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The term ‘writing’ covers a huge range of activities, from, at one extreme, the motor processes in forming letters, to, at the other extreme, the creative mental processes involved in writing a novel. For present purposes, the term ‘writing’ will be restricted to referring to the cognitive and social processes involved in writing, and ‘instruction’ to referring to educational practice as it has been informed by research into these processes.
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Contemporary approaches to writing instruction have their origins in the 1970s (see Nystrand et al. 1993 for a review of the development of writing studies during this period). Before this period, the overwhelming emphasis was on the text as a linguistic product, with research and instruction concentrating largely on identifying the distinctive features of exemplary texts and teaching these to students. In contrast, the deﬁning feature of more recent research has been its emphasis on understanding the processes by which text is produced, and in particular, on the processes involved in creating the knowledge embodied in text. Writing, in this view, is not just a means of communication, but a vital tool for learning and thinking. During this period, understanding of the nature of the processes involved has expanded and, in some respects, changed considerably. Research has moved from an initial, almost exclusive, concern with the cognitive processes within individuals, through a broader view of text as the product of social processes, to a mixed view, in which writing is seen as the product of an interaction between conﬂicting processes differing in the extent to which they involve adapting to the social context.
1. Writing As Problem Solving
Cognitive research on writing has been dominated by a view of writing as a form of problem solving, in which writing skill depends on the ability to think strategically about how best to achieve communicative goals. The most widely cited model in this area is Hayes and Flower’s (1980) descriptive model of the cognitive processes in writing. Based largely on protocols of writers thinking aloud as they composed, the model identiﬁes three basic components of the writing process, each of which can be further analyzed into more basic processes until they ‘bottom out’ in the basic cognitive operations studied by cognitive and experimental psychologists. The three processes are: planning, which involves setting goals, and generating and organizing ideas to satisfy them; text generation, which involves encoding ideas in language; and revision, which involves reading and editing the text that has already been produced. These basic processes are controlled by a monitor or central executive which is responsible for coordinating the processes as they operate on information stored in long-term memory, in response to the demands of the task environment. The key feature of the model is that the basic components of planning, translation, and revision are recursively applied processes rather than stages in a sequence of activities. Thus, each of the processes can, in principle, be called on just as much while jotting down notes before writing as while writing or rewriting the text itself. In consequence, the model is able to capture the dynamic interplay between different components at different points in writing. Hayes and Flower’s subsequent work, with a variety of different collaborators, involved more detailed studies of the different subcomponents of the writing process. A useful review of the basic ﬁndings from this research, and a heavily revised version of the original model, can be found in the chapter by Hayes in a volume edited by Levy and Ransdell (1996).
Perhaps the most important consequence of this research was that it enabled a characterization of differences between expert and novice writers. (See Hayes and Flower 1986, for a review of their own ﬁndings, and Bereiter and Scardamalia 1987, for an inﬂuential model examining the development of children’s writing, and procedures whereby this could be developed.) Bereiter and Scardamalia characterize the difference between novice and expert writing as a contrast between a knowledge-telling model of writing and a knowledge-transforming model of writing. Knowledge telling is typically employed by children and less experienced writers and is essentially a ‘thinksay’ method of composing in which ideas are retrieved associatively from memory and then translated directly into text. Typically, there is little differentiation between components of the writing process, so that text is produced in a single draft with little preplanning or revision of the text. Even when explicitly instructed to plan before writing or to revise a text, planning tends to be restricted to the direct listing of content as it comes to mind, and revision to cosmetic changes to surface features of the text. The result is a text, which, although it may cover relevant material, is lacking a distinctive point of view or evidence of reﬂection upon ideas. By contrast, the kind of knowledge-transforming strategy employed by expert writers involves actively designing a text to satisfy communicative goals. Experts spend more time planning, both before and during writing, and develop more elaborate representations of the rhetorical problem to be solved, with the result that ideas are not just retrieved directly from memory but are actively constructed and evaluated with respect to this richer representation of the rhetorical problem. Similarly, revision becomes a goaldirected process involving global changes to the structure and content of the text, as well as correction of its surface features. The result is more reﬂective text, which shows more evidence of design, and in which ideas are selected and presented in the service of higher-level communicative goals. Moreover, in the process of working out how to communicate effectively with a reader, writers are also actively transforming their own knowledge.
