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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue D ::: December 1999

Using Research on Writing

by Marilyn K. Gillespie
Marilyn Gillespie highlights some research on writing instruction and discusses what it offers to adult basic education.

I was introduced to research on writing in the mid-1980s while starting up Read Write Now, a small library literacy program in Springfield, MA. Janet Kelly, who co-directed the program, had just finished a graduate course on the teaching of writing in elementary schools. She described the latest writing process research and speculated that it might be uniquely suited to our desire for a learner-centered classroom. We were looking for ways to move beyond simply teaching skills. We wanted literacy acquisition to be part of a process whereby adults developed personal goals for change, found their own voices, and acquired the ability to speak out and give an opinion on things that mattered in their lives. Janet introduced me to the work of researchers Donald Graves (1975), Lucy Calkins (1975), and others who had begun to make authors of even very young children through the implementation of writing workshops. Could our adult beginning readers, many of whom were just beginning to read words and make sentences, do the same? We decided to give it a try.

We introduced the writing process to our first group of students and suggested they write autobiographies. Soon they were teaching us. "My name is Lidia," a student began. "I was born in Italy in 1939, in the middle of the depression and in the middle of the war." Lidia had completed only second grade in Italy. She had never written so much as a short letter before, yet the urge to tell her story gave her the courage to spell words as she heard them and to suspend her need to have everything perfect the first time. Soon other students began reading Lidia's story and started their own. Over time we came to recognize that writing was not only a way for adults to improve their literacy skills. Writing about their lives also gave them a chance to reflect on what school had been like for them in the past, to set goals for the future, and to offer their experience up for others with similar backgrounds (Gillespie, 1990, 1991).

During the years that followed, I learned of other programs that were incorporating different kinds of writing into their classrooms. Some advocated journal writing (Kerka, 1996) or dialogue journals (Peyton & Staton, 1991). Other involved adult basic education (ABE) and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) literacy learners in writing newsletters, anthologies, and individual books (see Gillespie, 1991; Peyton, 1993). More recently, writing has been woven into collective research efforts (Auerbach, 1992; Gardner, 1985; Mace, 1995) and project based instruction (Wrigley, 1998).

For the most part, however, programs that include the writing process as an integral part of instruction appear to be in the minority. Most programs, if they involve students in composition at all, do so only with more advanced students. They use the traditional approach of assigning topics and "grading" the results. Even the advent of the General Educational Development (GED) essay test does not appear to have fostered writing proficiency in the way creators hoped it would. After reading hundreds of GED essays, Art Halbrook, the writing specialist for the GED Testing Service, concluded that writing instruction is frequently a "blueprint for mediocrity" (1999, p. 8). Too often, he notes, teachers simply drill students in a five-paragraph formula. Student are taught to restate the topic in their opening paragraph, to write three paragraphs of supporting statements, and to link them with transition words such as first, second, third or next, then, or finally. The last paragraph begins with the inevitable "in conclusion" and involves restating the first paragraph. Students are shown how they can adapt this formula to any topic to pass the GED test. Halbrook notes that "the resulting essay is an amorphous piece of writing, a hybrid product loosely defined as an essay only because it has sentences, paragraph divisions, and a beginning, middle, and end" (p. 9). This drill and practice approach, he points out, does a great disservice to students. Formulaic writing leaves the learner "shackled to a form that denies the individual the ability to grow and communicate as a writer..." (p. 9). Moreover, it has limited value in preparing adults for the writing demands of higher education.

Researchers have made considerable progress in understanding what people do when they write and how they learn to write. This research has made its way to public schools and universities. Yet, for the most part, it appears that only a few adult literacy educators have had the time or opportunity to learn about it. This may be due in part to the fact that little of this research has been conducted with adult literacy learners. Adult literacy educators must read between the lines to see how the research can apply to our populations. The aim of this paper is to show that such an effort is worthwhile. I will highlight a few strands of writing research that are of interest to those of us in the field of adult literacy and suggest the implications they have for adult literacy education.

The Writing Process: A Working Model
Many teachers who learned the basics of the writing process model in the early 1980s may be unaware of how it has evolved over the past two decades. A "working model for the writing process" was first proposed by cognitive psychologists Hayes and Flower (1980). In collecting together the growing body of research up to that point, they suggested that writing could be seen, above all, as a "goal-directed, problem-solving process" (Hayes & Flower, 1980 p. 4). The writing process had essentially three sub-processes. Writers plan. They decide what to say and how to say it. Writers generate text. They turn their plans into written text, getting the words down on the page and observing the conventions of writing such as spelling and grammar. Writers also revise. They use a variety of ways to improve on the existing text. These three sub-processes do not occur in any fixed or linear order. At one moment writers might be writing, moving their ideas and their discourse forward; at the next they were backtracking, rereading, and digesting what had been written. The fact that these sub-processes are recursive, with one often interrupting the other, represented a shift in the understanding of the writing process.

