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The impact of computers on the writing process.

The Impact of Computers on the Writing Process

The computer is not a magical writing tool that will transform the way in which exceptional students write; neither is it a writing curriculum or an instructional method. However, it is a powerful and flexible writing tool with certain physical characteristics and information-processing capabilities that may affect the writing process and facilitate certain types of writing instruction. Computers can support the cognitive processes involved in planning, writing, and revising text. Equally important is the potential impact of the computer on the social context for writing in the classroom.

This article first discusses the key features of word processors and how they may affect the writing process and social context for writing. Next, a summary is presented of research evidence on the overall impact of word processors in schools. Finally, the article discusses the potential role in instruction of several extensions to word processors, such as spelling and style checkers, synthesized speech output, computer networks, and prompting programs that support planning and revising.



Word processing differs from handwriting in several important ways that may influence the writing process. First, word processors permit flexible editing of text. Second, the visibility of the monitor and the use of a keyboard make writing more public. Third, they provide neat, printed copy. Fourth, they change the physical process of producing text, replacing handwriting with typing. Finally, word processors are complex tools that require some learning. The significance of each of these features is discussed in turn.

Flexible Editing

The most often mentioned characteristic of word processors, or text editors, is the flexibility they provide in revising text. Changes in spelling, insertion and deletion of words and sentences, and large-scale movement of blocks of text can all be accomplished relatively easily. The potential impact of word processors on revision is significant, since revision has been identified as both an important part of the composing process and a factor that distinguishes expert from novice writers. Though expert writers revise frequently to clarify meaning as well as to correct errors, the revisions of inexperienced writers are limited primarily to surface changes (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986). The ease of revision on the computer may encourage writers to make more revisions and improve their texts. It has also been suggested that the editing capability can affect the entire composing process by encouraging authors to write freely without concern for errors and awkward spots because it is so easy to make changes later (Daiute, 1985).

Some cautions are in order, however. The research evidence to date indicates that the impact of word processing on revision depends on individual writing skill. Revision is a complex cognitive process requiring writers to evaluate their writing, diagnose any problems, and figure out what changes to make (Flower, Hayes, Carey, Schriver, & Stratman, 1986). If students do not possess these cognitive skills, easing the physical requirements of revision will not help. Thus, it is not surprising that initial research indicates that experienced adult writers revise more extensively when using a word processor (Bridwell, Nancarrow, & Ross, 1984), but that word processing has limited impact on revision by inexperienced writers (Daiute, 1986; MacArthur & Graham, 1987).

Daiute (1986) reported that average eighth-grade students corrected more mechanical errors with a word processor than with pen and paper, but made few substantive changes within the text. MacArthur and Graham (in press), in a study of learning disabled (LD) students' composing, found no differences between handwriting and word processing in the overall number of revisions made by students, in the syntactic level of the revisions, or in the proportion of revisions that affected the meaning of the text. In both conditions, the majority of revisions were surface changes or minor changes in wording that did not affect meaning. The timing of revision, however, did differ between methods. With word processing, students made most of their revisions as they wrote the initial draft; whereas with handwriting, most revisions occurred when recopying the story. This difference suggests that, rather than freeing students from mechanical concerns during writing, the ease of editing may encourage writers to make many minor changes during initial composition.

Although word processing by itself appears to have little impact on revision by exceptional students, it may facilitate learning revising skills in an instructional context that teaches those skills. Graham and MacArthur (1987) taught LD students a strategy to use when revising opinion essays at a word processor. The strategy instruction increased both the overall number of revisions and the proportion of revisions that affected meaning, and also resulted in essays that were longer and higher in overall quality. Morocco and Neuman (1986) reported that a process approach to writing instruction combined with a word processor helped LD students learn to revise.

