Chapter 1 and 2–“The Development of Writing Abilities”

“The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18) Schools Council Research Studies
Chapters 1 Britton, Rosen, Martin

In this chapter, titled “The Background to the Project,” Britton, Rosen, and Martin (BRM) explain their intentions to develop a classification system that sheds light on the writing process and goes beyond the already established system that classifies all writing to four categories: narration, description, exposition, and argument. BRM explain that this firmly planted classification system is based on four writing intentions (to convey, to tell, to inform, and to persuade). They then assert that this category system is problematic for several reasons because the categories: a.) are derived from finished products of writing professionals; b.) are prescriptive and make no observations on writing process; c.) only focus on intended effect upon an audience; d.) obscure the ways in which many writers perform multiple, simultaneous functions as they write; e.) do not take into account the fact that “many pieces of writing employ one mode to fulfill the functions of another” (5); and f.) limit the scope of mental activities that writers actually engage in when they write. Unlike this systerm, BRM want to create a model, which would characterize all mature written utterances and trace the process that led to them. In order to develop this model, BRM collect and transcribe data from 2122 pieces of writing from 65 secondary schools by 500 students in 1, 3, 5, and 7th grade. Their goal was to define a system of classification which would allow them to trace the stages at which school students become aware of their rhetorical situation and invested in writing to meet the demands of different rhetorical situations and thus shift genres that may better serve their purpose (9). After a year of initial investigations, BRM decided to develop a multi-dimensional model, which considers the following variables to research student composing process:
• Level of involvement in writing act
• A writer’s sense of audience
• Teacher’s expectations
• Function
• Various language resources a writer brings to text
• Purpose of writing.

Chapter 2: The Process of Writing

In Chapter 2, McLeod explains that the purpose of the investigation of student’s writing processes was to see if their processes matched the processes described by adult professional writers as well as teachers and composition textbooks. Their goal was to understand and ultimately describe how children’s writing develops and how children’s interactions with writing sponsors and others influenced their processes. McLeod and others spend a large amount of time analyzing the pre-writing strategies children use and discovered the following steps are taken before students actually begin drafting:
• Fit new knowledge in with previously known knowledge. Assess beliefs and feelings before rejecting or accepting knowledge. Ie. Making sense of knowledge.
• Apply new knowledge to writing assignment.
• Become aware of readers’s expectations
• Consult peers, teacher, mentors to help comprehend and interpret task and apply knowledge.

After discovering these pre-writing acts, McLeod then breaks writing process into three acts—conception, incubation, and production.

Conception occurs when writing task is set and then student explains to him or herself what he or she must do after assessing previous knowledge, feelings, and attitudes. The conception stage for a school assignment is largely spent trying to understand the implied expectations of teachers, which makes the conception stage often more difficult than the writing stage. This stage ends when writer fully understands task at hand and has some idea of what he or she is going to write about.

Incubation occurs as students develop understanding of material they are writing about and forms a plan of how to present that understanding of material on the page. Thus, in this stage in which one explains material to the self, a writer participates in both expressive and communicative writing acts. Time is needed during this stage to incubate one’s ideas. Discussion with others is often part of stage because it is helpful in permitting expression of tentative conclusions and opinions, which gives writer confidence to move into drafting or what McLeod calls the production stage.

The production stage, the actual writing stage, is difficult to study. McLeod reports the evidence her group gained from direct observations, from what writer says, and from processes inferred from the product. According to direct observations, common behaviors in finding a way to a topic and making some kind of subjective decision about the best way to write about topic included beginning by writing name and title neatly at top of page, asking questions, moving around the room. Once students started scanning back to what had already been written was common. McLeod refers to Frank Smith’s work to demonstrate that once writing begins, teachers should not interrupt so ideas can pour forth onto the page. Concerns with grammar and style impedes development of ideas as well. McLeod also notes that students seem to write better with fewer constraints.

