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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue D ::: December 1999

The Assumptions We Make: How Learners and Teachers Understand Writing

by Mary Russell
As a teacher of basic writing, I was often puzzled by my students' beliefs about how writers write. Many, for example, believed that "good" writers never misspelled words, understood punctuation, and were able to produce text in finished form, with everything right the first time. My interest in these beliefs and their effects on learners — often characterized by teachers as writing anxiety — was the impetus for my doctoral dissertation project. My project focused on the hypothesis that teaching writing to adults requires that teachers do more than encourage learners to take risks and lose their fears, and that a first step to effective instruction was to examine the assumptions both teachers and learners brought to this task. To test that hypothesis, I interviewed teachers on teaching writing and learners on the relative importance of mechanics, process, and ideas about form and structure. The study was designed as a collaborative effort, with myself as researcher, three teachers of adults, and 18 learners who were native speakers of English. The teachers used systematic inquiry — a form of teacher research that provides an ordered way of analyzing classroom events — to examine their own practice. I met with the teachers regularly both inside and outside their classrooms throughout one school year. I was a participant observer in the classrooms, and the facilitator of the inquiry during our meetings. This article focuses on what I learned from the teacher and learner interviews, classroom observations, and group discussions held at the beginning of the project.

Many adult basic literacy learners believe that their writing skills are not adequate (Fagan, 1988; Gambrell & Heatherington, 1981; Smith-Burke, 1987). They come to the task of learning to write with a mental model of writing that emphasizes form rather than content, produces anxiety about making mistakes, and assumes that writers use their personal experience as data. In contrast, teachers who understand that writing is a complex process often focus on content over form. They urge learners not to worry about making mistakes and to view confusion and mistakes as signs of growth, the place where learning to write begins. It is difficult, however, to convince students of the validity of this view. For learners whose understanding of the writing process is limited, the injunction not to worry about form and to ignore mistakes often serves to raise anxiety rather than to dispel it. Adult learners want to know how to get the form "right," and how to recognize and avoid mistakes, not make them: they often fear that the error will became confused with the right usage, and dislike risking humiliation or embarrassment. From the point of view of these students, making mistakes of any kind is a source of anxiety and confusion, and often marks the place where learning to write stops. In effect, teachers and learners appear to be speaking two different languages, perhaps different dialects of the language of writing instruction.

This kind of instructional disconnect around issues of correctness, process, and strategy has been called "conceptual difficulty" (Johnston, 1985). Conceptual difficulty can interfere with instruction. Once an inappropriate concept is learned or an appropriate one not learned, further instruction that presupposes an understanding of that concept may be not only wasteful but also destructive because of the resultant experience of failure and its emotional consequences (p. 158). It is therefore important not to presuppose that we (as teachers) know what learners think, but to use questioning, observation, and discussion to determine what the students' concepts actually are.

The following example of a conceptual difficulty observed by one of the teachers in the project may help to illustrate what I mean. (All the examples are taken from my research data.) The teacher was helping students to practice for the test of General Educational Development (GED) and was using used topical readings as a basis for writing practice. What she asked learners to do is a common instructional strategy. Learners were to read a brief article containing information about common ailments, such as arthritis or diabetes, discuss it in their small groups, and then write about it. When she looked at the papers, she realized that one learner appeared to have a limited understanding of what she had read. However, when the teacher suggested that the learner re-read the original information, the learner said: "I don't know anything about diabetes. I don't have diabetes. I can't do it. I can't explain it. I can't learn by reading. I can't write about anything I don't have personal experience of" (Transcript, 1/24/95).

This comment startled the teacher. It was not that the learner did not understand the piece, but that she believed she could not learn by reading. The teacher said that this response "shocked" her. When the student said "I can't write about anything I don't have personal experience of," the teacher realized that one of the student's basic concepts directly contradicted what the teacher thought was common knowledge. Intrigued, she asked other students about this, and three different learners told her the same thing. Does this mean, she wondered, that she needed to explain that you can learn things by reading? She had never thought about saying that out loud (Transcript, 95).

