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Three approaches to progress: understanding the writing of exceptional children.

Three Approaches to Progress: Understanding the Writing of Exceptional Children

Within the past two decades, researchers, practitioners, administrators, and politicians have come to recognize, once again, that writing is a phenomenon of great social significance. The result of this recognition has been a call for increased research and practice in the writing area. Researchers and practitioners have responded enthusiastically to this call (see Hillocks, 1986, for a summary). As writing research and practice have come to be recognized as extremely important activities within the general educational community, researchers and practitioners have begun to explore the writing phenomenon within the context of special populations, such as among exceptional children.

In their rush to conduct research and to teach writing, researchers and practitioners have brought with them three assumptions that accompany the enterprise of all educational research. Specifically, these assumptions include (a) research necessarily brings about advancements in our understanding of writing, in general, and among exceptional children, in particular; (b) research advancements can be translated into practice such that writing instruction among all populations can be significantly improved; and (c) the accumulation of these research advancements and improved practices constitute progress in writing (Mosenthal, 1983).

Although this belief in progress has provided incentive for researchers and practitioners to expand the writing discipline, it has produced more confusion than clarity (Mosenthal, 1983). As researchers and practitioners have rushed to advance progress in writing, they have produced a multiplicity of definitions of writing. Many of these definitions make competing claims about what constitutes the nature of writing.

The problem becomes further compounded when one notes that researchers and practitioners are not just talking about "writing." They usually go one step further and distinguish between "good" and "poor" writing (e.g., White, 1986). As such, not only do writing researchers and practitioners differ greatly in terms of how they define writing as an objective phenomenon, but they also disagree on how writing should be defined as a socially valued phenomenon. The problem becomes most acute when one considers what writing is and should be from the perspective of special populations (Walmsley, 1983).

At issue here is the question of what would constitute the ultimate progress in writing research and practice. If one could ideally understand writing in research and practice, what would characterize the ideal definition of writing such that no further improvements would be necessary? Related questions are, What would be the implications of this ideal definition for defining the writing of exceptional children? Are these definitions of writing for general populations to apply to exceptional children? Or are these implications not desirable, such that one would want to identify a different ideal definition of writing for exceptional children?

To date, these questions have been largely ignored. Few attempts have been made to determine what constitutes progress in writing research. Nor has any attempt been made to consider the implications of how to define progress in writing for general populations and how to define progress in writing for exceptional children. Instead, writing researchers and practitioners have simply assumed that progress is progress; what constitutes progress for general populations is the same for exceptional children (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986).

Rather than acknowledging the multitude of competing definitions of writing in research and practice, researchers and practitioners seem to believe that their particular definition is best. To simply decree what writing is and should be does not eliminate the need to recognize that (a) writing is many things to many people; (b) there are many definitions of good writing, each suggesting a different goal or end of what writing should be; and (c) these definitions of good writing, in turn, constitute implicitly different ideals of progress. The question thus remains, How does one know what makes one definition of writing better than another? The answer to this question will help determine what constitutes progress, wherein better definitions of writing replace existing definitions such that improvement in research and practice is achieved (Popkewitz, 1984).

In the absence of understanding what makes one definition of writing better in research and practice, the first purpose of this article is to consider this issue from the perspective of what constitutes progress in writing research. The second purpose is to consider exceptional children's writing in light of this discussion of progress.



To understand progress in writing research and practice, one must first understand the different ways that writing can be defined (Mosenthal, 1983). One way to define writing is to construct a descriptive definition. There are four parts to a descriptive definition: (a) a phenomenon to be defined, (b) a term or label assigned to the phenomenon, (c) a set of features that characterize the label-phenomenon relationship, and (d) an observer, or person who believes that the features in (c) adequately and sufficiently characterize the label-phenomenon relationship.

For example, a descriptive definition of writing might include a researcher who serves as an observer. To characterize the label-phenomenon relationship between writing (i.e., the label) to writing (i.e., the phenomenon), the researcher might identify four defining features: essay content, organization, sentence structure, and mechanics. According to the researcher, these features best epitomize the writing-writing relationship.

A second way to define writing is to construct an operational definition (Mosenthal, 1983). There are six parts to an operational definition of writing. These include (a) an observer observing (b) the writing behavior or output of a writer. This behavior or output has been elicited by (c) a set of materials (d) administered using a fixed set of procedures in (e) a given location or setting. The observer determines whether the observed written output characteristics meet (f) a set of criteria; if these criteria are met, this qualifies the behavior that produced the output to be called writing or "good writing," as the case may be.