Visibility and Social Context

A second characteristic of word processors, less noted but perhaps equally important in instructional settings, is that the upright monitor and clear print make a student's writing accessible to peers and teacher and can promote social interaction around writing tasks. The accessibility of the monitor and the keyboard can be used to facilitate collaborative writing activities among students and sharing of work in progress (Levin, Riel, Rowe, & Boruta, 1985). Discussion of work with peers is a well-established principle of effective writing instruction (Graves, 1983). It should be noted that instruction on working cooperatively with peers is needed to ensure that collaborative writing activities are productive.

The visibility of writing on a word processor can also facilitate interaction between students and teachers (Morocco & Neuman, 1986). Teachers can observe the writing process of their students and gain a better understanding of how individual students approach writing tasks. Teachers can intervane at appropriate points to provide help with difficulties, to reinforce student decisions, or to react as a reader. Of course, the timing and content of teacher comments and questions are critical. Morocco and Neuman reported that special education teachers tended to intervene more actively when students wrote at a word processor, but that the impact on students depended on the teacher's approach to writing instruction. They found that students' motivation and sense of ownership of their writing were enhanced when teachers provided procedural support, or help in how to approach writing tasks, rather than giving substantive help with content or focusing prematurely on mechanics.

Printed Copy

Word processors give students the power to produce neat, printed work and to correct errors without damaging the appearance of the paper. This aspect of word processing may be especially motivating for those exceptional students whose written work is typically characterized by poor handwriting and numerous mechanical errors.

Printed output may also encourage publication of work in a variety of formats for real audiences (MacArthur & Graham, 1987). Word processors and related software make it possible to produce letters, books, newsletters, and other publications with a professional look. Such publishing opportunities are valuable in establishing writing as a meaningful act of communication and in motivating student writing (Graves, 1983). When the teacher is the only audience, children may see writing as an exercise in correct form and display of knowledge--and as another opportunity for failure. When writing for a real audience, they start to see writing as a meaningful way of telling others about their experience and knowledge. Publication can also make all phases of the writing process more meaningful. For example, publishing a newspaper involves students in gathering and organizing information, selecting the most important points, writing clear descriptions, and revising and editing each others' work (Riel, 1985).


Typing is potentially an efficient way of producing text, especially for students with poor handwriting skills. Typing is not typically part of the elementary school curriculum, however, and most students find that typing is slower and requires more attention than handwriting. When typing is not automatic, it may interfere with higher order processes involved in composing and adversely affect students' writing. MacArthur and Graham (1987) found that typing proficiency was highly correlated with the length and quality of stories composed on a word processor. Our observations and those of others (Daiute, 1985) indicate that the slowness of typing can be frustrating for students and interfere with motivation.

Students need systematic typing instruction if they are to use word processors regularly. A reasonable goal, short of touch typing, is for students to use the correct fingering while looking at the keyboard and to achieve a rate at least equal to their handwriting. Brief instructional sessions can be included as a regular part of computer use. Several typing tutorials are available that provide carefully sequenced instruction, practice on phrases and sentences, and feedback on rate and errors. Teachers should monitor students to encourage them to use the correct fingering. Programs that emphasize games with time pressure should probably be avoided since they encourage students to abandon correct form for short term increases in speed.

Operation of a Word Processor

In addition to typing, students need to master the text-editing, filing, and printing operations of the word processor. The design of word processing software has improved in recent years both in power and in ease of use, and several word processors have been designed specifically for use by younger students. Nonetheless, beginners of all ages commonly experience some frustrating difficulties in learning to use a word processor. MacArthur and Shneiderman (1986) described some of the problems that LD students have in mastering a word processor. One persistent problem area is misunderstanding the function of the return key in formatting text on the screen, which causes problems when students revise and print their work. Another common problem is loss of written work due to confusion about procedures for saving and loading files. Difficulties can be reduced by careful design of word processing software, selection of appropriate software for varying ages of students, and instruction in the operation of the word processor that anticipates common areas of difficulty (MacArthur & Shneiderman, 1986).


