Computers distract from craft of writing


 Note: This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 8th, 2006.




by Christopher Paslay


Although technology has brought many advancements in education, computers are beginning to have a negative impact on students’ writing skills.


Years ago, before programs such as WordPerfect and Microsoft Office, teenagers actually needed a pen and paper to do a writing assignment. They also needed a dictionary, note cards, and a roll of quarters to photocopy any books, magazines or newspapers they planned to use as source material. Not in the 21st Century.


The traditional five-step writing process — prewriting, drafting, revising, editing and publishing — has slowly evolved into a system of shortcuts made possible by the Internet and state-of-the-art word processing programs.


Prewriting, the most fundamental step in writing a paper, has become the “Google Search.” Instead of using charts and diagrams to explore and develop ideas, teenagers can type their topic into an Internet search engine and press “enter.” In seconds, thousands of “hits” (links to Web pages) become available for students to use instead of articulating their own ideas.


Drafting and revising, steps two and three of the writing process, also have been compromised as a result of technology. Why would a teenager write out his entire paper on a piece of loose leaf when he can type it directly into the computer? Why would he go back and complete a second draft (which entails re-writing the entire paper) when he can cut and paste on a word processor?


Technology also has made editing, the line-by-line proofing of an essay, obsolete. Not many teenagers are going to use a dictionary and red pen to correct their spelling errors when running a “spell check” can do the same thing in a tenth of the time.


Which brings us to step five, publishing. Designing a paper’s cover page, especially in the primary grades, used to be half the fun. It involved colored pencils and construction paper and fostered a student’s creativity. Now, all a student needs to do to create a cover page is to download some clip-art, choose a fancy font and hit “print.”


Students today are a product of an instant gratification society. Writing a quality paper takes time, and most teenagers aren’t willing to make that sacrifice. Like steroids in major league baseball, technology has become a way for students to cheat — to bypass hard work and cut right to the end result.


School teachers should be aware of this and make a conscious effort to reinforce the traditional five-step writing process.


For starters, prewriting should begin with brainstorming. Forget the information on the World Wide Web, or what ideas can be borrowed from a search engine. Prewriting should be rooted in a student’s own experiences, so he can communicate a part of himself in his paper. Spending time on self-reflection and jotting down whatever comes to mind is a good way of doing this.


Drafting and revising should be done the old fashioned way, with a pen and paper. Hand writing a first draft enables students to get their thoughts and ideas down on paper in chunks, without the temptation to edit along the way. Doing so preserves a student’s voice, allows them to put their work down for a day or two and then go back to it with a fresh perspective.


Of course, when students edit as they go along (like so many do when writing on a computer), they often feel a piece of writing is finished after the first draft, and forgo making any corrections. This is why the editing phase should also be done by hand. Forcing students to edit by hand helps them gain a command of the English language. It also reinforces grammar, spelling and sentence structure, and helps strengthen their writing style.


Computers and the Internet are not a replacement for hard work; they’re just supplements. We as teachers must go back to the basics, and ensure that all students have a proper command of the written word.


3 thoughts on “Computers distract from craft of writing

  1. I agree, Chris. Wee awl no that spell check does knot work four correcting spelling. Hour students ewes it and never go back to look for mistakes like these, witch spell check does knot catch. Early learning techniques such as “Inventive Spelling” are two blame four many teens knot knowing how too spell, four they were never corrected. I believe this comment has made my point clear.

  2. I make my students hand in a hand-written rough draft before they give me their typed copy. This forces them to put pen to paper. Then, I review the paper to see if any of the students are using words far above their reading level. If they are clearly using words they didn’t write, I call them on it.

    I walk them through every step of the writing process. Each part of the writing process gets its own grade.

    No rough copy?

    Your final grade suffers.
    Etc, etc…

  3. in the classroom:

    Chris, I have to strongly disagree with you and David on this one. I have a feeling that you are in the same age range as I am. Let me give you a bit of my history with computers and education.

    The first computer I ever worked on was a Wang. For me it was almost an epiphany. I couldn’t type fast because I got nervous and made mistakes. Now all I had to do was to back space amd delete to retype a word, and could rewrite it many times to make changes without having to recopy it 80 billion times, and print. At the time, printers were in a separate room, you had to keep running back and forth. I even took a classes on how to use wang computers. I took to it like a fish takes to water.

    I first bought a computer in 1992, an apple lc, when I went back to school. In this case, it’s major use was for writing papers or killing time playing tetris. My brother, who is a computer genius and about 10 years younger than me, put “reader rabbit” and some other games for my son, who was about 6, on the computer for him.

    There were also forums, on almost every subject imaginable. Shared information. Truly I was in heaven.