In formulating a theory of writing, we pair a descriptive definition with an operational definition via a set of "bridge principles" (Mosenthal, 1983). These principles indicate how features in the descriptive definition of writing that cannot be directly observed or measured (e.g., "a writer's level of prior knowledge about a topic," McCutchen, 1986) can be rendered observable and measurable by a corresponding operational definition of writing (Hempel, 1966). As such, bridge principles represent a set of logical assumptions of how features in the descriptive definition relate to the six aspects of an operational definition.

Hence, a set of bridge principles might state that because baseball experts know more about the relevant actions of the game, they would be more likely to include relevant action statements in writing a story about baseball than would people low in baseball knowledge (McCutchen, 1986).



In formulating descriptive and operational definitions of writing, one would ideally formulate "fully specified" definitions (Mosenthal, 1983). These definitions consist of all the distinguishing features of all the descriptive definitions of writing. Similarly, they would include the six characteristics that make up an operational definition of writing, for example, writers, output characteristics, and scoring criteria. In reality, however, writing is always defined using "partially specified" definitions (Mosenthal, 1983). These definitions consist of only a select sample of distinguishing features and characteristics that make up descriptive and operational definitions.

The problem of understanding writing, good writing, and the writing of exceptional children takes on meaning when we realize that all definitions of writing are partially specified. This is to say that we can create an unlimited number of descriptive definitions, operational definitions, and theories of writing by selecting different features, writers, materials, procedures, and scoring criteria. The questions that remain are, How does one know which of these definitions is best? Which definitions represent progress over others? and Which definitions are best suited to defining the writing of exceptional children?

The answers to these questions depend on the way one interprets the nature of definitions and what is meant by an "improved" definition of writing. In other words, these questions depend upon which approach to progress one subscribes to.


The literal approach to progress is based on the belief in "literal correspondence"--that there exists an ideal definition that best characterizes a label-phenomenon relationship as it exists in reality (Mosenthal, 1985). According to the literal approach, the more error variance a writing theory accounts for and the larger the main effects (see Kamil, Langer, & Shanahan, 1985, for further discussion of these points), the more closely this theory's operational definition fits its descriptive definition; in turn, the more literally the descriptive definition is believed to correspond to the phenomenon of writing as it exists in reality. In general, this perspective represents a conscious attempt to apply definitions of progress in the physical and natural sciences to descriptions of progress in the social sciences.

Writing as Academic Competence

Underlying the literal approach to progress is the belief in the "academic goal" of writing and education (Mosenthal, 1983; Walmsley, 1983). In brief, this goal maintains that the purpose of education is to reproduce the cultural and moral values of society by conforming to the expressed wills and desires of society's gatekeepers (Apple, 1982; Giroux, 1987). In the elementary grades, children's academic competence is judged, in part, by how well their handwriting, spelling, punctuation, and grammar conforms to the preestablished standards of society (Walmsley, 1983). The greater the degree of conformity, the better a child's writing is said to be and the better a child is said to be as a student.

At the secondary and college levels, students' academic competence is judged, in part, by how well they are able to reproduce information as represented in textbooks and lectures (Resnick & Resnick, 1977). The point here is that through these "sacred texts" the goodness of a society and an intellectual discipline is presented. In tests, this competence is often judged by how closely the information in a student's essay conforms to the information as presented by society's authority (Fish, 1980). In terms of research, good writers, as well as exceptionally good writers, are those who best meet the operational criteria of a given theory. The assumption here is that these writers are exhibiting behaviors that most closely correspond to what writing is in reality.

Rank Ordering by Writing

The socio-political implications of the academic approach to education and the literal approach to progress have been noted by numerous philosophers, educators, and economists (Giroux, 1987; Glass, 1987). These implications are as follows. An important purpose of education is to rank order students. This is often done by classroom assessments and standardized tests (Cross & Paris, 1987). In writing, this is primarily accomplished by the use of holistic assessment (Mosenthal, Davison-Mosenthal, & Colella, 1987). In this type of assessment, students' performance is rank ordered relative to the continuum of performance of a given group of writers. The rank ordering that results from such testing measures as holistic scoring, in turn, ensures that different occupational levels will be filled (Jencks, 1972). Students who conform the most to education's operational criteria are said to be gifted students; students who conform the least are said to be the exceptionally poor students.

