A Framework for Writing (page 2)
What kind of activity is writing? If this question were put to a variety of people, most likely there would be a variety of answers, depending on the individual's age, education, cultural background, and work history. The answer of some might reveal that they consider writing to be a transcription process—the physical act of transforming spoken language into written language, much like an ancient scribe or modem-day court stenographer. This view actually reflects the thinking of Western linguists of the first half of the twentieth century, exemplified in the writing of Leonard Bloomfield, who dismissed writing as "merely a way of recording language by means of visible marks" (Bloomfield, 1933, p. 21). Other answers might highlight the form of writing—for example, spelling words or making correct sentences, paragraphs, or even an entire five-paragraph essay. In fact, elementary school children, particularly those with language and reading disabilities, are likely to say that writing is "making the words right," or "making good sentences." High school and college students see writing mainly as a demonstration of knowledge, done for the purpose of giving teachers what they want and making a good grade (Evans, 1993). Young and older students alike realize that they will be judged through their writing, for either their form or content or both. Hopefully some who answered the question would concentrate on the function of writing as a type of communication—for example, writing a story to entertain, writing a letter to the editor to persuade, or writing an e-mail message to keep in touch with a friend. A last group of answers could conceivably highlight writing as a tool—one that can be used as a memory aid or a means of personal reflection and growth (e.g., the minutes of a meeting, or a private journal). Writing is also a learning tool. By writing about a topic, we come to understand the topic in a different or deeper way (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987). Writing, of course, is all of these things. Writing serves a variety of communicative and cognitive purposes, takes on a variety of linguistic forms consistent with those purposes, and requires the coordination of highly complex mental processes to produce. It is the "final common pathway" of cognition and language—making simultaneous statements about linguistic knowledge as well as world knowledge, social cognition, and executive abilities (Singer & Babir, 1999).
Context and Purpose: Where, for Whom, and Why?
A hypothetical list of distinctive types of writing, each with its unique purpose and unique form, would presumably be limited only by our patience. We could discuss writing according to the place where it is done—writing done at home, in school, in the workplace, in community and government institutions. Such broad contextual categories suggest some obvious categories of writing. A teenager's self-sponsored home writing might consist of text messaging, letters, and/or a diary, whereas school-sponsored writing would include book reports, essay test questions, science lab reports, and so forth. Writing can be a solitary activity, with absolute silence from start to finish, or for a first grade child it could be a social activity, done in the context of talking, playing, and drawing with classmates. Something is written to be read by an audience. The audience may be the writer (e.g., a locked personal journal), only one other person (a report for a teacher), a group of known people (the minutes of a faculty meeting), or a group of unknown people. Mature writers "write to an audience"; as they write they are inside the mind of the eventual reader, constructing the reader's response and adjusting their writing accordingly. In addition to the obvious communicative purposes of writing, texts also store and preserve information. A newspaper article about a family member is cut out for a scrapbook; a difficult article is put aside for later re-reading. Writing is all of these variations and many more. The contexts and purposes for writing change dramatically over the course of elementary and secondary schooling and beyond.
For purposes of this chapter, text is defined broadly as a piece of writing done for a particular purpose. For a young child, a text might be a few words that accompany a drawing. For the tenth grader, the five-paragraph theme supporting a point of view is a text. A written genre is a distinctive type of text—for example, narrative text, persuasive text, factual text, and so forth. To write in a particular genre is to conform to a particular set of linguistic constraints at the text level (e.g., narratives start with a setting) and also at the sentence level (e.g., narratives usually employ simple past tense forms of verbs). Conveniently, then, writers do not have to invent a new form each time the same situation arises. Genre acquisition cannot be reduced to learning a specified set of skills; however, writers must gain at least some control over major formal features of genre (Popken, 1996). Text and sentence-level features of narrative and expository (informational, factual)1 genres important in school writing have been described elsewhere by Scott (1988, 1994, 1995) and Westby (1994).
In addition to linguistic constraints imposed by genre, written sentences have distinctive grammatical properties that arise from modality—the fact that they are written rather than spoken (Perera, 1984, 1986; Scott, 1988, 1994, 1995, 2002). Without direct teaching, children's writing takes on this distinctive "written" grammatical flavor at an early age.
Writing requires other types of linguistic knowledge; words must be spelled and sentences must be punctuated. Whereas spelling and punctuation are frequently described as lower level "mechanical" activities, learning how to spell and punctuate are more recently seen as cognitive-linguistic activities of considerable dimension. For example, punctuation used by novice writers is said to reveal much about children's developing metasyntactic and metatextual knowledge (Kress, 1982; Simone, 1996).
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