Motivation to write is often mentioned by teachers as a central reason for using word processors, and there seems little reason to doubt the numerous reports that word processing increases motivation (Daiute, 1986). In addition to improving motivation, two studies with LD students (Kerchner & Kistinger, 1984; Sitko & Crealock, 1986) reported that the use of word processing resulted in increases in the quantity and quality of student writing. Neither of these studies, however, compared the effects of special instruction in writing combined with a computer to special instruction without the computer, thus making it impossible to determine the contribution of the computer.

Research that has examined the effect of word processing independent of instruction has reported little impact on students' written products. MacArthur and Graham (1987) had fifth- and sixth-grade LD students, selected for their experience with word processors, write and revise stories using handwriting, word processing, and dictation. The handwritten and word processed stories did not differ on any of the product measures, including length, quality, story structure, and mechanical errors. Daiute (1986), in a study of nonhandicapped junior high students with extensive word-processing experience, found that the final drafts of word-processed compositions were somewhat longer than handwritten compositions and contained fewer mechanical errors but were not significantly different in overall quality.

Qualitative studies of the use of word processing in classroom settings indicate that the impact of computers on writing depends on the social and instructional context. Rubin and Bruce (1985) found that the effectiveness of word processing and related software depended on the decisions that teachers made about how to use the software and the social interactions that teachers permitted. In particular, they reported that the word processor facilitated social interactions among students if the teacher encouraged collaborative work. Morocco and Neuman (1986) found that word processors could be used to support a traditional skill-building approach to writing instruction, as well as an instructional approach focused on writing as a process. In the skill-building approach, word processors were used to present exercises and to correct mechanical errors in compositions. Within a process approach, word processors facilitated teacher-student interaction about the content of student writing and strategies for writing.

Research on word processing in school settings, especially with exceptional students, is still limited. Research is needed that examines the use of word processing with specific instructional techniques, such as instruction in revision, and with specific exceptional populations. Interactions among word processing, instructional methods, and the social context for writing also need further exploration.


The potential of the computer as a writing tool is not limited to word processing. Other computer applications, such as networks, spelling checkers and style analyzers, interactive prompting programs, and synthesized speech may also contribute to writing instruction for exceptional students.


Networks, both local area networks within a classroom and telecommunications networks, can offer expanded possibilities for written communication with real audiences. Peyton and Batson (1986) described the use of a network within a classroom to teach writing classes for hearing impaired students in which all discussion and interaction were conducted in writing. The network software enabled real-time conversation in writing. For hearing impaired students, the network provided an immersion approach to mastering English. The potential of the approach is not limited to hearing impaired learners. For hearing students, the approach can profoundly change the social context of writing and learning, facilitating collaborative writing and providing a connection between conversation and more formal writing.

Telecommunications networks can support written communication activities with distant audiences. Students need to write first for peers, parents, and teachers that they know in order to get direct feedback on how well their writing communicates (Graves, 1983). Students also need to write for less familiar audiences since a major way in which writing differs from conversation is that the audience is removed in time, space, and context (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986). The Computer Chronicles Newswire project (Riel, 1985) initially involved third and fourth graders with learning problems from three classes in Alaska and two classes in southern California and later expanded to include students from many countries. Students wrote articles about events and issues in their school and community and posted them on the network. Each site published a newspaper that consisted of articles selected from the network by the student editorial board. In the process, students entered into dialogues with others from different cultures, struggled with communicating clearly in writing, and gained valuable experience in evaluating and revising compositions. Cohen and Riel (1986) reported that essays written by seventh-grade students for other students via the newswire project were superior to essays written for the teacher to grade.

Spelling Checkers and Style Analyzers

The analytical power of the computer can be tapped to help students with editing. Spelling checkers will check each word in a document and recommend possible spellings for any word not appearing in the program's dictionary. Sophisticated programs, for example, Writers Workbench (Frase, Kiefer, Smith, & Fox, 1985), have been developed that will analyze aspects of style and grammar and provide editorial suggestions.

