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April 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 7

Empowering Young Writers with Technology

When every child in 4th grade got a portable word processor, students found it much easier to focus on what they wanted to say.

Those of us fortunate enough to own a computer know that word processing can liberate writers. Revision mixes with initial composition, and the process becomes even more recursive as we write, rewrite, add, and delete text. Spell checkers free poor spellers of their dependency on proofreaders. And with no more crossed-out words or asterisks and pasted cutouts for reorganization, our text always looks great!
I have long argued that children needed access to word processing to reap the same benefits as adult writers. I teach 4th grade, and last year I convinced my administration to provide one computer per child during our writing workshop periods.
Writing workshops aim to empower children in writing. The children decide what to write about, how much revision to do, and when and how to publish their work. They critique their work and the work of others, and they familiarize themselves with good writing from class literature studies. Word processing can further empower child writers, eliminating the physical frustrations of writing and enabling more children to express their ideas in written form.

A Word Processor for Every Child

The word processors we purchased were Tandy WP2s: a tablet machine with an eight-line LCD display, 32 RAM, a simple word processor, and a spell checker. Forty of these inexpensive portable word processors cost about the same as four Macintosh workstations. Stored in two movable cabinets, which also held a printer and a Macintosh Plus for file transfers, each set was shared by two classes. Although two children used each machine, partners respected each other's files, and we had no problems with a partner opening or deleting the other's files.
I required that each child try composing on a word processor at some point during the year. A few children who came into 4th grade as fluent writers tried them and then returned to pencil-and-paper composing; they felt slowed down by the word processors. Other students tried composing on the word processors, moved back to paper and pencil, and then returned to the word processors after formal keyboarding instruction.
By spring, most of the class preferred the word processors; they had become part of the fabric of our writing workshop. During the workshop period, it became common to see two students conferring over a word processor, several children working alone on word processors at their desks, and a child deep in discussion with me over a paper copy. Other children might be printing out copy or changing batteries in their computers, or the whole class might sit together and share stories, some directly from word processors, others from printed and handwritten drafts.

Writing Reports

The word processors worked particularly well for reports. For example, we concluded a study of Native Americans of the Southwest by writing research articles for a class journal. The students brainstormed and selected topics for individual research, created their own research questions, and took notes, deciding when they had enough information to begin writing. Some took only cursory notes, began writing, and then found that they needed to get more information. Others took notes for days before beginning to write. All found, however, that after they began to write, they wanted to add more information to their pieces.
Many of my students would not have been comfortable with this holistic, recursive process without the word processors. When the children wrote with pencils, many had balked at adding to or revising their written pieces. If their early drafts were simply lists of facts, so be it. They felt they had done enough, that they had lots of information they had worked hard to get. They certainly were not going to get rid of any information (even if it was extraneous), add more (which meant rewriting by hand), or reorganize (yet more rewriting). We usually stalemated because I believe deeply in children having ownership of their texts.
With the word processors, we avoided this impasse; adding, deleting, and reorganizing text were no longer tedious. The students focused on content and style and considered revisions in a far more sophisticated way than I had seen when they wrote by hand.

Snapshots of Change

Because we began the year without the word processors, I was able to observe the differences the word processors made in my students' writing behavior. The following stories illustrate how the word processors empowered three of my students (names have been changed).
Kevin was a reluctant writer. A charismatic class leader, he was more interested in socializing and the recess football game than in schoolwork. Feeling that he couldn't work in a group, his 3rd grade teachers had given him independent work to do during language arts periods. Neither he nor his teachers had considered him much of a reader or writer. Kevin wrote slowly and was easily distracted. Given the choice, he would spend most of his time conferring with friends and taking frequent jaunts to the bathroom and water fountain.
Believing that the word processor would make writing easier for Kevin, I required that he use it for the Southwest report. Because Kevin's oral communication skills were far more sophisticated than his written ones, he worked well by first putting down simple ideas and then fleshing them out in subsequent drafts. The word processor made it easier for him to combine his short, choppy sentences into more complex ones.
Kevin's early drafts often had huge gaps of information. For example, his topic was Navajo rituals, and Kevin had written about the beginning of a naming ritual but had neglected to describe its end. After I discussed with him the importance of telling about the whole ritual, he returned to his sources for more information and easily added it to his draft. At a later conference I pointed out that the three rituals he had written about were in an odd order: birth, death, and marriage. He agreed, and I showed him how to cut and paste text to reorganize the report. For Kevin, the word processor functioned as a bridge, narrowing the gap between his oral and written communication abilities.
Karen, another of my students, enjoyed reading and writing; she saw herself as a writer. Revising was natural for her, and she understood the importance of multiple drafts as a way to gain greater understanding as well as a more polished piece.
Word processing allowed Karen to examine her text, reflect on it, and revise it at a remarkably sophisticated level. When Karen discovered she needed to add information to her report on Anasazi cliff dwellings, she enjoyed the ease with which the word processor allowed her to insert text. When she realized that she needed to organize her information in a more logical fashion, she and I worked on a hard-copy draft to number the sentences in the order she wished them to go. Returning to the word processor, I showed her how to reorganize her draft using cut-and-paste techniques. Karen maintained complete control of her piece and only made those changes that made sense to her. While the word processor made revision easier for Karen, it did not make her a writer; that she did herself.
The word processors also made my students far more independent. For example, Katie was a fabulous writer and a dreadful speller. Fortunately, her parents and previous teachers had encouraged her, and Katie had not allowed her weak spelling skills to keep her from writing. Like Karen, Katie took the writing process seriously, conferring about and revising each piece. Yet, before Katie could produce her final draft, she needed adults to help her find her misspellings.
The word processor's spell checker enabled Katie to find and correct misspelled words herself. The spell checker flagged the misspelled words, and Katie could then use a conventional dictionary to find the correct spelling. Doing this, Katie gained the confidence that she could produce a near-perfect draft. For a child who had been used to having adults point out her many spelling errors, this was a giant step on the way to writing independence.

Growing As Writers

Giving a portable word processor to every 4th grader in my writing workshop liberated my students as writers. Because the computer made the mechanical aspects of writing easier, students could focus more closely on what they wished to say. They polished their pieces to a degree that they would not have done using pencil and paper. Children who had not seen themselves as writers and who had done all they could to avoid writing began to write enthusiastically. The word processors made them feel that they were “real” writers.
Our school has now obtained enough portable word processors for every student in two of the 4th grade classes. (The other two classes continue to share a set.) As we had hoped, the students have begun using the machines outside the writing workshop to take notes, describe math procedures, and respond to pieces of literature. Even during free time, children take out their word processors to write stories, news articles, letters, and poems. Word processing continues to enrich the experience of our 4th graders as they grow as writers.
End Notes

1 This model has been discontinued. We are currently researching other possibilities for expanding our supply of computers.

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