An important aspect of understanding the writing process has been the study of the differences between "novice" writers and "expert" writers such as professional authors. Novice writers include young children as well as older children and adults who never learned to write or who experience difficulty writing. Some of this research came about with the advent of open admissions policies at many colleges in the 1970s. Shaughnessy (1977) examined the errors of college learners in what were then labeled "remedial" programs. Her research showed that novice writing reflects oral speech. Perl (1979) noticed that novice writers may lose their train of thought because they have to attend to more mechanical concerns such as letter formation, handwriting, and spelling (aspects of writing that are automatic and unconscious with more experienced writers). Sommers (1980) showed that novice writers typically solved problems simply by fixing grammar errors and spelling and copying the text over. Over time it became clear that there are large differences between experts and novices. Experts spend considerably more time revising. They pay much more attention to global problems (for example, re-sequencing, re-studying, and re-writing large units of text) than do novices. Experts are also better than novices at both detecting problems in their own text and diagnosing the cause of those problems (Hayes & Flower, 1986).

As the writing process model developed by Hayes and Flower has evolved, it has become considerably more complex. For example, new detailed research on memory has led Hayes to extend and expand the role of working memory in his most recent revision of the writing process model (1996). We now understand that any cognitive process that is not automated must be retrieved from our long-term memory by our working memory before it can be used to solve problems or make decisions. Our short-term storage capacity is limited (Torrance & Jeffery, 1999). This research helps us to understand why adult novice writers, for whom spelling and handwriting may not yet be automated, need to focus more attention on these aspects of writing. and why they may have less working memory available to focus on other aspects of the writing process.

Alternative Models
In the writing process model associated with Flower and Hayes, experts and novices are seen as using essentially the same writing process, only with experts doing it much better. An alternative theory developed by Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987, 1993) explores the notion that mature, expert composing is based on a process that may be different than the process used by less skilled writers. Less skilled writers, they suggest, use a "retrieve-and-tell" approach to writing tasks. They call this the knowledge-telling model (in contrast to a knowledge-transforming model used by more skilled writers). Novice writers produce much less elaborate or abstract sets of prewriting notes. They concern themselves with generating content during composing and spend much less time considering goals, plans, and problems posed by the writing. They think about the topic or assignment and ask themselves what they know. Then they write down everything they can think of. They make less frequent use of main ideas in their writing as guides for planning and integrating information. When it comes to revision, they are less able to make global revisions that would involve reorganizing the content. As they write, they read over what they have written and use this to come up with additional information to add. In short, the knowledge-telling model uses a streamlined procedure that allows less-skilled writers to bypass the complex problem-solving activities often seen in the composing practices of more skilled writers. These strategies work especially well for writing about personal experiences. Not only is it relatively easy to find something to say, but abstract, logical organization is not usually a major concern. Students can create coherence by following a basic chronology.

In the knowledge-transforming model, on the other hand, the writing task leads directly into problem analysis and goal setting. The resulting goals, and the problems anticipated, lead to plans for how to resolve them, whether they are problems of content or problems related to how to organize the information best in light of previously presented information and the audience to be addressed (rhetorical problems). As one problem is solved, others are created and in this way new content is generated or new ideas about how to organize the composition are developed. Becoming a proficient writer is a deliberate process in which writers learn to distance themselves from their writing and use the output — the written text — as input: food for thought, for revision, rethinking, rewriting, and writing.

Other Recent Research
Several new developments related to applying research to the classroom may have special relevance for adult education. Graham (1997) and Graham et al. (1995), for example, have conducted research aimed at diagnosing specific problems faced by learning-disabled children. They are testing specific strategies for teaching learning-disabled students the kinds of self-regulatory procedures used by skilled writers. They set up a teachable routine that externalizes the writing process and allows students gradually to internalize the goal setting and revision strategies used by their more proficient peers.

Other researchers have looked more closely at the role of spelling and handwriting. Within the writing process model, the processes such as creating letter representations in memory, accessing and retrieving these representations in memory, motor planning, and motor production are now referred to as low-level processes. Processes for planning, generating language at the sentence and text levels, and reviewing and revising written text are considered high-level processes (Berninger & Swanson, 1994). Many researchers believe that for beginning writers, "the goal is to automatize the low level processes so that working memory resources are freed for the higher level constructive aspects of composing" (Berninger et al., 1998, p. 652). Strategies are now being tested with school-aged children that seek to improve students' low-level and high-level skills during the same composition process (Berninger & Swanson, 1994; Berninger et al., 1998).

