8(3), August 1991, pages 39-49

Interacting with Basic Writers in the Computer Classroom

Karen Nilson D'Agostino and Sandra D. Varone

The ability to interact in new ways with students while they compose and revise may be among the most important changes that computers bring to the teaching of basic writing. By giving teachers access to their students' work in progress, computers can create new opportunities for individual instruction in the writing classroom. That this instruction can take place while students write seems to have particular advantages for basic writers.

In her forthcoming review of eighteen studies on the effects of word processing on college basic writers, Pamela Gay (1991) points out that "left on their own, basic writers are not likely to take full advantage of word processing to ease composing and revising" (p. 74). Gay's analysis shows that mere access to a computer does not empower basic writers--that basic writers need to "read and write and talk about their reading and writing" (p. 77). She calls on teachers and researchers to describe in detail the environment or "learning context" in which computers are used to teach basic writing and to explore ways to engage students in the interactive processes of reading and writing.

In this article, we describe a classroom research project that explores an important feature of the "learning context" of our computer-integrated basic writing classes: verbal response to on-screen student text. We explain the method we used for collecting information from our students, a method we designed during the 1988 Summer Institute on Teacher-Research at the Center for the Study of Writing in New Jersey, and go on to consider how teachers can work more effectively with basic writers in a computer classroom where writing practice and oral feedback are emphasized.

The Setting

Our classroom research project was conducted at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey. The students who participated in the project were enrolled in two sections of English 095: Fundamentals of Writing. The students in these classes represented the diverse population of our institution: recent high school graduates whose scores on the New Jersey Basic Skills College Placement Test (NJBSCPT) were below the cutoff for entry into first-year composition, adults returning to college after many years of absence, students for whom English is a second language, and some students with learning disabilities. The most common characteristic of this group is their inexperience with written language--these are novice writers whose inexperience and misconceptions about the writing process itself often interfere with learning and teaching.

Our basic writing course is process-oriented: students compose whole essays from the start and use the feedback and responses of readers as an aid to revision. This approach gives students, especially basic writers, a clearer sense of how writers work. It encourages them to expand, clarify, and refine a piece of writing over a series of drafts. Our classes of twenty students meet one day per week for three hours, which provides ample class time for composing and revising. This setting enables us to make writing and responding to whole, student-generated texts the basis for all classroom activity and instruction.

The basic writing classes selected for this project were completely computer-integrated, that is, they were taught exclusively in a computer classroom. The classroom is designed to allow the instructor freedom of movement and access to students as they write. It is a circular room with twenty-four stand-alone IBM PS/2 computers (each with its own printer) arranged in clusters of four around the periphery. We do not provide students with supplemental software such as prewriting programs or style checkers. The word-processing program, PFS: PROFESSIONAL WRITE, is stored on hard drives and students maintain their own text files on floppy disks.

All word processing instruction is provided in the context of the writing process. We teach the basic functions (inserting text, saving, printing, retrieving files) to the class in the first few sessions, and we teach more advanced functions (cutting and pasting, using the spell checker, finding and replacing text) to individuals or small groups as the need for this information comes up in their writing. Mastery of the word-processing program is facilitated through a hands-off policy where students perform all keyboard functions themselves while we guide them with verbal directions. We encourage students to share their growing knowledge about word processing with their classmates; and we believe that this collaboration helps set the stage for sharing writing and asking for feedback.

After teaching in this environment for several semesters, we began to see that feedback and instruction were taking place more often at the computer screen rather than in traditional response groups or through our written comments. This change seemed to have an effect on the way our students perceived themselves as writers, while it changed our own role as instructors. This last observation became the focus of our investigation.

Teachers Collaborating with Students

We began our project at the start of the Fall 1988 semester by posing two primary questions:

In our first class meeting, we invited students to take part in a classroom research project where both the teacher and the students would keep a record of the interactions that took place as they wrote in class. The teacher's record would reflect the number of interactions that occurred during a given class period and the nature of those interactions (questions asked, skills reviewed, topics discussed) on a student-by-student basis. The students would keep an interaction log in which they would describe a verbal interaction of their choices that took place with the instructor while writing at the computer. These logs would be extended writings for which we would provide 20-30 minutes of class time. Students would respond to the following questions as they felt they were applicable:

We asked students to complete an interaction log three times during the semester, in weeks six, eight, and eleven of a fifteen-week term. Each entry would reflect the writing and interaction that took place in the previous class meeting; for example, the log for week six would describe the class interventions and interactions of the fifth week of the term.