It would be quite reasonable for a teacher who sees a poor first draft based on a reading to assume, as this teacher initially did, that the learner was not attending to her reading, or simply had poor reading skills. But because this teacher was engaged in inquiry, she uncovered a deeper problem: the learner could read, she just didn't believe reading had anything to do with writing. This incident revealed to the group that some ideas are not always "givens" for adult learners.

To address issues of conceptual difficulty requires teaching strategies that unearth and acknowledge these often unarticulated ideas about how people write. Other strategies must help to address inappropriate concepts. To teach writing to this learner, the teacher must find a way to help her analyze and reflect not only on the belief that she cannot learn by reading, but also on other beliefs that may be impeding her progress. As learner interviews revealed, these include false assumptions about the importance of correctness, incomplete or truncated models of process, and limited notions of writing strategies such as revision.

In interviews with all three teachers, they indicated that they used a minimum of grammar and skills instruction, both because they wanted to de-emphasize the importance of correctness, and also because they felt that teaching decontexualized skills was not effective. They therefore employed teaching methods such as individual writing conferences that focused primarily on content (Interview, 11/94). The teachers also encouraged students to self-correct by, for example, reading their work aloud and listening for punctuation, and then reformulating a part that didn't "sound right" (Interview, 12/94). One teacher said that he liked to edit as a group exercise because he believed that this process reduced the risk of embarrassing learners. He remarked, however, that this process did not seem to improve learner writing. He noted, too, that students often asked for correction and seemed puzzled about what he meant when he suggested that they revise (Interview, 11/94).

In interviews, I asked learners to estimate their own skills and what they thought their writing "needs" were. I adapted an interview protocol from an instrument called "Self Estimates of Writing Skills," which was developed by the Ontario Institute for Study of Education (OISE), based on a model first proposed by Bryson, Bereiter, and Scardamalia. The questions were designed to elicit narrative answers on mechanics, process, and structure, and what students thought were the characteristics of good writers. The interviews provided samples of student thinking that showed the influence of partially digested elementary and secondary instruction, and a conviction that their mechanical skills such as spelling and punctuation were inadequate. The teachers and I then used this information as background knowledge when doing observations of learner writing behavior. We observed that while 90 percent of the students said in their interviews that the dictionary was the poor speller's best friend, no one consulted a dictionary during writing. And while some learners said they "edited for mechanics, like punctuation," teacher observations revealed that few learners were even re-reading their texts.

In general, learners behaved as though the correction of mechanics was a process beyond their ability, the province of the teacher or some other "they": a process that occurred outside of themselves. A student said, for example, that she would correct her punctuation by "looking to see how they would punctuate it in a sentence and then see if I did the same" (Transcript, 12/95). One of the teachers noticed the mysterious "they" and said: "It interests me that people think that writing that is printed in a book seems to be so different from their own. Learners often seem to think that [the writing] comes from some different place. They don't see the person behind it. If I ever type something on a computer, like a writing exercise, or homonyms, I'll hand it out, and people will say, "What do they want us to do here?" Like it comes from somewhere else" (Transcript, 3/95).

This may occur because the instruction is not getting to the root of the problem: in this case the learner's belief that she cannot be the corrector. Learners' spelling and punctuation anxieties might not only be about correctness, but also about their inability to conceive of a strategy that places them in the role of corrector. These strategies must be made explicit for learners to be able to use them.

In my initial interviews with teachers, their answers indicated that they were assuming that certain techniques associated with writing process theory were effective for helping learners improve their writing. All three of the participating teachers used self-selected topics based on reading, brainstorming techniques for prewriting, and peer revision. But after talking about learner responses to questions about process, one of the teachers decided to observe more closely how learners were using these techniques. She found, for example, that while her students made detailed lists of the ideas that came to them during brainstorming activities, when the time came to write, the lists — specifically created as a support for writing — were never used. When another teacher wondered why this might happen, the teacher replied, "I don't know. All sorts of little things that I am finding out that I never would have suspected [before we started the project]. Like it never would have occurred to me that they would separate brainstorming from writing the essay. And so I never made the connection explicit" (Transcript, 95).

