Writing Instruction Research Paper

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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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  2. Bereiter C,  Scardamalia M  1987 The  Psychology  of  Written Composition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ
  3. Brandt D 1992 The cognitive as the social: An ethno methodological approach to writing  process    Written  Communication 9: 315–22
  4. Cooper M,   Holzman    M   1989  Writing   as  Social   Boynton  Cook,  Portsmouth, NH
  5. Elbow P  1998  Writing   without  Teachers,  2nd    Oxford University  Press, New York
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  7. Flower L   1994  The   Construction   of   Negotiated   Southern  Illinois University  Press, Carbondale, IL
  8. Freedman A, Medway P (eds.) 1994 Genre and the New Rhetoric. Taylor and Francis, London
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  14. Swales J M  1991  Genre  Analysis:  English  in  Academic  and Research Settings.  Cambridge  University  Press, Cambridge, UK
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