Spelling and style checkers have promise for exceptional students who typically have difficulty with spelling and mechanics, but further development of software designed for educational purposes, and of instructional methods, will be needed before computer analysis of writing will be helpful to beginning writers. Students can use spelling checkers to compensate for poor spelling skills, but current software was not designed to help students develop spelling skills. A spelling analysis tool designed for instructional purposes might look for common patterns in misspellings and provide that information to the teacher and student, or it might highlight only misspellings in a small set of words taht an individual student is currently working on. Current style analysis programs were developed for business settings and are of limited usefulness for writers below the college level (Bridwell et al., 1984).

Interactive Prompting Programs

Several researchers have tapped the interactive capabilities of the computer to develop prompting programs to guide students in applying effective strategies for planning, writing, and revising. Most of the development work to date has addressed the prewriting stage, focusing on invention and organization. Burns and Culp (1980), for example, tested the effectiveness of a program that carries on a dialogue with college students to help them generate ideas on a topic. The program presents prompts based on rhetorical theory and has some limited capacity to respond to cues in the student's responses. The Quill writing system (Rubin & Bruce, 1985) includes a Planner program that presents a series of questions designed to elicit ideas for an article. The prompts can be modified by the teacher for different types of writing. When used for a news article, for example, it might prompt students with who, what, where, and when questions. The student's responses are printed out for use in writing the news article.

Prompting programs have also been developed for use during composing and revising. Daiute (1986) used a word processor that included a revision prompting program. The program provided a set of questions that writers could ask themselves about the text they had just written, such as "Does this paragraph make a clear point?" Based on the student response, the program offered general suggestions for improvement. Daiute (1986) compared students' writing on the word processor with and without the revision prompts and reported that the prompts led students to make more frequent and meaningful revisions; no data on overall quality were reported. Woodruff, Bereiter, and Scardamalia (1981) developed prompting programs to help students write opinion essays. Although middle school students liked using the programs and thought they were helpful, the programs had no effect on written products.

Scardamalia and Bereiter (1986) describe computer prompting programs as a form of procedural facilitation, aimed at easing the executive burden of writing by providing direct support in some aspect of the writing process.

Prompting programs could also be used within a strategy instruction approach to writing (Graham & Harris, 1987). Direct teacher instruction in a composing strategy could be followed by guided practice with a computer program that prompted students to follow the strategy.

Synthesized Speech Output

The first talking word processors were designed for visually impaired and vocally handicapped users, but recently word processors with synthesized speech output have been developed to support reading and writing activities for beginning readers and novice writers. Speech output permits inexperienced or poor writers to use their relatively stronger auditory language skills to monitor their written production. Rosegrant (1986) studied the use of a talking word processor with first, second, and third graders over a 6-month period. Students used the speech output to monitor the spelling of individual words as they wrote, to catch errors in syntax, and to listen repeatedly to their entire text. In comparison with students who used the word processor without peech, these students spent more time writing, made more revisions, and produced texts that were longer and higher in quality. Rosegrant theorized that hearing their writing helped students to develop a more "critical ear," and thus to revise more effectively.

A talking word processor can support holistic approaches to reading and writing instruction that focus on meaningful communication rather than isolated skills instruction. Holistic methods must deal with the gap between what children want to express and what they have the skills to write and read. In initial language learning (the model for the holistic approach), adults support children in expressing themselves despite limited communication skills, but such individual scaffolding is difficult to provide in a classroom. A talking word processor can serve as a scaffold for both reading and writing, for example, by helping students read language experience stories and the writings of their peers.


Computers are dynamic tools for writing; they provide a wide range of opportunities for improving writing instruction. Word processors change the physical process of writing by replacing handwriting with typing and by making revision quick and convenient. Word processors and computer networks can change the social context for writing by supporting publishing for a variety of audiences and by facilitating collaborative writing projects and sharing of work in progress. Computers also can enhance instructional interactions between teacher and student by providing the teacher a window onto the writing processes of individual students. Interactive prompting programs can help students learn strategies for planning, writing, and revising. Synthesized speech can support reading and writing activities by exceptional students with limited reading skills. Spelling and style checkers can help students with the mechanical aspects of writing.