Through this investigation McLeod and others realized that children find their own ways of processing ideas and information and feelings. When we help children write, we must respect those processes and the more we can understand how each writer’s processes work, the more we can help them develop a better product. In the end, we need to respond to what students write rather than what they intend to write. Also, though if gap occurs, we can help students understand procedural difficulties that arose when trying to achieve their intended writing goals.

McLeod also speaks of the role of memory and imitation in writing. McLeod notes that we are writing, the short-term memory is drawing on long-term memory. Problems in fluency often arrive when our short-term memory fails us and thus causes writer to lose track of thoughts, omit or repeat words, and/or misconnect and blunder in some way. McLeod also notice the value imitation can play in helping students develop their own style.

Lastly, McLeod touches on the final stage of writing—revision—and asserts that revising should not be about correcting and improving but also about re-conceiving how a writer will present material to satisfy both reader and self. She ends this chapter by acknowledging that not two students write alike.

Thoughts for fellow new TAs in WRT 105:

While reading this excerpt, I could not help but feel concerned and more frustrated with the Mind the Gap Unit many of us were just expected to teach. One concern that was also raised during last week’s readings is the issue of time. As Briton and others note, the stages of conception and incubation take a considerable amount of time, especially because in school writing, the conception stage is often more difficult than the actual writing stage itself. The Mind the Gap unit we just finished in WRT 105, in particular, seems to perfectly illustrate the difficulties that arise when students don’t have time to fully participate in the conception and incubation stage in meaningful ways. For it was evident at least in my class that before students could develop some idea of what to write about, my students needed to spend a considerable amount of time understanding the task before them, understanding the expectations about writing at the academic level, understanding the assumptions they brought to the text and the unit, and understanding the new knowledge gained from both the novel and outside readings. None of these demands in and of themselves are easy, and when combined, I realize now the immense difficulty students had to engage in before the could even begin drafting their discovery draft. Considering the difficulties of these negotiations, I find myself even more frustrated with an assignment that expected students to negotiate all of these complexities plus write the essay in a three-week unit.

Yet, perhaps, what we need to realize about this diagnostic unit is that the unit is intended for students to realize just how much time is needed to fully participate in all stages of the writing process. If this is true, we must make sure we allot time in class for students to understand this point. I raise this issue because when reading this chapter, it really hit home just how complex the pre-writing process is. Before reading this chapter, I have tended to think of pre-writing in such simplistic terms: we receive an assignment, we figure out what teacher is asking us to do, we think of an idea, we research, we develop a plan of attack, and then we begin writing. And in reality, these are the acts we engage in during the pre-writing process. What Briton and others helps us see, however, are the psychological processes that are demanded in these acts. When I now consider the complexities of these psychological demands, all of the sudden I begin to realize just how difficult writing actually is.

I think what is really positive about Writing Analytically is that it does address the psychological demands of writing. The heuristics provided in the text are specifically designed to help students better understand the expectations about writing at the academic level and the assumptions they bring to a text. The heuristics also provide useful strategies for helping students better understand the material they encounter in these texts. Before reading this chapter, I knew I liked Writing Analytically but I couldn’t really pinpoint why. Now I do—because it really does help students work through the psychological demands of writing. We just need to give students time to work through these psychological demands.

When we will learn to stop demanding more products and start helping students actually work through the process we preach they must engage in to write successfully? At this point, our curriculum seems designed just to help students go through the motions of the writing process rather than give students the opportunity to fully engage in the process. Hmmm…what changes to our pedagogy and curricula would need to be made to really teach a process based pedagogy??? How would our composition classes differ? What would we spend time in class actually doing????