Because the machinery of tests and measurement ensures a rank ordering of students in education (Frederiksen, 1981), little needs to be done in terms of improving education. In short, education is self-sufficient relative to this goal (Glass, 1987). In sum, education works because it is consistent in the way it normally ranks students.

What this means in terms of improving education, in general, and writing programs, in particular, is that little needs to be done. In this view, the limited resources for improving education are best allocated to ensure that exceptional children at the very high end of the normal distribution are made even better. Why? Because this increases the extent to which these children meet the criteria of society's authorities, such as researchers, test makers, or teachers. This, in turn, extends the upper limit of what constitutes "good writing" and, hence, represents greater progress in education.

Academic Approach and Exceptionally

Poor Writers

To adopt the literal approach to progress and the academic approach to writing and education would mean that children operationally defined as exceptionally poor writers are the antithesis of progress, since they are the least likely to conform to society's norms. Because these children are at the very low end of the normal curve, they are usually viewed as adding little value to society in either a socially, economically, or politically meaningful way (Jencks, 1972). In this regard, attempts to apply these definitions of writing to exceptionally poor children ensure their social insignificance and implicitly label them not only poor writers but poor citizens as well.



In contrast to using literal approaches, some researchers have defined progress in educational and writing research from an interpretive perspective. These researchers argue that the observational instruments used to interpret a phenomenon, such as writing, influence how the phenomenon is defined. Because operational definitions of writing and other educational phenomena are such narrow instruments with which to observe reality, interpretive researchers often use the mind as a basic instrument for observation (Hayes & Flower, 1983), in addition to other instruments such as interviews, surveys, questionnaires, and field notes.

The interpretive approach provides no well-defined directives for deriving partially specified definitions of writing and other educational phenomena. In addition, the interpretive approach has few, if any, critical constructs for specifying the fit between a descriptive and an operational definition. In the absence of such critical constructs, supporters of the interpretive approach (e.g., Miles & Huberman, 1984) argue that science progresses by having observers view a phenomenon from a variety of perspectives at different points in space and time. Each of these observations is intended to yield a "thick description," or a detailed listing of descriptive features, that defines the phenomenon being observed (McCutcheon, 1981). As more and more observations are made over time, common features of the object or behavior being observed can be identified. Together these common features represent the improved descriptive definition of the phenomenon being studied.

Although different definitions of progress in the interpretive approach exist (e.g., Mervis, 1980; Wittgenstein, 1958), most researchers who have adopted this approach have reinterpreted progress in writing and educational research from a "family resemblance" perspective. As Wittgenstein (1958) argued, rarely does a set of phenomena labeled by one general term share an identical set of features under all contexts. Rather, phenomena share a pattern of overlapping features that make up a set of family resemblances, or shared critical features that distinguish one set of phenomena from all others.

In the interpretive approach, observations of an educational phenomenon, such as writing, yield separate descriptions of this phenomenon. One proceeds in an inductive manner, identifying the shared critical features between and among observations. Progress in the interpretive approach is made as new descriptive definitions of a phenomenon (often presented as taxonomies or models) replace given descriptive definitions. These new descriptive definitions represent improvements in that they identify more shared critical features of the phenomenon, viewed at different points in space and time, than did the former descriptive definitions.

Writing as Providing Self-Worth

Underlying the interpretive approach to progress is the belief in the "romantic goal" of writing and education (Mosenthal, 1983; Walmsley, 1983). With this goal, the purpose of education is to develop an individual's "autonomy," "self-worth," or "self-ownership" (Spring, 1975). This approach stresses the need for children's education to be free from the pressures and beliefs of society and stresses that individuals, rather than society, should define good and bad, right and wrong, and what is a good and bad choice. In sum, this approach identifies children and students as having the power to determine for themselves, as individuals, what constitutes the nature of their curriculum and what constitutes their individual progress.

The interpretive approach to progress and the romantic approach to education and writing are consistent in that both acknowledge the importance of the individual in society. The interpretive approach argues that all individuals contribute in their own unique way to society. To understand a phenomenon such as writing, we must understand the perspective of how individuals perceive themselves relative to this perspective. In that individuals in different social groups often share similar perspectives, we are able to achieve progress by understanding how different groups of individuals develop and share collective perspectives in different social situations (Bronfenbrenner, 1976).