By acting as our partners in the classroom research process, our students not only helped us to gather information, but also experienced a new kind of opportunity to think, write, and participate in class. As Goswami (1987) notes, "Working with teachers to answer real questions provides students with intrinsic motivation for talking, reading, and writing and has the potential for helping them achieve mature language skills" (p. vi). Each student wrote at least one paragraph and some wrote as much as a page (200 words) in each log entry. As students recreated their version of a particular interaction, they had the opportunity to rephrase and reinterpret what they were learning about writing, which in itself promotes critical reasoning (Berthoff, 1981). They could also let us know where they were having problems and what they wanted us to address in future interactions.

The Kinds of Interactions

As the project got underway, one of the first things that became apparent was the wide variety of skills and topics we covered in any given class period. The topics we discussed with our students ranged from higher-order concerns such as focus and development to lower-order concerns such as comma usage and spelling. We would normally have introduced these skills and topics to students gradually during the term as they are sequenced in the curriculum, but instruction in the computer class seemed to be driven by each student's need for information and by the text itself, rather than by a teacher-determined schedule. Students were asking questions and receiving information, support, and computer instruction as they needed it, not when a syllabus dictated it.

Second, we saw that the focus, length, and intensity of our exchanges seemed to be related to the stage of the composing/revising process in which the intervention took place. In other words, our interactions seemed to change as a piece of writing evolved, so that we were assuming a range of instructional roles as our students wrote.

In the early stages of the composing process, for example, we acted as interested readers--offering support and encouragement, reacting to ideas as honestly as possible from our own experiences, and inviting dialogue. Our comments were usually quick, informal, and primarily focused on content and meaning. For example, we might offer encouragement ("What a vivid description! I can see and hear the confusion in that restaurant") or ask students to clarify and explain ("I'm not exactly sure why you got annoyed with the customer at this point. What was he doing?").

These brief exchanges were often enough to help many students to get started and to keep going. For example, an informal comment in the invention stages of an essay ("I know what you mean...I had a boss like that once") served to inspire Kimberly to ask a series of questions which she wrote about in her interaction log:

Kimberly: Log
When [the instructor] came up to my computer she read where I was and said that she once worked for somebody like that. Thats all she said and walked away. Right after she left I tried to imagine that person she said she once worked for in relation to the person I once worked for. If she had the same attitude, if she was well-liked, if she thought she knew everything, if she disliked her as much as I did . . . I tried to explain this person whom I dislike very much the best way I could.

Comments such as these were our first indication that interactions in the computer classroom did not have to be extensive--even the briefest of comments could be powerful when they were delivered while a student was writing.

Once students had a working draft, we began to comment more specifically on development, organization, and clarity of ideas. Although we continued to serve as interested readers, we also began to act as resource persons, making students aware of the techniques and options available to them as writers faced with solving particular rhetorical problems. During these more extensive interactions, we would often sit next to students and guide them through the word-processing functions that could help them to revise their work and to experiment with textual changes that went beyond surface correction.

For example, a common characteristic of basic writing is underdeveloped text. To encourage students to work on expanding ideas, we might illustrate how empty space can be inserted in a text that lacks development simply by using the ENTER key in the Insert mode. When the space appears on the screen, we ask the student to expand the paragraph with appropriate details. The inserted space acts as a clear visual cue to the student, indicating more information or details are needed in the text.

An interaction with Rachel illustrates this:

Rachel: Draft 1
As I walked into his room I saw his body lying in bed, although it was not my sweetheart. I hovered over his body leaving a puddle of tears. In my heart I knew he wasn't going to make it.

When the instructor read the above on-screen text, she pointed out the phrase "although it was not my sweetheart" and asked the student to clarify it by adding more details in the paragraph. Rachel moved the cursor to the end of the first sentence and inserted a few line spaces after it. She then expanded on the idea in question:

Rachel: Draft 2
As I walked into his room I saw his body lying in bed. Although it did not look like him with the tubes in his nose and the machines hooked up to him helping him breathe. It was almost like the picture of his heart beat on the machine was his eyes and the sound of the beeping was his voice. All of a sudden he was taken over by the machine. I hovered over this body leaving a puddle of tears. I was hoping he would come back to his own self, but in my heart I knew he wasn't going to make it.

