“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
• 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????