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2 responses to “Chapter 1 and 2–“The Development of Writing Abilities”

  1. Eileen E. Schell

    Laurie, you have synthesized/provided a good overview of Britton et al AND you have articulated some really interesting points about the Mind the Gap unit, which I used as well in my 105 class this term. I think you are right that the unit expects us and the students to work through a complex series of tasks very quickly with little time for all of the factors to come together. I know that the unit serves a diagnostic function, and I think that is an interesting strategy to pursue. Yet there are some real material constraints operating. Even though most of the assignments we do in the unit build toward the essay (they involve invention strategies, discovery drafting, revisions), there is also the role that discussion and reading plays: the role of “talk” in invention and incubating ideas. There is also the role of “reading.”

    Students are assumed to have read the novel before arriving at SU (some did and some didn’t as we all discovered, I’m sure), and then they must reread the novel as they are working on the assignment. One of the most challenging factors I faced was the fact that it took a lot of time for students to do a decent reading and rereading of the book once they had read it (of if they had read it ;-). For one, rereading a novel was a foreign concept to many, and the outline assignment made them/forced them to do it. Several marveled that they saw different themes when they reread the book. “It’s a whole new book for me,” I heard several say. So there was the writing process element, but there was also the reading process (I don’t think they are entirely separate). I fudged and extended the assignment into the fourth week, and I also had a round of conferences to go over the drafts, so I tried to buy myself some time. I think that paid off as I’m finishing up the papers now, and I think there was a pay-off with more time built in for conversation and revision.

    I think reading the unit I assignment through the lens of Britton et al was very interesting. Something to bring up in 670?

  2. Laurie – You’ve given me buckets and buckets of some kind of precious metal here, as usual… I must say that as I read through the “stages” (and having just read Tanya’s blog that takes exception with the word – and thus isolates with questionable quotations, I can’t help but do it myself) I was alarmed at the “figuring out” of writing process studies. Are there really “three stages”? Does there NEED to be? What purpose does the stage-system serve? It “generalizes,” as Ede would say, the writing process and therefore creates… what? Unity? Coherency? A current-traditionalist model? How is helped with the systemazation of the writing process? Not Lynn or Tony to be sure. What does the knowledge of conception, incubation, and production do for our instruction? For that matter – what does the knowledge of prewriting, drafting, revising, and polishing do for our instruction? It is only useful in a way that diminishes its problematic nature when, as Laurie points out, it forces a reconsideration of what we “know” about student writing. The discussion of Mind the Gap, for example, is predicated upon the idea that students – 1. aren’t fully aware of his/her writing process and 2. writing relationships are maleable as student writers mature. Thus, conception IS the class in a much more authentic way than we often acknowledge – and than student’s expect. Think about this – not only are the Mind the Gap students struggling to make sense of the novel, the secondary sources, class discussions, etc – but they are also challenged to sort out the task of a thesis-less piece of writing – and challenged to assert themselves into a discourse community that approves of such an approach! Hence, the typical freshmen composition student response at the end of the semester that either they – 1. never understood what they hell we were talking about OR 2. they finally come to understand what the TASK IS (aka – the task of writing itself). So – incubation, then, is college writing as a perpetual engagement… and the product is, well, democracy, I hope. So – while I COMPLETELY understand the reservations we’ve all voiced about the ethics of the Mind the Gap unit, I think that the nature of this new system of writing (dare I add on ‘process’ here?) requires a sudden break from not only what students understood about writing – but what students understood about how to “conceptualize, incubate, and produce” writing. My question – isn’t this “break” really a lot like Freirean banking? Aren’t we really constantly saying, as compositionists, that what WAS isn’t good enough – and so we are here to teach a new way? Tabula rasa, my friends. Tabula rasa. Weren’t students conceptualizing, incubating, and producing before WRT 105? Why must there BE disconnect? (I mean this with sincerity, because I go into freshmen comp and bash all 5-paragraphy things that have come before just like everybody else.) Or is the disconnect a pivot point in the process itself? Is that disruption what separates high school writing from acadmic, discursive analysis? And if that is the case – are we simply embracing post-modern moments fanatically here? What is the goal? And what consequences can we accept?

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