A caveat is in order. As with other educational applications of computers, the impact of computers on writing and writing instruction depends on how teachers and students make use of the technology. If computers are to contribute to better writing, they must be integrated with an effective instructional program. Special educators must develop sound instructional methods and computer-assisted composing tools that meet the needs of exceptional children. Further research is needed to determine how computers can be used most effectively to support writing instruction.


Bridwell, L. S., Nancarrow, P. R., & Ross, D. (1984). The writing process and the writing machine: Current research on word processors relevant to the teaching of composition. In R. B. Beach & L. S. Bridwell (Eds.), New directions in composition research (pp. 381-398). New York: Guilford Press.

Burns, H., & Culp, G. H. (1980). Stimulating invention in English composition through computer-assisted instruction. Educational Technology, 20(8), 5-10.

Cohen, M., & Riel, M. (1986). Computer networks: Creating real audiences for students' writing (Report 15). La Jolla, CA: University of California, San Diego.

Daiute, C. A. (1985). Writing and computers. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Daiute, C. A. (1986). Physical and cognitive factors in revising: Insights from studies with computers. Research in the Teaching of English, 20, 141-159.

Flower, L., Hayes, J. R., Carey, L., Schriver, J., & Stratman, J. (1986). Detection, diagnosis, and the strategies of revision. College Composition and Communications, 37, 16-55.

Frase, L., Kiefer, K., Smith, C., & Fox, M. (1985). Theory and practice in computer-aided composition. In S. W. Freedman (Ed.), The acquisition of written language: Response and revision (pp. 195-210). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. (1987). Improving composition skills with self-instructional strategy training. Topics in Language Disorders, 7, 66-77.

Graham, S., & MacArthur, C. (1987). [Improving learning disabled students' skills at revising essays produced on a word processor: Self-instructional strategy training.[ Unpublished raw data.

Graves, D. H. (1983). Writing: Teachers and children at work. Exeter, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Kerchner, L. B., & Kistinger, B. J. (1984). Language processing/word processing: Written expression, computers and learning disabled students. Learning Disability Quarterly, 7, 329-335.

Levin, J., Riel, M., Rowe, R., & Boruta, M. (1985). Muktuk meets Jacuzzi: Computer networks and elementary school writers. In S. W. Freedman (Ed.), The acquisition of written language: Response and revision (pp. 160-171). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

MacArthur, C., & Graham, S. (1987). Learning disabled students' composing under three methods of text production: Handwriting, word processing and dictation. Journal of Special Education, 21, 22-42.

MacArthur, C. A., & Shneiderman, B. (1986). Learning disabled students' difficulties in learning to use a word processor: Implications for instruction and software evaluation. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 19, 248-253.

Morocco, C. C., & Neuman, S. B. (1986). Word processors and the acquisition of writing strategies. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 19, 243-247.

Peyton, J. K., & Batson, T. (1986). Computer networking: Making connections between speech and writing. ERIC Clearinghouse on Language and Linguistics News Bulletin, 10(1), 1, 5-7.

Riel, M. M. (1985). The computer chronicles newswire: A functional learning environment for acquiring literacy skills. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 1, 317-337.

Rosegrant, T. J. (1986, April). It doesn't sound right: The role of speech output as a primary form of feedback for beginning text revision. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

Rubin, A., & Bruce, B. (1985). Learning with QUILL: Lessons for students, teachers, and software designers, (Reading Report No. 60). Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1986). Research on written composition. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching (3rd ed., pp. 778-803). New York: Macmillan.

Siko, M. C., & Crealock, C. M. (1986, June). A longitudinal study of the efficacy of computer technology for improving the writing skills of mildly handicapped adolescents. Paper presented at the Invitational Research Symposium on Special Education Technology, Washington, DC.

Woodruff, E., Bereiter, C., & Scardamaila, M. (1981). On the road to computer assisted compositions. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 10, 133-148.

CHARLES A. MACARTHUR is a Faculty Research Associate, Department of Special Education, University of Maryland, College Park.
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Author:MacArthur, Charles A.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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