of several paths by a random choice of the computer. Whether the student works with examples provided in the program or makes his/her own story, he/she can experience and analyze the consequences of plotting as compared to coincidence. Because the story line is simple, a reader can explore different turnings, but he/she will probably tire of the exercise quickly.

More challenging to the user are some of the interactive fictions now being created with new hypertext programs. Let me first describe how hypertext works by comparing the way we read a regular, noninteractive printed text and a hypertext version of the same work. To make my point, I'll consider a special kind of text--a variorum edition of Hamlet, containing an edited text, a list of variations in different early editions, footnotes on word meanings, critical comments, as well as a bibliography and texts of sources Shakespeare may have used. A reader gains access to this information when he/she looks at the bottom of the page or, using his/her finger as a bookmark, turns to another section (perhaps using a table of contents or index first). A hypertext version of Hamlet could provide such aids more readily. By using a mouse to "click" on "hotspots" (designated by icons or a different color of text, for example), the reader could call up new windows of information overlaid on the play script (to act as footnotes, for example) or hypertext could save the reader's place (like a bookmark) while taking him/her to other sources of information. In addition, hypertext can interface with other media (such as video, slides, or sound) as well as call up other programs, such as a word processor. Having illustrated how hypertext works in a scholarly function, let us consider how this medium might affect the relationship between reader, text, and author.

Both literary theory and observations of writers tell us that readers create meaning in a recursive process (McCormick, Waller, & Flower, 1987; Vipond & Hunt, 1984), but the physical process of reading is generally linear: In reading a usual short story, we start with the title and continue in a fixed order through each paragraph or section. We may stop to check the name of a previously mentioned character or turn back to check a previous passage. Some unscrupulous readers may even skip ahead. So, even though our internal processes operate in a recursive and nonlinear fashion in order to create meaning, the structure of books has traditionally mandated that we turn the pages sequentially. Poststructuralist critics (Tompkins, 1988) and contemporary writers such as Borges and Calvino have been suggesting in their linear writing that the reader is part of the text. Hypertext, with its new organizations of text driven by the reader's choice, provides a medium that fits the message in contemporary theory.

Consider, for example, a hypertext adaptation of a Borges short story: "Forking Paths," by Stuart Moulthrop, using the program STORYSPACE on the Macintosh. The user opens at a segment of text numbered 001 and can move from there by using buttons (such as UP, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT) or by highlighting portions of text that function as "hot spots" to link with another text segment. Plot is discovered, driven by the choices of the user. I do not say "reader," because this example of interactive literature also allows the user to add texts and connections among texts. The experience is something like reading about Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, but the reader is able to add to it' "Forking Paths" simply uses the computer to implement the fictional principle embedded in Borges' story. Or does it? What are the "story" requirements of short stories? What are the principles on which plotting can be based? How does one write a hypertext story?

Text as Community

Computers can also support the notion of the interconnectedness of reader, text, and culture, whether the user is working with expository or imaginative writing, with student or published texts.

Theorists such as Kenneth Bruffee talk about the value of collaboration; they consider that knowledge is derived from a "conversation" of humankind (1984, 1986). The epistemological notion that knowledge is socially constructed means that writers and readers cannot function in a vacuum: There are no young, literate hermits. Ideas must be perceived in the context of a continuing conversation of ideas. Writers fare best when they hone their ability to analyze and anticipate the reading community's needs.

As computers gain in storage capacity and connectivity, they represent a valuable medium to support and encourage literacy as a community activity. Some programs, for instance, foster a collaborative environment. Prentice-Hall's COLLEGE WRITER allows students to imbed comments in texts that can be shared among free-standing computers or among students accessing the same hard disk. Teachers can assign peer review of student drafts or encourage students to add their comments to machine-readable versions of professional texts. Whoever has access to the textfile can add or read a comment. SEEN not only stores student ideas in response to tutorials, but also provides a bulletin board on which students can see and discuss the work of other students. Students can read the comments already there as well as add comments of their own. SEEN works on free-standing computers (with shared disks) or with a hard disk or a local area network (LAN) of computers. A network connects the computers in a classroom so that students can share work--whether they use a program such as SEEN or simply send their word-processed texts to each other for comment. In addition, one text can be displayed on all screens for group comment and collaboration.

New computer environments that take advantage of large information storage capacity provide exciting communities for student scholars. At the University of Southern California, the Jefferson Project, originally on the Constitution and related documents, makes available a centrally accessed library of machine-readable texts, along with a student program called the ELECTRONIC NOTEBOOK (Chignell & Lacy, 1988). This "notebook" has five sections: one for loading in the teacher's assignment, another for focus questions on the assignment (Figure 2), one for the student's ideas in word-processed texts, and sections in which the student stores excerpts from the machine-readable texts along with citations. Cross-references are provided by hypertext "hot spots" that can be selected to see additional information. Pressing a camera icon (Figure 3) allows the user to copy the text and references. Obtaining copies this way is easier, more accurate, and cheaper than making photocopies of the source texts.

