Research on the Macintosh, Learning Disabilities, and Writing

© 1987 Laurie Fais, Ph.D.

Author’s Note This article was written in 1987 for the Macintosh Lab Monitor (a newsletter, now defunct) while Laurie Fais and Richard Wanderman were working at The Forman School (a private school in Connecticut serving students with learning disabilities). The research and its results are still useful and relevant today. Please be aware that there were very few schools, if any, doing what we were doing in those years. Many of the ideas that we had about the significance of computers, and the Macintosh specifically, only became wide-spread five or more years later. Also note that some of the software mentioned doesn’t exist anymore, the companies have since gone out of business.

John sat across from me at the table in front of a Macintosh computer. As Head of the Department, I was lucky enough to have one in my office, though I didn’t know very much about using it. John was very dysgraphic so I figured using a computer might make it easier for him to write what he wanted to write.

We were working on possessives that day. “Give me a sentence using ‘boy’ in the possessive.””The boy’s bat broke” was his reply. Typical. Even orally, John was in the habit of giving the bare minimum verbal response. “OK, now type it with the computer.” John slouched back, one hand in his pocket and began to peck. With the patience born of working with LD adolescents, this one in particular, I waited. And waited. Finally, my curiosity piqued, I stood up and strolled around behind John to see what was taking so long. He had typed “The boy’s bat broke when he hit the ninety mile an hour fast ball.”

Intrigued but afraid to be hopeful, I gave him another word: “witch.””The witch’s brew boiled.””OK, now type that.” Another wait. Then on the screen appeared “The witch’s brew boiled over and drowned the black cat sitting next to the fire.”

Those who work with LD students, or, in fact, any students, with computers often make intuitive claims about the advantageous effects this work has on their abilities to express themselves in writing. Unfortunately, there is currently a lack of “real” research validating these claims. The work that makes up The Forman School Computer-aided Writing Project has been designed to serve as the basis for some educational research that should validate and explain the effects of using the Macintosh on the growth of the writing skills of these students.

The Computer-aided Writing Project encompasses all of the various contexts in which learning disabled students at The Forman School learn to use the Macintosh computer as a writing tool: the small group classes, computer-aided composition, and the one-to-one language skills remediation course, Language Training (LT). In September of 1986, all of the 185 students in the LT program were screened and 48 were selected to go to the Macintosh lab one day a week during their LT class time, accompanied by their teachers. There they would be taught how to use the Macintosh as a writing tool by the director of the lab, Richard Wanderman, or his assistant, Emmy Pellico. Of these students, 27 were selected as participants in the Computer-aided Writing Project research program, to be pre- and post-tested in a number of writing and language skills.

The students did informal writing samples and were tested on their abilities to judge the relevance of specifics to a given topic, to categorize specifics and topics into coherent groupings/outlines, to order specifics in a logical paragraph order, and to proofread a paragraph with not only grammatical, punctuation and spelling mistakes, but also mistakes of organization and clarity. In addition, the students also took four sections of the Test of Adolescent Language (TOAL), which tested their grammar abilities in the areas of reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

After the pre-testing, the students spent one day a week with their LT teachers and Richard or Emmy working on a variety of tasks. Most learned to use Acta, an outlining program, and became proficient at the process of generating ideas, formulating an outline and producing a written piece of work, either in Acta or in MacWrite. Students learned all the basics of word processing and printing. Some engaged in “conversations” from computer to computer with their teachers. Much of the learning was directed toward the accomplishment of a specific piece of work, often work for another class, such as a senior English critical essay, a history research paper or a science fair project write-up. Some exercises were just that – generated by the LT teacher for the sake of teaching a student how to use the Macintosh as a writing tool. The teachers kept notes on their observations of how certain approaches seemed to work, what students’ reactions were, and what the more subtle effects of using the Macintosh seemed to be.

Students were post-tested in May, covering the same areas as their pre-testing the previous September. In the course of evaluating the results of each of the tests in the battery, certain trends became apparent. These are summarized below for each tested area.

Unrelated Specifics
Students were asked to eliminate from a list of words and sentences those items that did not fit the general category of the list. Students made no improvement in this area; in fact, there may have been a slight downward trend in the post-testing results.

Students organized items in a jumbled list, out of the writing context. They showed no change, and in fact may have shown some loss.

Arranging Specifics
Students were asked to arrange lists of sentences into paragraphs. The paragraphs were of differing organizational types: temporal, comparison/contrast, spatial, logical, etc. Markedly more improvement was shown on this test than on the previous two.

Students were asked to proofread for spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraph structure and relatedness of specifics. Over half of the students made noticeable improvements. Fourteen students omitted the unrelated specific on the post-test, while only three had done so on the pre-test. Fourteen correctly joined fragments on the post-test as compared to three on the pre-test. Of the four who corrected spelling mistakes on the pre-test, two did so correctly. On the post-test, nine out of the 15 making corrections made correct corrections.

TOAL: Listening/Grammar
Students were tested for sensitivity to similar (spoken) grammatical structures, a task involving their receptive grammatical knowledge. About one quarter of the students showed no change, one quarter of the students improved, and half of them got worse.