    In 1994, people were going “on-line” but not a whole lot of us were on the internet because it was expensive. All of a sudden you could chat with people in real time. I received a gift from my brother, a 25 baud modem. Immediately the world opened up and I was addicted. There were so many electronic bulletin boards (bbs) and you could not only pick a bbs to chat on, but many were free. Boardwatch (a bbs) magazine was a staple in the bbs community as was delaware computer user, a free paper for bbs users that listed local bbses. The major services, aol, genienet, compuserve, etc. were not free after using a certain amount of time, and I talked to much to be charged by the hour. Bbsing it was. There was a software system called “chatlink” which some bbs systems used that allowed you to talk to people on bbses all over the world. I remember working at overnight camp for 9 weeks, managing to get my own phone line and racked up a bill for over 500 dollars. It was worth it! Then irc came along and you could chat globally 24/7. When AOL went to one price instead of hourly pricing, being online really caught on.

    So who was using this new system? In the beginning mostly men, and they fell into two groups, corporate men, whose work place was computerized and they would go on bbses in their spare time and just log off when the boss came in and teenage boys and young men who considered were considered computer geeks. There were women, but not many. Believe it or not, those who had home computers kept them either in an office they had in the house or the bedroom. Either way, the computer was not a part of a room like a telephone or television.

    I remember two things from those early days, I talked to and met the person who created the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Please Touch Museum. He was a student at Drexel or Penn. I also enlisted the help of a young man who was a college student studying biology. We planned the activities for a moving up banquet for the cub scout troop where my son belonged. The activity? A science fair where you could do the magic powder experiment (test for acid and bases), make perfume, make fizzy drinks, and other interactive science activities. Both the kids and the parents loved it. I wouldn’t have met and become friends with either of these two people had I not been a computer geek.

    Computer geeks back then would probably say that the period of time from when Jobs and Wozniak and Gates evolved computers to be able to fit on one’s desktop until the early 2000’s were the golden age of computing. I felt so strongly about using the computer that in 1998 I bought both of my children (my daughter was 10, my son was 13) their own computer and put it into their bedrooms. Funny that I wouldn’t allow them to have tv’s in their bedrooms at that time. Why did I do that? Because my computer was a major item in my living room, I was selfish and didn’t want to share it, and when they got their computers, chatting was a more adult thing to do, so I didn’t worry about that, and having a computer for them was like buying a set of encyclopedias (remember those?), I could help them find infor for school and they could type the info. I think they were lucky because at the time they used the computer as a large resource book and a word processesor/project maker tool.

    When I got on the internet about 1999, a whole other new world opened up for me as a teacher. I knew how to search and could find lesson plans and tailor them to fit what I was teaching and to truly interest the students. I wouldn’t teach with books that copyright dates of that were more than 2 years old (except if I was teaching math or literature). I would print info from the internet. If during that particular year I was teaching a grade instead of computers, I used the computer to find relative information for my students. When I taught 5th grade, my students won 2nd and 3rd place in the science fair and every student could tell you something about popcorn.

    All during this time, I was personally taking classes on different ways to use the computer in education, from the basics to how to use and webquests ,podcasts, powerpoints, blogs and streaming video in the classroom. I never checked out books from the library for research papers, I searched the web for the most current research. I remember doing all this research, and rewriting and printing information on a finger printing lesson I was doing, and it took a couple of days. Now you can find almost everything I used and had the students do on interactive websites. We’ve come a long way in a short time.

    There are two totally distinctive ways of teaching with the computer. One is the mechanics, you can find all of what you need to teach in the standards, and the other is teaching students to use the computer for info and teaching them ‘nettiquette.

    When I was teaching computers, and I gave the students free time, the majority of them went to websites that I had already shown them. Some went to math sites, some to science and history sites. I first started bookmarking and when I learned about de.lici.ous it was great, the students could not erase, either intentionally or accidently the sites I chose for them, yet they could access the site easily. The knew and would tell you that I said they could play shoot ‘em up games as long as they had letters and numbers. There are some things that I would ban, social networks such as myspace, facebook, and twitter. You can go there on your personal computer, not in the lab. As far as the Apple shake the baby app, it would become a teachable moment for grades 7-12.

    All technology changes. I would say that in my grandparents generation, almost no one used a personal computer, in my parent’s generation I’d say about 25% used a computer personal computer and a car or cell phone, and in my children’s generation almost every one uses some sort of computer technology, whether it be a personal computer, cell phone, palm, blackberry, etc. As Bob said back in the day “the times, they are a changing.

    For those of you who read the article, I want to share this with you. I saw this commercial online about 3 years ago. I thought that it was so neat, I wanted to teach about Rube Goldberg machines and use this commercial as a motivator. The sdp filtered utube and I swear it took me a couple of days to figure out how to by-pass the filter and post this video on my for the students,, but it was worth it. It took 400 takes before everything worked properly. Today, it would be easy to use even if utube is blocked, it can be found on a lot of websites and blogs. Enjoy!

    (i wish i could make this an active link! you’ll have to cut and paste to watch)

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