Literacy for a new medium: Word processing skills in EST

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  • Sysmn. Vol. 18. No. 3. pp. 335-342. 1990 Printed in Great Britain

    0346-251X/90 $3.00 + 0.00 Pergamon Press plc



    Department of Language and Communication Studies, PNG University of Technology, Papua New Guinea

    While word processing skills are becoming increasingly important in tertiary courses in EST, there has been little discussion of what these skills are or how they might best be taught. This paper argues that word processing is a new creative environment which demands a radically different approach to writing. Originating, revising and formatting are important new literacy skills which students need to make effective use of the medium. The importance of developing these new skills is emphasized and some pedagogical implications of the relationship between thought and writing are discussed.


    Knowledge of word processing, like a good telephone manner, is rapidly becoming a professional survival skill. As technologists and engineers are increasingly called upon to produce their own finished documents, word processing is developing as a central aspect of technical writing courses. Learning how to use a word processor is especially useful for advanced students of English for Science and Technology. Not only because it will help them in their studies and careers, but because it calls upon them to practice and develop essential new language skills.

    Those of us introducing word processing have found that the task involves more than technical familiarization or developing mechanical skills. The medium is clearly not just a typewriter with some fancy additions. Despite the differences between packages, all allow documents to be created, amended and reproduced with a new ease. This influences the very process of writing itself and demands a whole new approach to creating written text.

    The advent of the word processor inaugurates a new literacy. On-screen editing entails entering a new creative environment with completely different ways of composing and assembling thoughts in writing. As a consequence, language teachers are presented with the challenge of helping EST students cultivate radically new ways of generating and organizing their technical documents.

    This paper briefly outlines some of the ways that creating word processed text seems to differ from traditional pen and paper methods. It then goes on to describe some classroom techniques which develop the relationship between thinking and writing that the new medium demands.




    Many scientific and technical students, particularly those whose first language is not English, are anxious about writing. Often previous classroom experience has taught them to approach writing as a means of demonstrating learning rather than for communicating ideas. Perhaps their earlier language learning background may not have prepared them to regard writing as a strategy for reasoning, while others have been discouraged by their difficulties with the writing system itself. Few of them see writing as an essential technical competence or an integral part of their professional activities.

    It was recognized some years ago that foreign language students could benefit from the facilities provided by a word processor (e.g. Higgins, 1984; Higgins and Johns, 1984). The focus at that time however was the motivational value of instant error correction and the pedagogical advantages of text reconstruction. What was not obvious then, and what teachers are confronting now, is the crucial relationship between composition and thought.

    Word processors have turned out to be rather more than devices to automate paperwork, merely reducing the time and effort involved in preparing, editing and filing documents. More far reaching effects have resulted from the ease of on-screen editing they offer. This encourages users to experiment with changing or adding words, rearranging sentences and paragraphs and examining the effects of different layouts. Word processors have made text generating and editing so much more flexible, that the instant clean copy of corrected text has created a powerful motivation to write while stimulating new ways of creating text.

    Writing is both a process and intellectual discipline that requires and promotes unique ways of thinking. The ability to control our thoughts means seeing ideas written down before they can be shaped, developed and improved. Techniques such as brain-storming, list- making, information sorting, outlining and so on which force ideas onto paper are essential means of organizing what we are going to write in any medium. With the word processor they are the indispensable first steps to the process of text creation.

    The creation of formal technical documents, whether reports, articles, manuals, technical proposals or whatever, must be a sustained and multi-layered activity. It involves making connections, perceiving relationships, evaluating data and drawing conclusions. Writing with a word processor demands this continual refashioning of expression and reevaluation of material as an integral aspect of text development.

    In most language classrooms the skills of preplanning and redrafting are rarely demanded and few foreign students even perceive that they are relevant to them. Mapping out ideas and editing completed written work can be onerous and time-consuming tasks. Particularly in busy schedules where language classes compete for time with core technical subjects. Consequently most students generally submit their first effort as a final draft. This severely restricts the creative process and fails to correct careless organization which prevents the effective communication of ideas.

    Foreign language students of science and technology therefore often have to be coaxed over both an initial computerphobia and their reluctance to write. This means the teacher


    must focus on the tool and not the technology, providing students with the knowledge to practically use the medium to best serve their communicative goals. An intrinsic aspect of learning what the computer has to offer involves coming to terms with the radical changes it demands in the way that written work is generated and organized. Any approach to the new medium which doesnt involve a new strategy merely creates the conditions for frustration and failure.


    The key to developing ideas using a word processor is rapid composition. Fast is best as the medium allows the creative process to gather momentum without pausing for elegant expression, typos, spelling errors or even correct punctuation.

    With pen or typewriter, writers are simultaneously concerned with selecting, editing, formatting and printing words. The mechanics interfere with the creative process, deflecting concentration and slowing up thought processes. Second thoughts are discouraged by the logistics of erasers, correction fluid and legibility. By separating composition and production, word processors free thought from the labour of actually producing it. The certainty of good quality final copy allows writers to concentrate on their ideas and promotes keyboard brain-storming.

