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.