TOAL: Reading/Grammar
Students were tested for their ability to recognize syntactically different (written) sentence structures, again, a function of their receptive grammar. The results were similar; approximately one quarter of the students showed no change, one quarter of the students improved somewhat and half of them got worse.

TOAL: Writing/Grammar
The results were quite different in this test, where students’ ability to utilize English syntax in writing was tested. This tapped their active/expressive grammar. About half of the students lost a little ground, but half of the students improved by even wider margins.

TOAL: Speaking/Grammar
Students’ expressive spoken grammar was assessed on this test. Again, over half of the students made impressive gains, while one quarter of the students showed no change and one quarter of them showed minor loss.

The consideration that seems to be the most significant in making sense of the full array of these results is the distinction between active/expressive tests or tests that were couched in the context of a full paragraph, and passive/receptive tests or tests that were made up of tasks isolated from that context. All the improvements that students made were made in the active, paragraph-size tasks: organizing specifics into paragraph form, proofreading, Writing/Grammar and Speaking/Grammar. Students’ performance on tasks isolated from paragraph context (crossing out unrelated specifics in a list; categorizing/outlining items in lists) and the receptive tests of Reading/Grammar and Listening/Grammar showed no improvement and in some cases showed some loss. Students exhibited greater sentence sense in both the TOAL and proofreading tasks and a much greater tendency to make corrections (and a greater ability to make correct corrections) on the proofing task.

The improvements in active, expressive writing tasks seem to point to a positive experience in the interaction with the Macintosh. Writing with a non-judgmental interactor like the Macintosh which facilitates the writing process by eliminating the high cost of correction and experimentation seemed to give students the self-assurance to “take charge” of their writing, to make corrections, to write enough to learn more about how to go about the process of writing, and to function confidently within the context of the writing experience. The fact that the passive and task-specific tests went down is not alarming; it simply indicates that, since students’ writing abilities per se improved, knowledge of these isolated skills are not necessary to the writing process. The implications for teaching are obvious. Interaction with the Macintosh computer in the writing process and the use of the Macintosh as a writing tool can be effective, positive, and beneficial components in a writing program for LD adolescents. In addition, breaking down the teaching of the writing process into specific tasks is non-productive; those tasks do not seem to contribute to improvement in writing.

In round table discussions after the post-testing was done, teachers who had charted the progress of the students involved through the year of work in the Lab compared their impressions and observations. Some observations were unanimous: students working on the Macintosh were using much more sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure than they had been in the fall. They were generating much greater quantities of written material. They were even using the Macintosh to make an outline before they sat down to write paragraphs.

It seems clear that students produced more sophisticated writing and greater quantities of it for two reasons: first, because the computer is such a non-judgmental facilitator, and second, because it separates writing from hard copy, making a distinction between the process of creation and the tangible result. What is difficult for these students is the physical production of the piece of output. Since the writing process itself is divorced from that physical production, students did not have to limit themselves to the “easy” words, the “little” sentences that they had a tendency to use in order to avoid making mistakes, and therefore corrections, when writing by hand.

The outlining program Acta was a great enabler for some of them as well; freed from having to create the mechanics of an outline, they could concentrate on how to code the relationships between their ideas and, again, with the physical mechanics out of the way, they could realize the benefits of pre-planning. On the other hand, not all students found Acta to be helpful conceptually. Acta gives structure to thoughts, potentially both a help and a hindrance. For the students who were willing/able to think and write in parts and still in need of external structuring, the program was extremely useful. But for those students who thought holistically or who were not able to break down the conception of their ideas into component parts, the program was frustrating. They were not capable of working with their ideas in a piecemeal fashion, i.e., they could not break their thoughts into units from which they could use Acta to construct an outline. Another group of students for whom using Acta was frustrating were the students who were capable of breaking down ideas and structuring them. For them, the program was an unnecessary complication in their approach to the writing process.

Teachers also observed that students did not make as many reversals, transpositions or spelling errors in their first attempts, and definitely caught many more of them in their computer-aided writing than they had in their handwriting. It is not quite as easy to explain why this should be so. Certainly one major factor to increased accuracy in proofreading is the fact that, having typed their ideas onto a screen, the students were able, some of them for the very first time, to read their own writing. For dysgraphic students, the revelation of actually being able to decode easily something they had just written was a primary factor enabling them to improve their writing; for the first time, these students were able to benefit from self-generated feedback. Even students who still had problems with decoding the printed word had less trouble with the Macintosh representation of their work than they did with their own handwriting; the high resolution screen makes for a clear image and the black-on-white printing recalls the standard text representations they are used to. The greater ease of reading coupled with the confidence they gained as a function of working with the Macintosh enabled these students to read more of their errors physically and to recognize them cognitively, so that they could correct more of them. Further, these students were not only more able to revise their work, they were also more willing. Proofreading and revising on the Macintosh, divorced from the scratching out and messy erasures of editing hard copy, are no longer the overwhelming tasks they once were.

But the question of why spelling should be better and why reversals and transpositions should be made less often is not clear at this point. Is there something in the nature of the student/computer interaction that circumvents the processing problems that result in spelling errors for these students? Or is it something as simple as the fact that the effort of keyboarding forces the students to be more conscious of their work and thus to use the knowledge that they have been taught in their LT classes?