By inserting empty space into the original paragraph, Rachel could see where she needed to clarify her text. Although she created a sentence fragment in the process, the revision of detail was a significant one, more considered and more descriptive. However, Rachel's response to this exchange, which she wrote about in her interaction log, surprised us:

Rachel: Log
[The instructor] made a comment that I did not understand. She told me to add more detail and make the paragraph more clear. At first I sayed ok but then I found it hard because first I thought it was clear and second if I tryed to add more detail I had to try to think of things that I might have seen or thought of at that time. I started to elaborate on what his body looked like although I did not like the way it came out. Its not that I don't like the new paper I am just self concouse about the stuff I write and I need an opinoin to really feel good about it. When I first started to write the event paper I put feeling into it, but maybe I am wrong. I first thought that I should like the paper, for it to be good but now I think it depends on other peoples impression. I don't know. I liked writing about this event because it was something important to me and I wanted to express that.

A follow-up conference revealed that although Rachel had revised her text effectively as a result of the interaction with her instructor, she was uncomfortable with the experience of adding details to a scene that was so painful for her to live through in the first place. We saw that even when our suggestions are in keeping with the spirit and intent of the piece, some students may avoid making changes to their texts for reasons not apparent to the instructor.

Rachel's experience also suggested an important difference between in-process response and written comment. Had the comment, "add more detail," been written in the margins of a finished draft, Rachel would have had the option to ignore it. Interaction with students while the text is taking shape on-screen is not only more immediate, but also it is often more compelling.

As students moved into the final drafts, our instructional role continued to expand. We began offering editorial suggestions to encourage students to proofread their work systematically--a skill that is most important for basic writers. One proofreading strategy that seemed to help many of our students identify errors is a technique we call a sentence spread. Here, we simply ask students to insert one-or-two-line spaces between sentences and make a printed copy of the text so each sentence appears on a separate line. Students say this format seems to help them proofread for punctuation and to see sentence variety and structure more clearly.

This technique, as simple as it sounds, is one of the most practical and useful tools that the computer brings to the basic-writing classroom. Shaughnessy (1977) notes that basic writers are not likely to learn how to proofread their own work effectively if teachers continue to mark and identify errors rather than teach students to see these errors for themselves. The sentence spread technique offers a convenient and effective starting point for giving students the responsibility of identifying errors.

However, interacting with basic writers to identify and correct errors is still a complex task that teachers need to consider carefully, especially in the computer classroom where students may feel obligated to make immediate changes to their texts. Even when we are acting as editors, we must remember that, in Shaughnessy's words,

. . . [our] purpose is to recommend or prescribe in the interest of the student's purpose or intent, to find out through questions, through collaborative rephrasing, through talk, what the purpose is and to be wary of substituting [our] stylistic preferences for those of the students, riding (and writing) roughshod over the student's meaning . . . as if thought were merely the means for eliciting grammatical forms. (p. 84)

The Effects of Interaction

Overall, the interaction logs revealed that in the computer classroom we have become involved in the composing and revising aspects of our students' writing in ways that have not been available to us in the traditional classroom. This increased involvement has not only helped us to meet some of the special needs of basic writers more effectively, but it has also alerted us to some potential problems.

Before we began keeping interaction logs, we were aware that we were not spending any time sitting still in the computer classroom; instead, we were moving continually from one student to the next, answering questions, offering support, and checking on their writing in progress. Because our classes meet only one day a week, we knew that it was important to get to everyone at least once in the three-hour period. The process of keeping the logs, however, helped us to judge how successful we were in getting around to all of our students.

Next, we became aware that in the computer setting, as in the regular classroom, some students demand more time and attention from us while others try to fade into the background by hiding behind their computers. This can be easily forgotten in all the activity and excitement of the computer classroom. The conscious effort of recording the different kinds of interactions reminded us that we must take care to encourage some students to become more independent and others to seek feedback periodically.

We also saw that in-process intervention is not always welcomed and may serve to distract the writer in some cases. Even if students know that they have the option of telling teachers to "go away for now," some students will not say it. In an environment where collaboration and reader feedback are encouraged from the start, however, we have been able to keep these intrusions to a minimum. We have learned to read facial expression and body language, and we try to time our interventions appropriately. When we do intervene, we take care to respond to the question at hand or to the problems that the partial on-screen text presents and to refrain from scrolling through a student's text uninvited.

Perhaps most importantly, we began to see how our students perceived and acted on our interventions. This informal conference approach seems to encourage students to view their writing as fluid, dynamic, and changeable. Responding to student writing while it is in process, therefore, may be especially beneficial for basic writers, who tend to regard a piece of writing as finished when they hand it in for formal response (Shaughnessy, 1977).