According to this view of writing expertise, one of the main factors affecting writing performance is cognitive overload, arising from the fact that a complex set of processes has to be carried out in a limited-capacity working memory. In particular, the demands of translating ideas into well-formed text may consume resources required for higher-level reﬂective thought. Although this is particularly true for children, for whom even the basic mechanics of forming letters may be resource consuming, it is a pervasive problem stemming from the nature of the process itself. Research in this area has suggested that individual differences in performance are associated with differences in working memory capacity, and also that writers with greater knowledge of the different components of the writing process (metacognitive knowledge) are better able to manage the conﬂict between processes, and to switch attention between planning, translation, and revision at appropriate points. More speciﬁcally, Kellogg (1994) has shown that outlining before writing improves the quality of text compared to producing text in a single draft, and that this is because it enables writers to focus attentional resources on either planning or translation at different points in writing, rather than dividing up their mental resources among both processes. (For a review of Kellogg’s work on drafting strategies, see Kellogg 1994; for a model of working memory in writing, see Kellogg’s chapter in Levy and Ransdell 1996.)
The second main strand of research in this area has focused on the reﬂective processes involved in the knowledge-transforming strategy itself. Bereiter and Scardamalia describe these in terms of an interaction between a content problem space, in which the writer works out the content to be included in the text, and a rhetorical problem space, in which the rhetorical problem is represented, and in which goals for the text are developed. In this view, while novice writers have the procedures for turning content into text, they lack the executive procedures required to translate problems encountered in rhetorical space back into goals to be achieved in content space. Accordingly, the crucial ingredient of writing expertise that the novice needs to learn is how to incorporate communicative goals into the writing process. Bereiter and Scardamalia suggest two broad ways in which this can be done.
First, the processes involved can be made visible by providing models of the writing process. For example, a teacher thinking aloud as they compose a text can demonstrate the formulation of goals during writing, and the search for, and evaluation of, content relevant to these goals. Second, children can be helped to incorporate more goal-directed thinking into their own writing using the technique of ‘procedural facilitation.’ This involves providing external prompts suggesting goals, possible courses of action, or relevant evaluatory criteria which the writer can consult moment by moment as they write a text. Gradually, as such procedures are internalized, this scaffolding can be removed, leaving the writer capable of carrying out the appropriate procedures unaided.
Teaching programs designed to increase metacognitive awareness of the components of writing and using methods such as modeling and procedural facilitation to develop more goal-directed thinking have shown strong effects on children’s writing com- pared with control groups. (For examples of effective programs based on these ideas, see Englert et al. 1991, and the chapter by Graham and Harris in the collection edited by Levy and Ransdell 1996.)
2. Writing As Social Action
In both Hayes and Flower’s original model and in Hayes’s more recent revision of the model, the social nature of the writing process is represented by the inclusion of the audience and topic speciﬁcation as features of the task environment, and by the inclusion of audience knowledge and more general discourse knowledge as part of the information stored in long-term memory (see Hayes’s chapter in Levy and Ransdell 1996). One might expect, therefore, that there would be a complementary relationship between cognitive and social research on writing, with cognitive research focusing on the processes by which information is manipulated, and social research focusing on such factors as the relationship between the writer and their audience, or on elaborating on the nature of the conventions which make up the writer’s discourse knowledge. In fact, social research has developed in part as a reaction against cognitive models of writing, and has led to the development of alternative theoretical approaches to the writing process which have had a strong inﬂuence on approaches to writing instruction.
Social critiques of problem-solving models take a variety of forms (see Cooper and Holzman 1989 for a fairly representative example). But at the heart of them all there is an underlying disquiet with the way in which problem-solving models treat individual elements of text as being constructed out of a stable set of cognitive processes and representations which can be explicitly manipulated by the writer. In particular, they question the extent to which content knowledge is stored independently of discourse knowledge, and dependent on explicit goal-directed processing, if it is to be realized as a complete social act. Instead, they treat each part of the text as an indivisible ‘social act,’ which cannot be further broken down into components which can be explicitly manipulated.
Within social approaches, then, the elements of a text are deﬁned as social acts, and analyzed in terms of the functions they serve within a particular context, rather than in terms of the processes by which they are cognitively constructed. The direct determinant of the form of the text is the social environment in which writing takes place, and variations in writing performance are treated as variations in the way the writer responds to that environment. In this view, writing is not a uniform set of mental procedures, but rather a repertoire of practices, which varies widely across different contexts. This has a range of implications for research and instructional practice. First, research into writing takes a fundamentally different form, more like that of natural history, and involves predominantly qualitative methods, aimed at identifying the different kinds of act which are employed in speciﬁc contexts, relating these to the environment in which they occur, and examining how they vary across different contexts. Second, learning to write is no longer treated as a matter of learning to write in general, but rather of learning what practices or social acts are appropriate in a variety of particular contexts. Finally, the teaching of writing becomes a matter of creating authentic contexts that draw out approximations of the relevant social acts, which can then be shaped with practice into the appropriate form.