Research on learning to spell has shown that spelling is not just a memorization process but a process of noticing (as in reading) recurring patterns in the sound, structure, and meaning features of words and then trying out and revising hypotheses about these patterns in other writing situations. This is one of the few areas where research has been conducted with adult literacy learners (see Worthy & Viise, 1996; Viise, 1996).

Research on how to teach handwriting has also focused on automaticity. Berninger and her colleagues (1997) found that offering a series of ten-minute handwriting sessions while children were engaged in the writing process was the most effective strategy. The children responded best to visual cues such as numbered arrows indicating the nature, order, and direction of component strokes required to produce the letter correctly. They found combining visual cues with memory retrieval intervention (in which children look at each letter, then cover it up and write it from memory) was more effective than other treatments.

The Social Aspects
Writing researchers have also come to recognize the central role of the social, affective, and motivational dimensions of the writing process. A growing body of research has explored the social aspects of writing in varied contexts, from homes to workplaces to cross cultural classrooms in public schools (Freedman, 1994). Although few studies have yet looked directly at the social and affective dimensions of writing in adult literacy contexts, this area holds great promise for future research. Many recent case studies of adult learners allude indirectly to the value of this line of research. In Other People's Words: The Cycle of Low Literacy (1995), for example, Purcell-Gates found that even after seven years of public school, four years of adult school and 31 years of life, her student Jenny had never read or written her own words. All she had ever done was copy other people's words — language that had little meaning for her. Jenny's words, Purcell-Gates noted, "were never acknowledged and affirmed, never allowed. Since people think, conceptualize, and learn with their language— with their words — Jenny was effectively shut out from the literate world" (1995, p. 218). Jenny's breakthrough began in part when she started to keep her own journal.

Other studies point to the powerful images of reading and writing adults carry within themselves, often derived from their school experience. Forrester's case study of "Laura" (1988) showed how strongly she had internalized the belief that she was unable to write because she could not spell every word correctly. Only by associating learning to write with the "trial and error" process of learning to figure skate (Laura's favorite hobby) was she finally able to give herself permission to move forward after years of limited progress. In another recent case study of adult beginning readers, Fingeret and Drennon (1997) have suggested that the decision to come to an adult literacy class is part of a wider process of personal transformation. Although the process of learning to write was not a primary focus of their study, their profiles of learners demonstrate the important role writing can play in the personal transformation process.

In my own research (Gillespie, 1991), I also found that many of the adult beginning readers I studied used writing as a way to examine their previous beliefs and experiences with respect to themselves as learners and to develop alternative images and possibilities. Writing possessed many qualities that made it a particularly important tool in the personal transformation process. The permanence of written text allowed adults to step back, re-think, revise, and sometimes publicly affirm their new identities as they entered the literate world. We need further research with adult literacy populations to help illuminate the role writing can play in the affective and motivational dimensions of becoming literate. Such research, writing experts suggest, may be valuable not just to adult literacy educators but also to the field of writing research as a whole (Freedman, 1987).

What are the implications of this research for adult literacy education? The research shows that writing is not best taught as a linear, sequential set of skills but as a process of gradual approximation of what skilled writers do: a cycling and recycling of learning processes. Composition is not something that should wait until all the basic, prerequisite skills are learned, but can be introduced even to relative beginners. Adult learners should be given ample opportunity to write not only in GED classes, but also in ABE and even beginning ESOL classrooms. Moreover, we cannot treat writing as a neat, linear process: on Monday we plan, on Tuesday we draft, and on Wednesday we respond to drafts (Dyson & Freedman, 1991). If our writing curricula are to foster the growth of goal-oriented problem-solving skills, we need to acknowledge that students will learn at different rates and in different styles. We need to find ways to encourage them to decide on their own topics and purposes for writing and to see one another as resources. Since many adults bring with them powerful images of writing associated primarily with spelling, grammar, and handwriting, adult literacy educators should discover ways to help students learn put this aspect of writing into perspective. Low-level writing processes such as spelling, handwriting, and grammar need to be taught not in isolation but along with the higher-level processes of learning so that these tools are applied to the construction of meaning. Those of us who work with students who aspire to pass the GED also need to understand the role of knowledge-telling and narrative writing as a precursor to the kinds of knowledge-transforming writing required of essay tests.

Adult literacy learners have the ability, the need, and the right to be more than simply consumers of other people's words. Our challenge as teachers of writing is to move beyond seeing writing as simply another skill. The application of recent research on writing can give us valuable tools to help adult literacy learners to become creators of language: to make words their own.

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About the Author
Marilyn Gillespie is the author of a variety of books and monographs that connect research and policy with practice, including Many Literacies: Training Modules for Adult Beginning Readers and Tutors.

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