Why would a learner not make the connection between brainstorming and writing? Why go to the trouble of making such a list, if she did not intend to use it? One possible answer is that the learner may think of writing as producing a product by taking series of discrete steps forward, of which brainstorming is one. The list, now completed, is a step finished. The next step, the draft, is viewed as a separate process. The influence of this kind of belief is subtle. While these beliefs have substantial control over a learner's behavior, without questioning and observation, a teacher might attribute the behavior to something else, or simply think that the behavior is inexplicable. What the teacher saw was the effect of the belief, not the belief itself and, for her, the behavior was puzzling.

The following example also raises questions about the learners' concepts of process. In answer to the question "What would make someone a good writer ?" one adult learner said: "Knowing how to punctuate things. And not having to have so many mistakes on a paper and everything being just right the first time. Nothing else" (Interview, 1/95). Her assumption that punctuation and avoiding mistakes are of primary importance is not only in direct contradiction to what her teachers think is important, but also raises questions about the implications of this belief for her writing development. Her comment should make it clear that, in spite of the intensive work over the last 20 years on writing as a social process, this learner still views it as a product that springs wholly formed from the mind of the "good" writer. There is no slot for revision in her mental model.

To learn to write is to understand what revise means quite literally. With adult basic learners, it is their inability to re-vision their writing that is most puzzling and frustrating for teachers. Often, learners repeat the same mistakes, and no amount of instruction appears to make an impression. One teacher remarked that his students exhibited "a real resistance to doing anything twice" (Transcript, 3/24). Student responses indicated that they equated revision with rewriting: the physical act of re-writing, or recopying for neatness. One learner described his process: "Rewrite and revise too. ... I do all three. I edit first. Rewrite means re-copy. Should do it three times. Three times for me" (Interview, 1/95).

One teacher was very interested in revision, and observed it closely. She discovered that her students interpreted peer revision to be an entirely different activity than their teacher assumed it to be. She said: "They take each other's papers and [physically] rewrite them. I (learner Y) take X's paper, and read it. But I don't talk to X. I don't talk to the person. I just sit down and re-copy his paper" (Transcript, 95).

For the learner who believes that being a good writer means "having everything right the first time," the concept of a first draft is unclear, and therefore revisioning is an empty concept. If one cannot get it right on the first try, then what is the point of going back?

Conclusion: Making Connections
While the findings I have summarized here might help teachers understand some of the problems adults have when learning to write, they are only a small piece of what we need to know about teaching writing to adults. One of the major characteristics of the mental model exhibited by the learners in this project was their failure to make conceptual connections between reading and writing, brainstorming and drafting, the writer and the product. How can teachers help learners who have unproductive mental models for writing? How can we help them to make the necessary connections?

It may be that we need a different model of teaching writing specifically for adults: one that allows learners and teachers to co-construct representations of their assumptions about writing processes, and that makes explicit the connections that may be unclear. There may be, for example, a number of things besides "You can learn from reading" that we need to say "out loud." It might also be useful to bring samples of professional authors" manuscripts both to illustrate that professionals do not "get it right the first time," and at the same time help learners to see the person behind the text. Engaging learners and teachers in self-conscious and self-directed inquiry about the processes, mechanics, and strategies involved in writing can not only help learners to visualize themselves as the person who creates the text, but can also illustrate the complex nature of literacy and give weight and respect to the experience and knowledge both teachers and adult learners bring to writing.

Fagan, W. T. (1988). "Concepts of reading and writing among low-literate adults." Reading Research and Instruction, 27, 47-50.

Gambrell, L. B., & Heathington, B. (1981). "Adult disabled readers' metacognitive awareness about reading tasks and strategies." Journal of Reading Behavior, XIII (3), 215-221.

Johnston, P. (1985) "Understanding reading disability: A case study approach."Harvard Educational Review, 55(2),153-175.

Smith-Burke, T. (1987). Starting Over: Characteristics of Adult Literacy Learners. New York: Literacy Assistance Center.

About the Author
Mary Russell is a member of the Professional Development Kit and Literacy Link project teams at the National Center on Adult Literacy (NCAL). She serves on the American Reads committee and the Skills Development Center Working Group at the University of Pennsylvania and is engaged in a web-based project for tutor training with the Pennsylvania Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development. She has years of experience as a teacher of adult basic education and English for speakers of other languages.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL