The Reading Matrix
Vol. 2, No. 1, April 2002

Writing in an electronic medium: Research with language learners.
Pennington, M. C. (Ed.). (1999).
Houston: Athelstan
xi + 338 pp.

Reviewed by Hannelore Weber
University of Notre Dame

In the present day world, when erasable bond and manual typewriters seem to belong in a mythical time far in the past, we almost take for granted the enormous ease with which the computer enables us to communicate in writing. It would seem logical and obvious that in the field of foreign language education we would take advantage of these benefits. With the results of their research, the fourteen authors contributing to Writing in an Electronic Medium have sought to aid foreign language educators as they investigate the possibilities of shifting to an electronic medium. The various research studies were conducted with mature learners of a second language in a variety of countries. The studies dealt not only with word processing, but also with e-mail, hypertext, and the creation of web pages.

Chapter one explores the positive facilitative, quantitative, and qualitative effects of using a computer in the writing process. The study shows that the use of the word processor provided ease in generating, revising, and disseminating text and resulted in a product of higher quality which could reach a greater audience. The computer users also have the opportunity to enhance their products through access to databases, hypermedia, networks, e-mail, and the Internet.

In chapter two, the authors examine the effects of word processing on the general writing process, revisions strategies, the length and quality of the product, and student attitudes toward writing. Surprisingly, the results of the study show no significant differences between the word processing group and the paper and pencil group as to the general quality and length of the product. It does, however, show a difference in the way that the computer users approached the writing process.

Chapter three compares the effectiveness of "text analysis" programs versus "peer feedback" on the revision process. The results of the study show that peer tutoring combined with the use of a word processing program seemed to produce the more positive results. These include more revisions in general, more revisions on earlier drafts, substantial changes in content, and more additions of new information. The results of the study even suggest that the use of a text analysis program might actually discourage writers from making revisions and adding content.

Peer feedback is also examined in chapter four. This study compares the effects of peer feedback versus self-assessment on the quality of compositions produced by a group of ESL students who used word processing. The findings seem to indicate that peer correction can be quite beneficial in the areas of mechanics, vocabulary, organization, and content especially to writers with lower proficiency. The findings reinforce the value of multidraft writing with peer feedback.

Chapter five reports on a study which investigates the impact which the teaching of revision strategies has on the quality of texts produced in a computer based environment. The findings show that the teaching of revision strategies combined with the students' use of word processing results in higher quality revisions and final products which are markedly improved in content, organization, and language.

In chapter six, the author reports on a study which used keystroke logging to examine the writing process of a group of L1 and L2 university students as they wrote a timed examination essay on the computer. The results of the study show that longer pausing occurs most often at the ends of clauses, sentences, and paragraphs. As might be expected, the pauses of the L2 students are more frequent and of longer duration.

How students react to writing with a word processing program is the focus of chapter seven. The author worked with mature language learners and found that those individuals who have the most positive attitudes about using a word processing program also have the most positive attitude about their own writing. He even suggests that this positive attitude results in better quality essays. The author recommends that one identify the different types of attitudes toward the use of the computer and try to motivate students accordingly.

The benefits of using e-mail in a second language setting are investigated in chapters eight and nine. After examining the e-mail letters of more than 300 ESL students who were communicating in one location, the authors of chapter eight noted that the writing of the e-mails produced a "wealth of rational language" (p. 262). Although the e-mail project enabled students to establish and repair relationships, it did not seem to help students in their control of vocabulary and structure. The authors suggest that e-mail projects be "goal directed" (p. 263) and that the instructor's purposes and those of the students be clearly established at the outset.

The importance of planning and organization in an e-mail project are also stressed by the authors of chapter nine. In this case, the e-mail exchange was conducted with a group in a foreign country. The authors determined that carefully planned and guided task-based work would net the best results in linguistic improvement. A critical element is a strong commitment from both sides of the partnership.

In the last study, a group of Computer Studies students produced compositions with pen and paper, with a word processing program, and with a hypertext file for a web page. The authors concluded that with the word processor, students made more surface changes and revisions such as in grammar and mechanics, but with hypertext, they made more content revisions and displayed more creativity and originality in language.

Writing in an Electronic Medium would certainly be of interest to those involved in curriculum development, to teachers, and to any educators who wish to incorporate the use of the word processor, e-mail exchanges, on line reporting, and web pages in second/foreign language courses. This compilation of reports on various studies contributes to a better understanding of the current and potential role of the computer in second/foreign language learning and also points to the need for additional research in the area.

Because Writing in an Electronic Medium covers a broad range of topics within the area of L2 writing, this volume would certainly be of interest to researchers working with L2 writing, to those involved in curriculum development, to teachers, and to any educators who wish to incorporate the use of the word processor, e-mail exchanges, on line reporting, and the creation of web pages in foreign/second language courses. The early chapters report on studies, which are quantitative in orientation and examine writing as a process. This portion of the book might appeal more to those interested in research on second language acquisition. The remaining chapters deal with studies, which are more qualitative in orientation and would appeal to those readers looking for practical insights and suggestions, which could be applied to their courses. The reader who is looking for a neat set of conclusions which gives a ringing endorsement to the computer as the superior tool for L2 writers will probably be disappointed. A number of the studies show mixed results from L2 computer users. It is not at all clear, for example, that computer-assisted revisions are superior to those done by paper and pencil users. The mixed results certainly seem to indicate a need for more research on L2 writers using the computer as compared to those using pen and paper. Also useful would be research on the optimal pedagogical conditions in situations where L2 writers are indeed using computers. In addition, the constant advances in available computer hardware and software and the continuously changing attitudes of L2 learners toward the use of the computer, indicate that more research on computer assisted writing for L2 learners seems warranted. Although this volume cannot present a complete picture, the compilation of reports in Writing in an Electronic Medium certainly makes a valuable contribution to a better understanding of the current and potential role of the computer in second/foreign language learning.



































Hannelore Weber has been teaching at the University of Notre Dame since 1991. She holds a BA and MA in German Language and Literature. As the campus coordinator of the university's Innsbruck study abroad program, she teaches the intensive German language courses. Her current areas of interest are the use of video in the second language classroom and the implementation of learning strategies for L2 learners.