Writing as Process

In acknowledging the sanctity of individuals, romantic educators emphasize that education serves the purpose of children and students, and not vice versa. In teaching and researching writing, romantic researchers and practitioners (e.g., Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1983) emphasize not so much the "product" of writing, as do literal and academic researchers and practitioners, but the "process." By focusing on the writing process, romantic educators emphasize that different children and students write differently, since they have different goals, experiences, and interests.

In this view, what is important is that children and students be provided with a rich set of experiences and numerous opportunities to write, so that they may acquire a rich repertoire of perspective-taking abilities; in turn, it is assumed that this repertoire will enrich the quality of children's and students' self-understanding and, consequently, the quality of their lives. Also emphasized is the sharing of writing in peer conferencing so that students gain understanding of the "family resemblances" that characterize their peers' writing (Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1983).

Interpretive Approach and Exceptional Children

In light of the interpretive and romantic approaches to writing, both exceptionally good and poor writers are considered important in the context of society. Both have individual experiences, interests, and goals that make their perspectives on life and living as important as that of any other group. To bring about progress in exceptional children's writing under the interpretive and romantic approaches, educators would first want to understand what constitutes the range of experiences, interests, and goals of exceptional children as individuals. Next, they would want to understand how these children realize or fail to realize their self-importance and worth as both individuals and groups. Progress in writing and education would be achieved when, through the process of writing, these exceptional children would achieve greater understanding and appreciation of themselves (Mosenthal, 1985; Popkewitz, 1984).


A third definition of progress in educational research reflects the thinking of discursive archaeologists (e.g., Foucault, 1972) and neo-Marxists (e.g., Giroux, 1987). These thinkers have argued that progress cannot be defined without considering: (a) the sociopolitical implications that definitions of phenomena have for society and (b) the groups in power that legitimize different definitions of phenomena.

For example, Foucault (1972) suggested that scientific inquiry at its most fundamental level is not an originating or innovative activity. Rather, in conducting scientific inquiry, researchers enter a definition system that already contains the objects they can speak about and the relationships they can invoke. In this regard, what researchers say is a matter of extending definitions of a phenomenon's key features consistent with the "constitutive rules" of a particular definition system. These rules define the well-formedness, or correct conditions, of how definitions are to be partially specified. In essence, the rules legitimize the structure and content of certain partially specified definitions and render others illegitimate.

Speech Communities in Education

Within the discipline of educational research, different "speech communities" can be identified (Shapiro, 1981). These communities consist of different researchers, practitioners, and administrators who share the same beliefs as to how a phenomenon should be defined; they abide by the same constitutive rules of partial specification and for deciding on the structure and content of the definition of their favorite educational phenomenon; and, finally, they believe in the same goals, or purposes, of education. Hence, these different speech communities can be distinguished on the basis of whether they adopt constitutive rules of the literal or interpretive approach to science, or whether they endorse an academic or romantic approach to education.

Within the different speech communities, we can identify sub-speech communities, each having its own favorite descriptive definitions of a given educational phenomenon. For instance, literal researchers can be grouped according to which operational definitions they use to define their favorite educational phenomenon. Finally, within these sub-speech communities, other smaller communities can be identified. These communities consist of researchers who share a common belief in a particular theory or a particular descriptive perspective of a given educational phenomenon.

The division into sub-speech communities produces numerous groups of educational researchers employing different technical languages or "discursive practices." Each discursive practice can be uniquely verified and refined by appeal to a particular speech community's constitutive rules for validating its chosen practice (Shapiro, 1981).

In addition to a shared belief of what an educational phenomenon is, each speech community maintains its own implicit belief of what education ought to be and what function education serves for society. As such, different speech communities of educational researchers and practitioners maintain different beliefs concerning the goal of writing, how good writing should be defined, and what value writing has for society (Mosenthal, 1983). In advancing different definitions of writing, speech communities compete to ensure that their definition is viewed as normative. The constitutive rules and dominant goal of whichever speech community is the recognized authority at a given time determine how a phenomenon should be defined.