[FIgure 2]

Figure 2: A screen showing the first four focus questions used in the prototype interface.

[FIgure 3]

Figure 3: A background screen showing the definition of equal protection.

New hypertext programs can create extensive shared communities that all members can have access to and add to. Robert Munro and his associates at the Jordanhill College of Education in Glasgow have created a microworld using FILEVISION on a Macintosh computer (Schwartz, 1987). Norbridge simulates a fictional town in Scotland, providing maps, textfiles, and a queriable database of information. Almost every map connects to a larger and more detailed map. Most screens have hot spots that can be clicked to bring up a more detailed map or information. The information screens contain statistics as well as paragraph-length descriptions of the place clicked. For example, if I'm looking for possible drug problems, I can query the database about which sections of Norbridge have the word "drug" in the description. (Note that I do not have to use a predesignated "keyword" in the search, as with some databases.) Or if a district needs a new school, I can click on increasingly detailed maps--I can enter the area, a subdivision, or the school itself. After entering the school, I can enter the principal's office, open a file drawer, and click on a file with specifications for the new school or on a file with letters from citizens about possible sites. Student writers can use the microworld to explore a problem (What are the possible sites for the school? Which is best?) and add information to the microworld. (For example, they might write letters to be added to the file regarding possible school sites.)

At the College of Wooster in Ohio, students explore the notion of intertextuality--the way that texts exist in a conversation of literary forebears and other sources of intellectual history--using a hypertext application created for MS-DOS machines by Guide (Havholm & Stewart, 1988). Students gain access to the text of Dryden's "Secret Love," as well as to a contemporary response in Samuel Pepys' diary entry of March 2, 1667, and to excerpts from Milton's Paradise Lost and Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society. They can see annotations by selecting hot spots marked in the text. And as the semester progresses, students can research background on the science of the time, fashion in the middle 1660s, dramatic conventions, attitudes toward marriage, and the understanding of sovereignty. Students contributed the fruits of their research in essays to the Guide-supported hypertext in an emerging scholarly conversation. Work with this program raises questions of how intertextuality can work forward, because a reader from a different age approaches a text bringing references wholly unknown to the text's author.

Hypertext environments allow students and teachers to access materials with an ease and an integration not possible before. The Shakespeare Project at Stanford University (Friedlander, 1988) integrates the reading of text and background material, writing about the text and background material, viewing several versions of a scene, and simulating the staging of a scene. While viewing a scene, students can choose another study aid: annotation, notes on the actors' performances, and choices among variant versions of the text, and so forth. Or, students can switch quickly from one version of a scene to another performance of the same scene. Students can add their own annotations, thus contributing to the literary community. And student texts can be multi-media. Students can insert visual quotations from film or animations into their texts, much as an integrated program used for business writing can use text, graphics, and spreadsheet tables in one document.


When administrators readily agree to fund computer use in English classrooms, they may be motivated to promote computer literacy as well as the type of literacy defined here. All students take English 101 (or the equivalent on your campus), regardless of gender, race, major, or socio-economic status. Widespread use of computers in English classes helps to guarantee access to computers to a cross-section of students, a strategy especially important when all students are paying computer fees. However, teachers need support in learning how to use computers well--including reduced teaching loads or compensation for learning the logistics of computer use and for understanding how applications fit student needs and curricular goals. The applications described in this article support a vision of educational gain; but unless teachers are comfortable with the medium and able to adapt computer applications to their purposes, time required for teaching the mechanics of computer use can take time away from pedagogical concepts and practice.

My argument here, however, has been that the time and the considerable expense involved in computer use can be justified as a way of translating current theory and research into effective classroom practice. The authenticity and power of these environments, whether they are scholarly communities or microworlds, come from the twin notions of text as playground and text as community . Text in print need not be immutable; text in performance need not be ephemeral. Text includes graphics, animation, sound--all of these are now easily available for inquiry and analysis. Intertextuality can include references to the conversation preceding publication of a text, and it can also include what the reader and his/her peers bring through a modern perspective. And hypertext provides a playground for discovering such theoretical notions while adding to the conversation.

Authenticity and power are powerful arguments for computer use, but such technology also raises new problems. Oddly enough, the problem of plagiarism that many teachers have feared is rarely reported by those observing collaborative communities. The problems I would expect deal with readers, especially slower learners, getting lost in the data, as well as with students succumbing to groupthink via collaboration. It is important to note and report such problems because amelioration may then come from modifications in hardware and software. However, the final answer is not in the computers, but in the people who use them and the theoretical concepts the computers support. The questions of literacy in the classroom remain the same with computers: First, what are the educational goals? And only secondarily, what are the means?

Helen J. Schwartz is a Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.


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