Moreover, because basic writers typically do not understand what we want them to do when we ask them to revise (Perl, 1980), and because we know that merely supplying them with a computer cannot teach this (Gay, 1991), interacting with students while they compose at the computer gives us the opportunity to teach revision in a concrete and timely fashion. This is one of the most exciting advantages that computers bring to the basic-writing classroom, but it is an advantage that must be handled with skill and sensitivity.

This last point is of particular importance to the basic-writing teacher who wants to foster a sense of control and independence in students. We had always been careful not to take the keyboard out of the students' hands, even when we were teaching them a new word-processing function. Even so, some students perceived our suggestions as orders (instead of options) that they dutifully and sometimes grudgingly carried out, as in Bob's case:

Bob: Log
When I called you over I thought that I would be done, but finishing a paper on the first draft is very rare. In [my paper] I used a sentence kind of repeatedly. I thought that it would have been on the funny side if I would have left it in, but since you said change it, I did. The sentence sounded a little bit better, but the funny effect was gone. It sounded more intelligent. I feel the change was for the better, I guess, and helped it from not sounding so stupid . . .

Perhaps by discussing with Bob his reasons for their petition in his text, the instructor might have been able to help him achieve the "funny effect" that he had intended. Before we as teachers offer suggestions for revision, we must understand the writer's intent so that our comments help the writer to move the piece closer to the desired meaning, tone, and purpose. We must learn to ask questions, listen carefully before we make suggestions, and realize the student's perception of the in-process exchange may be very different from the teacher's perception.

The key to successful in-process intervention, therefore, is to respect students as writers at work. Teachers need to think carefully about when to step in and when to stand back, asking questions about the writer's intent while at the same time providing suggestions that challenge students to take some risks in their writing. Ultimately, however, we must communicate that the piece belongs to the writer. Intervention is a delicate balancing act, but when it works, as many of the logs revealed, students begin to reread and rethink their ideas and seem to become more invested in their work.

Laura, for example, interacts with her text in a way that is characteristic of a more experienced writer--asking questions about the text and making plans:

Laura: Log
First you explained to me that I needed more detail about myself . . . you asked me where I worked, how long I'd been there, etc. Now reading this over my last sentence is just thrown in there! Before it sounded ok. I don't know maybe that sentence should be all alone. Make that one statement a paragraph all by itself. I'm not sure. You also mentioned that one of my characters, the one that died should be my last character. I agree, I wish I'd thought of that. Also we started to draw a corolation with my characters and alcohol but I think we got side tracked. That would probably be a whole new story. I really like what I . . . I have some other great ideas, but I just don't know how to approach them . . .


Our classroom investigation helped us to look closely at ourselves and the basic writers in our computer environment, making it possible for us to better understand the impact the computer has had on the way we work with our students. On-screen response can be an exciting and useful tool for teaching writing in the computer classroom, providing particular benefits for basic writers if teachers are willing to adapt to the new environment.

Although we are able to meet students' individual needs more efficiently in the computer classroom, we often do not follow the sequence of the standard syllabus, so we need to be even more aware of the goals of our basic-writing curriculum. This often means working to strike a balance between attending to specific student questions and concerns, and guiding them toward developing workable strategies and approaches for effective writing.

Moreover, teaching in a writing-intensive computer environment requires the flexibility to shift roles--to deal with twenty different writers who are simultaneously clicking away at their keyboards and asking twenty different questions. Managing such a classroom while providing on-screen response that is consistent and appropriate to the needs of both the student and the text requires practice. We need training programs for teachers, not unlike the series of workshops developed by LeBlanc and Moran (1989) for first-year composition instructors at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where teachers are learning new ways to read and react to student writing at the computer.

Teacher intervention at the computer, where students have the ability to make immediate changes to their texts, can be powerful--perhaps even more powerful with some novice writers, who might be inclined to give up control of the text to the expert. In-process intervention, therefore, is a delicate and complex task that requires a skilled responder who is sensitive to the student's perception of the exchange, who helps students to improve their texts while preserving their individual voices.

Karen Nilson D'Agostino and Sandra D. Varone teach English composition at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey. In 1988 they received an EDUCOM/NCRIPTAL Distinguished Curriculum Innovation Award for their project, "Making Word Processing Work for Basic Writers."


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