    Students appear to be less intimidated by this approach than one might expect. Although new users have to overcome the initial QWERTY hurdle, they soon find the keyboard a perfect learning environment because of its responsiveness. Moreover, by taking over much of the mechanical operation involved in the writing process, it frees students from their fears of bad hand writing and of committing themselves to paper. Not only does everyones work look equally presentable, but students have the security of knowing that screen text is so ephemeral that a few key strokes can extinguish it, leaving nothing to be assessed or criticized.

    Once some control over the keyboard has been gained, students can be given oral dictation exercises which force them to copy down what is said as fast as they can. In addition to any listening comprehension skills this develops, the method encourages proof-reading and helps students to gain the necessary confidence that everything can be put right later. Most errors are quickly located by checking through and the remainder corrected on the second reading.

    The next step is for students to enlarge on a structured list of ideas, using it as an outline for a memo or brief report. Time restrictions force students to concentrate on getting out ideas quickly while excluding all other considerations. The goal is to help students plan their own documents and persuade them to rapidly build texts up from outlines.

    The importance of an outline as a strategy for organizing ideas obviously needs a great deal of attention as it is the foundation of the document. It is not an immutable structure but may be constantly changed, further points being created as additional pegs to hang ideas on. The outline begins as single words or phrases to identify the headings and the detailed text is progressively filled out by further brainstorming and revision.


    Outlining allows the writer to block out the subject matter by providing a necessary structure while stimulating the generation of ideas. Students are forced to reread their documents and encouraged to discover further connections and new points as they draft. Only when the writer has exhausted all he or she has to say on each point, are stylistic and mechanical conventions attended to and logical considerations developed. Actual communicative aspects of the text are addressed and reader-awareness is added only as the document takes shape.

    Setting problems and getting students to brain-storm ideas on the keyboard has the virtue of encouraging users not only to draft documents without analyzing them, but also to go back and rework them. Because some ideas are more difficult to develop than others moreover, this also induces students to think in a non-linear way.

    With pen and paper students seem unable to envisage any other way of working than starting with an introduction and ending with the conclusion. Introductions are notoriously difficult to compose and writers are often deadlocked by the torture of composing the first attention grabbing sentences on paper. The freedom to just write down whatever occurs to them around a basic structure is a tremendously liberating and productive exercise for students.

    These methods both encourage students to use new and unfamiliar equipment while developing the strategies and procedures which will allow them to make best use of it. For only when the ideas are on the screen can revisions begin and students employ the real power of a word processor.


    Revision involves feeding the basic plan back to the mind for reworking. Obviously this is the major advantage of the word processor for writers. It is facilitated by simply positioning the cursor and deleting, replacing, copying or moving words or blocks of text instantaneously.

    Unlike writing in other media, where it is often seen as a separate activity performed on completed drafts, revision using a word processor is both an essential and recursive activity. It is performed at any point in the writing process on any text segment. It refers not only to detecting and correcting errors but to evaluating, expanding and filling out the text profile.

    Students seem to find that editing on-screen text can be done with an objectivity which is hard to achieve when working on their own handwriting. Because changes are made electronically with existing text being completely replaced, the confusions of mechanical alterations are avoided and the tedium of retyping the entire document eliminated. With pen and paper most students seldom revise their written work and even when they do, redrafting is usually confined to correcting spelling and punctuation. The brain-storming method of creating text however, demands that editing is taken seriously as an integral part of document creation, both to develop ideas further and improve phrasing.

    Initial exercises are usually necessary to acquaint new users with such editing features as text location, deletion and electronic cut and paste. Exercises may include reordering


    jumbled sentences, finishing incomplete documents, editing texts according to proof-readers marks and linking sense frames into connected prose (e.g. Robinson, 1985). However, while prefiguring later work, these exercises are only peripheral to more crucial tasks of reworking ideas on screen, remodelling expression, and sequencing material.

    The continual reexamination of the embryo text by the writer generates an awareness of further possibilities of exploitation and development. Reworking an existing text environment fosters an awareness that something is discrepant or incomplete or is somehow related to another idea or text segment. The actual intellectual process is unclear but is quite distinct from generation of initial text in its demands and development (Bartlett, 1982). Reviewing seems to bring contact between existing text on the screen and a body of relevant knowledge at some level of consciousness from which related ideas can be constructed or represented.

    The manipulation of sentences and paragraphs on a screen during editing is clearly a powerful incentive to perceive new connections between ideas. Edward de Bono argues that this text rearrangement capacity makes word processors into thought processors which can be used to solve problems (Robinson, 1985). He too suggests that users key in random thoughts and then expand this into continuous prose if necessary. Providing students with problems and letting them work at them in this way is a great stimulus to productivity in generating ideas.

    Checking a text for readability is another major reason for redrafting and teachers can provide valuable assistance in nurturing these skills. Readability obviously plays a crucial role in technical documents, particularly if they are directed at a non-technical audience. The non-specialist language teacher must therefore use his or her lack of subject expertize as a resource to judge the communicative effectiveness of technical work. Long, complex sentences, a profusion of polysyllabic words, overuse of unfamiliar specialized terms or acronyms, vagueness and redundancies are the curse of much scientific and technical writing. Their elimination is one goal of revision.

    One approach to this is for students to attack poorly written documents using on-screen editing techniques. Various letters, reports or proposals packed with jargon, vague language, redundancies, meaningless courtesies and logical logjams can be put on disk for student redrafting. The goal is for students to become aware of the importance of direc...


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