The most dominant of the various social approaches to writing is the ﬁeld of genre studies. The fundamental idea here is that texts are not produced by individuals working in isolation, but rather by individuals as members of communities employing a characteristic set of discursive practices to achieve the goals shared within the community. A genre in its most general form is a repeated set of social acts produced in response to a recurrent situation. It speciﬁes the shared set of communicative purposes within a group or academic discipline, and shapes the schematic structure of text, as well as inﬂuencing choices of content and style. It provides conventions about what issues are appropriate, the forms of reasoning which are typically employed, and assumptions about the different roles of readers and writers within the community. Because these practices are conventional in form and vary widely across groups, novice writers cannot work them out from ﬁrst principles, or from their experience within other discourse communities, but instead have to internalize them by immersion within the community. As they gain experience and begin to be able to use the genre as a guide to their own text production, so the genre also becomes a tool enabling them to construct their knowledge in the way characteristic of the particular discipline to which they are trying to gain membership. (See Freedman and Medway 1994 for an overview of work in the ﬁeld.)
Research in this ﬁeld has had a number of effects on writing instruction. First, it has led to a move away from the teaching of writing as a general skill by ‘writing experts’ toward the teaching of writing within disciplines by disciplinary insiders. Second, the content of teaching focuses on explicating the goals of the discipline and identifying the social acts within the text which enable the discipline to achieve its goals. Third, in line with the principle that text is a response to the social environment, a great emphasis is placed on designing tasks and creating environments which recreate as authentically as possible the social conditions and purposes of the community as it is in the ‘real world.’ (See Swales 1991 for a detailed example of the ways in which a genre approach can be applied to writing instruction.)
3. Writing As A Knowledge-Constituting Process
Problem-solving models and social approaches to writing have both had a signiﬁcant impact on writing instruction, and in many cases writing instruction draws eclectically on insights from both traditions. However, the theoretical conﬂict between them has not yet been resolved, with the result that research has tended to progress in parallel, with the two traditions using fundamentally different vocabularies to describe the writing process. There have been some attempts to combine the two traditions (see, for example, Flower 1994 for a relatively cognitive view, and Brandt 1992 for a more social-interactive approach), but these have not been generally accepted. More recently, however, there have been signs of a more integrated approach based on an alternative cognitive framework.
This has developed from a strand of research focusing on the implicit processes involved in text production itself, rather than on higher-level problem solving or social negotiation. (See Torrance and Galbraith 1999 for a collection of papers describing some of the empirical research involved, and for discussions of their theoretical implications for models of the writing process.) Galbraith, for example, has proposed a dual process model of writing, in which the more implicit and involuntary kinds of processing implied by social approaches to writing are combined with the more explicit and deliberate processes proposed by problem-solving models. In particular, this model invokes connectionist principles—involving parallel constraint satisfaction within a distributed representation of knowledge—to explain how ‘social acts’ can be formulated in the text as it is produced, without the need for the deliberate manipulation of separate components of information assumed by traditional problem-solving models. In this view, text production is an active knowledge-constituting process in its own right. Furthermore, and crucially, although the model accepts that the more explicit problem-solving processes assumed in traditional cognitive models of writing play an important role, it stresses that these operate on the output of the knowledge-constituting process, and highlights the potential for conﬂict between these two different processes.
This emphasis on text production as an active knowledge-constituting process, and on the conﬂicting nature of the writing process as a whole, is compatible with what has become a highly inﬂuential, although not universally accepted, approach to writing instruction, associated, in particular with the work of Elbow (1998; and see Belanoff et al. 1991 for a more recent review of work in this tradition). Elbow advocates the use of a multiple drafting strategy, in which the writer is encouraged to start writing by producing a spontaneous draft of their thoughts as they come to mind, without preplanning or attempting to impose organization on the text. Once a draft has been completed, revision involves identifying the main ideas that have emerged in the text, and these are used as the basis for a further draft of the text. This process of alternating between spontaneous drafts and more reﬂective revision continues until the text achieves a satisfactory form. Writers are also encouraged to engage in regular ‘free-writing’ exercises, as a means of providing them with direct experience of the generative properties of this form of writing, and to participate in peer feedback groups to gain direct experience of the effect of their writing on their readers.
This more recent research on text production can be seen, in part, therefore, as providing a theoretical rationale for some long-standing practices within writing instruction. But, in addition, in promising a deeper understanding of the implicit processes involved in text production, it may help to resolve the division between social and cognitive approaches to writing.
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