These questions will guide some of the work to be done in the coming year in the Computer-aided Writing Project research program. We will also do documentation that will allow us to put numbers to our initial assessment of greater writing quantity and sophistication of vocabulary use and sentence structure. Another interesting observation that we would like to pursue was suggested to us by Shirla Edwards who works (or worked) with learning disabled students in a Microcomputer Demonstration Lab at Montclair, High School, New Jersey. She observed in one of her own dysgraphic students an enormous improvement in handwriting after the student had had the opportunity to do much of his writing on the Macintosh. It will be interesting to follow up this observation with some investigation of the effects of using the Macintosh on the handwriting of dysgraphic students. It may be that some of the illegibility of students’ writing is due to their reluctance to have people read what they have written and to their masking of their mistakes with orthographic vagueness (haven’t most of us at one time or another, when not sure if it was ei or ie, made what could be construed by a sympathetic reader as a loop in each letter and positioned the dot squarely in between the two?). In this regard, it will also be useful to look at a personality index for each student before and after his/her year of work on the Macintosh to determine what sorts of gains in self-image and self-esteem have been made.

Some further observations have clear implications for the mode and content of student/teacher interaction with the Macintosh in the writing process. Whether keyboarding skills are an essential prerequisite to using the computer as a writing tool is sometimes considered controversial. In our Lab, students who did not have handwriting problems and who tended to be impulsive, holistic thinkers, were frustrated by the fact that their slow keyboarding kept their fingers from keeping up with their thoughts. This frustration prevented them from writing enough to learn better keyboarding skills solely as a by-product of their writing experience. For them, keyboarding instruction per se was necessary. For the great majority of our students, however, we found keyboarding to be a non-issue. As long as they didn’t have to do the writing by hand, most dysgraphic students weren’t at all bothered by how long it took them to peck out their thoughts. The benefits of not having to write and, again, of seeing their thoughts in legible form far outweighed any initial frustration, or perhaps more accurately put, dispelled it altogether. The motivation level for these students was high enough that they continued to write, and wrote often enough so that keyboarding, albeit their own brand of it, came easier and easier.

Another issue of less concern to general computer-aided writing circles, but of great concern where LD adolescents are involved is the use of a spelling checker program. Like Acta, a spelling checker has features that make it an advantage for some students and a disadvantage for others. It would seem obvious that, for students for whom spelling is difficult at best, a spelling checker program would be an essential tool. However, in the course of using such programs with our students (primarily WriteNow and Spellswell), several things became apparent. First of all, the program had to be fairly good at coming up with “guesses” for alternatives to misspelled words.

Dyslexic students far more often than non-dyslexic poor spellers make mistakes on the first letter(s) of words; if a spelling checker “guesses” on the basis of first letters alone, the student will be frustrated by the inability of the program to give him/her any alternatives to the word it has flagged as wrong. Thus, a fairly sophisticated program is required in order for it to be useful at all. Second, for very poor spellers, having a spelling checker flag a large number of words in a piece of writing can generate a sense of failure as debilitating as the learning disability itself, especially coming on the heels of the excitement and hope created by working on the computer. Third, spelling checkers are not omniscient. Even where the program is capable of coming up with alternatives for the misspelled word, it is still the student who must determine which, if any, of the alternatives is correct. Thus, spelling checkers cannot be a simple replacement for the remediation of basic spelling skills; the student needs to have those skills in place in at least a receptive sense to be able to utilize the power of a spelling checker.

For all these reasons, then, it is important that care be taken with how a spelling checker program is presented by the teacher and what guidelines are set up for its use by the student.

The Computer-aided Writing Project research program will continue to look at the questions outlined above and continue to examine the ways in which we use the Macintosh as a writing tool for LD adolescents. A necessary step in preparation for further research, however, is the use of our preliminary findings to generate a curriculum and teaching guide that documents what we have found thus far to be the most effective sequence and content for a computer-aided writing program for these students. The guide will be based on the results of our research and on the observations made by our teachers and by the directors of the Lab throughout this past year. It will serve as the framework for the teaching of our students in the program next year and will be expanded and refined as our experience teaches us more and more about how to help unlock the writing potential of these students using the Macintosh as a writing tool.

It is a year and a half after the possessives episode. By now John and I are quite spoiled by having a Macintosh at our daily disposal. And I am spoiled by constant exposure to the tremendously positive effects it has on John’s ability to express himself. But even at that I am taken aback one day. We are both settling into the beginning of the class, me with my usual banter about homework and seniors, but John strangely silent. I look up to see him bent over the keyboard, now with two hands in the semblance of touch typing that he has taught himself. I start to chide him (his favorite way to waste time in class is to rearrange his disks or change the pattern on my desktop) but get no response. I find myself strolling over to his side of the table again. This time what I see written begins “You are going to be mad at me. I started to do the homework last night but there was a play that all the seniors had to see and after that…” John, a “typical” dyslexic, for whom written expression has been an anathema for his entire school career, is choosing to communicate with me in written form.

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