Writing as Emancipation

Underlying the evaluative approach to progress is the belief in the "emancipatory goal" of writing and education (Mosenthal, 1983; Walmsley, 1983). This goal takes as its end the restructuring of the social, political, educational, and economic forces of society so that all individuals, as well as individual speech communities, have equal power, privileges, and resources (Giroux, 1987). According to emancipationists, educational institutions, as well as other institutions of society, are designed to maintain racial, social-economic, and gender class distinctions. These institutions do this by instilling the belief in their consumers that the literal approach to progress and the academic goal are the only ways to view "what should be." Dominant speech communities perpetuate this belief in order to maintain their power to legitimize definitions and to control institutions responsible for promoting these definitions (Foucault, 1972).

The ideal approach to progress, education, and writing for emancipationists would be society's implementation of the interpretive approach to progress, the tomantic approach to education, and the process approach to writing (Giroux, 1987). In sum, these approaches would be consistent with the emancipationists' belief in equality among all of society's individuals. However, since society does not currently subscribe to these approaches, ideal progress in the emancipatory sense can not be realized until all of society's citizens, including its children, students, and teachers, consciously realize the need to replace the current approaches to progress, education, and writing with those consistent with the interpretive approach to progress.

Restructuring Institutions

In light of the emancipatory approach to writing, exceptionally poor writers are viewed as powerless individuals in an educational system in which gifted children are privileged over below-average children. To bring about progress for these disadvantaged children, society's gatekeepers need to critically understand the assumptions of the literal approach to progress and the academic goal of education and the inequities that result from these assumptions. These gatekeepers next need to respond, in light of their critical understanding, to restructure society's institutions so that they operate in a manner consistent with interpretive progress, romantic education, and process writing. Under such a system, children who are exceptionally poor writers would then realize the same possibilities that above-average and gifted children now realize (Giroux, 1987).


How should one attempt to understand the writing of exceptional children? The answer to this question depends on which approach to progress is used. Three different approaches to progress in education and writing have been considered here. Each approach makes significantly different assumptions about what the goals of education and writing are relative to society. In turn, each suggests a significantly different perspective of how we view exceptionally good and poor writers as being beneficial and detrimental for society, respectively.

To pursue an understanding of exceptional children's writing from a literal approach to progress is to view exceptionally poor writers as being deterrents to progress; in this approach, they lower the "standards" of writing by lowering the average on standardized writing tests and assignments. On the other hand, gifted children are the beacons of progress; according to the literal approach, these children raise the standards by providing an upper bound on such writing measures as holistic scoring. In the case of exceptional children who are poor writers, they are least desired since they are least likely to assimilate the cultural and moral values of society; the gifted children, then, are the most desired because they are most likely to assimilate existing cultural and moral values.

To understand exceptional children's writing from an interpretive approach is to view all exceptional children--both good and poor writers--as being meaningful contributors to progress in a democratic society. They have their own unique experiences and social relations that enrich the quality and diversity of our culture at large.

Finally, to understand exceptional children's writing from a emancipatory perspective is to be critical of the distinction that is made between exceptionally poor and exceptionally good writers. According to this approach, the success of a democracy depends upon the best contribution of all its members, relative to their potential for participating in improving themselves as individuals in the context of society. The goal of teaching exceptionally poor, as well as exceptionally good, writers is to legitimize all children's experiences as well as to restructure the larger educational system so that it becomes less academic and more romantic in its orientations.

In sum, the purpose of this article is not so much to endorse one approach to progress over another. Rather, it is to raise our critical conscience. Writing researchers and practitioners often implicity identify with the good aspects associated with each of the three approaches to progress. As Shapiro (1981) argued, and as has been shown in terms of classroom research (Mosenthal et al., 1987), however, educators are often not at a liberty to define writing in a way that reflects their own eclecticism; rather their selection of discourse convention forces educators to adopt one definition of writing over another.

In light of such constraints, educators must be aware of the choices available in defining the writing of exceptional children. There is "freedom of choice but not from choice" in defining writing; at some point, educators must choose one definition as being the "best" definition of exceptional children's writing. Associated with the choice of definition is an implicit assumption of what constitutes progress in exceptional children's writing. By operating in the framework of one definition of writing and one approach to progress, educators and researchers assign different values to different types of exceptional children in terms of their potential contribution to society. Only by understanding these values may educators by truly wise in how they choose to define the writing of exceptional children.


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PETER B. MOSENTHAL is Professor, Reading and Language Arts Center, Syracuse University, New York.
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Date:Apr 1, 1988
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