7(2), April 1990, pages 83-86

Book Review

The Electronic Text:
Learning to Write, Read, and Reason with Computers

by William Costanzo (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, 1989, 300 p., ISBN 0-87778-208-3).

Reviewed by Ken Autrey

In The Electronic Text, William Costanzo asserts that computers have the potential to change our thinking and communicating "in fundamental ways" (p. vii). He wants his book to be an "investigation of those changes" in reading, writing, and reasoning. Displaying an impressive range of his knowledge, Costanzo's book is a valuable guide for English teachers and media specialists who have an interest in instructional applications for computers.

No other source I know of links reading theory, composition theory, and artificial intelligence with recent computer-related developments in each area. The Electronic Text shifts impressively between broad pedagogical issues and specific software applications. Furthermore, Costanzo's expertise carries him with apparent ease from the elementary classroom where computerized drills teach basic sentence building to medical schools where expert systems such as MYCIN teach sophisticated diagnostic skills. Such breadth might have made this yet another introductory survey of computer applications, but Costanzo's keen explanations and selective assessments of software show considerable depth.

The book's seven chapters move methodically from reading to writing to reasoning. After an introductory chapter, "The Varieties of Educational Computing," the author turns to theories of reading and the computer applications that complement such theories. Then, a chapter on interactive fiction shows how this computer-based genre uniquely combines reading and writing skills. Chapters Four and Five concern word-processing technologies and other writing aids. Next come chapters on programming for English and on artificial intelligence. Costanzo's afterword offers a glimpse into the future, where speech synthesis, CD-ROM technology, and hypermedia will likely become more prominent. Print and software bibliographies follow each chapter, and there is a cumulative list of each bibliography at the end. A "Directory of Software Publishers" and a thorough index complete the book's impressive apparatus.

Early in Chapter One, Costanzo states, "My thesis will be that no instructional software is likely to be truly effective unless it integrates our knowledge of three basic areas: subject matter, pedagogy, and technology." There is nothing revolutionary in this argument. It is implicit in a number of other sources, such as Cynthia Selfe's Computer Assisted Instruction in Composition: Create Your Own. But the author demonstrates this concept skillfully, returning to it regularly as he considers various software types. He cites the Educational Technology Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts as exemplifying this trio of complementary viewpoints.

Chapter Two, "Reading the Electronic Text," suitably illustrates the author's merging of pedagogical theory with computer-based practice. It begins by juxtaposing Frank Smith's "psychoanalytic view" of reading with Jeanne Chall's emphasis on "decoding skills," theoretical perspectives that lead to different types of reading software. Costanzo then examines closely two representative programs: STICKYBEAR READING (for young learners) and SMART EYES (for older readers). In each case, he explains how they work, mentioning their strengths and weaknesses and linking them with the aforementioned reading theories. A brief section on the computer as a tool for reading literature and a longer section on the mechanical constraints of reading at a computer screen conclude the 35-page chapter. Twenty-nine print sources and eight software packages appear in the accompanying bibliography. Subsequent chapters are similarly structured.

Costanzo's assessments of representative software provide a fair survey of the currently available programs in language studies. Furthermore, his explanations are generally linked with larger issues. The chapter on "Writing Aids" not only mentions WRITER'S WORKBENCH, HOMER, GRAMMATIK II, and several other revision packages, but also takes up problems with this type of software. Throughout the book, he maintains an awareness that not only sound learning theory should guide software development, but also that the computer's capabilities inevitably help direct learning theory. Those who are cognizant of this two-way street are more likely to develop thoughtful computer applications.

Costanzo is not afraid to be critical of inferior software, but he goes out of his way to provide a balanced view even of materials that many knowledgeable educators have found suspect. While mentioning the limitations of drill and practice routines, he goes on to say, "Grammar programs come in different shades. In fact, the range covers a broad swath of the spectrum between rote learning and linguistic exploration" (p. 12). He proceeds to review a couple of mediocre commercial packages and then discusses GRAMMAR LAB, which he views favorably as an "interactive laboratory in which students may investigate the complexities of English grammar with guidance available at all times" (p. 15).

Among the seven chapters, readers with some computer experience are likely to find the least new information in the chapter on word processing. The brief summary of research here may be useful, but the 12-page section on characteristics of word processing is probably too elementary for the initiated and too generic for the novice. Those who have followed the literature on writing and computers in recent years will also find much familiar material in the chapter on "Writing Aids." This is not so much a weakness as a reason to view the book as a guide to be used selectively. In fact, Costanzo himself writes that, "[not] all readers will want to read straight through" (p. xi) and suggests that some may wish to skip sections on CAI, reading theory, or programming.

The author writes well enough that even his explanations of commonplace phenomena are often engaging. Here he is discussing cursor movement:

There is something almost magical about the cursor. Watching it glide across the darkened screen, scattering a trail of words along its path, is much like watching a moving finger, or the lighted tip of a moving wand. It marks the advancing tip of the text, the point of growth, a bud for the blossoming of language. (p. 93)

There is something refreshing about this blend of the organic and the technical. In fact, the book is peppered with thoughtful metaphors. Concerning the limitations of HBJ WRITER, the author asserts, "I felt as if my power tool were tethered to the workbench with a one-foot chain" (p. 156). Later, he usefully compares programming to knitting: "An experienced hand, like an assembler, knows how to translate the notation into the detailed interplay of fingers, yarn, and needle to produce the proper stitch" (p. 170). In the "Afterword," Costanzo reviews metaphors that appear in the book (computer as delivery system, flight simulator, tool, etc.), examining the assumptions behind each.

Inevitably, a book of this sort must reflect the interests of the author and cannot be comprehensive. Some readers are likely to be put off by the lengthy explanations of programming in BASIC and PROLOG. Others may wish for more emphasis on networking or authoring languages. But The Electronic Text covers a remarkably broad range of topics, balancing the expertise of the author with the needs of the tenderfoot reader.

One troubling aspect of the book is the number of errors in documentation. The WRITING ENVIRONMENT project is first identified with the University of South Carolina, later with the University of North Carolina. My own checking--by no means comprehensive--turns up items by Robert Berwick, Lester Faigley, and John Pufahl that are incorrectly cited in the cumulative bibliography. And some sources in chapter bibliographies do not appear in the cumulative list. Several such problems would be understandable in any book with extensive accompanying apparatus, but Costanzo's otherwise methodical work makes this sprinkling of inconsistencies particularly puzzling.

Despite these minor problems, I find William Costanzo's book engaging and readable, unique for its consideration of three complementary areas that concern English teachers daily: reading, writing, and reasoning. He combines a full awareness of the current computerized landscape with a vision of where we are likely to travel in the future.

Ken Autrey teaches composition and poetry workshops at Francis Marion College in South Carolina.