The Reading Matrix
Vol. 2, No. 1, April 2002
Writing in an electronic medium: Research with language
Pennington, M. C. (Ed.). (1999).
xi + 338 pp.
Reviewed by Hannelore
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
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.