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Sophisticated Computers Used To Teach Students To Write

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This week, 330 fourth-grade students at 11 elementary schools in a suburban Los Angeles school district will start participating in a study designed to determine whether or not computers can be used to improve a student's ability to create compound and complex sentences.

In a classroom at the United Nations International School in New York City, sixth- and seventh-grade students regularly sit at "text editors," writing and rewriting sentences, paragraphs, and essays. They often work together, crowding in front of the display screen to offer suggestions about punctuation or spelling.

Pioneers in a Growing Field

Both groups of students are pioneers in a new, largely undeveloped, and seemingly unlikely field: the use of microcomputers in elementary- and secondary-school English courses. Many familiar with the field, however, say it is on the verge of enormous growth.

They predict that, like the wave of computer use for instruction in arithmetic and basic grammar skills that has begun to sweep through the schools in the last few years, the next stage of the "computer revolution" will develop quickly, and will involve teachers and students in more complicated "programs" designed to enhance higher reasoning skills in many disciplines. Thus far, agreed contributors to a recent issue of the Phi Delta Kappan devoted to computers, the vast majority of computer activities engaged in by schoolchildren are simply "electronic workbook" exercises for drill and practice.

And some teachers and administrators remain skeptical of the idea of using technology to teach a subject that puts a premium on imagination and insight.

But supporters of the microcomputer--which is distinguished by its small size and relative inexpensiveness--claim it can be used to teach a variety of skills in an English classroom, from punctuation drills to paragraph construction and even literary analysis. Such uses, in fact, have already been experimented with on college campuses, where computer scientists and faculty members from English and other disciplines often work together to develop specialized programs tailored to particular subject matter.

"The possibilities are staggering," said Shirley T. Keran, director of curriculum development for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, which provides educational materials through a network of thousands of computers to schools and universities throughout the state.

Few Microcomputers Used

Only a relatively small number of microcomputers are now being used in school English courses, primarily in elementary and middle schools. A recent survey of the country's 15,500 school districts by Market Data Retrieval, Inc., found that 17 percent--or 15,000--of the nation's 86,000 public schools have at least one microcomputer. TALMIS, Inc., a microcomputer industry market research firm, estimates the total number of microcomputers in schools to be as high as 90,000. Of these, the vast majority are used in mathematics and science classes, and computer-use courses.

TALMIS predicts that by 1985 there will be as many as 400,000 microcomputers in the country's schools.

The average cost of a microcomputer used by schools is now between $1,700 and $2,200. Instructional programs--also known as software or courseware--range in price from $50 to $1,200. However, experts say the cost of both "hardware" (the computers) and software is dropping dramatically, thus becoming more affordable to a greater number of schools.

Those who advocate the use of microcomputers in English argue that the computers are effective in teaching fundamental "language arts"--such as spelling, subject-verb agreement, and vocabulary--because they provide "tireless" one-to-one instruction at the student's own pace, and in the process free the teacher to do other, more important work. Many computer programs also provide students with immediate "feedback," letting them know when their answers are wrong and why.

In fact, said Owen Thomas, a professor of linguistics, education, and English at the University of California at Irvine, the most common use of computers in English classes is for remedial "drill-and-practice" work, largely because programs devoted to these skills are the easiest to create, and they have been the principal type of program available commercially.

Mr. Thomas added that microcomputer pro-grams are also able to grade this "drill" work and to provide an up-to-date account of a student's progress, again saving teachers from time-consuming tasks.

But some, including P. Kenneth Komoski, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia, say the emphasis on remedial programs amounts to an underuse of the microcomputer's potential in English classes.

They contend that microcomputers, when programmed as word processors--which require typing skills of a student rather than the simple ability to respond with a yes or no answer to questions on the computer screen-- are a potential boon to students' writing and thinking skills.

'Revising Their Writing'

"With word processors, children are going to be much more willing to do the important task of revising their writing," said Mr. Thomas, who is developing computer programs for use in elementary- and secondary-school English classes. "They write more, and they write more freely. With a microcomputer there is no more tedious erasing."

(With a word processor, a student has the freedom, for example, to instantly shift letters, words, and paragraphs around the computer screen or to "erase" them from the screen and then bring them back again.)

"Students who use word processors tend to write clearer and more structurally complex sentences," added Robert M. Caldwell, an associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Dallas and chairman of a newly formed committee on instructional technology of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Exploring ways of using the microcomputer to encourage students to think and write more creatively will be one of the primary tasks of the English teachers' new committee, according to Mr. Caldwell, who was the senior author of an early experiment in computer-assisted learning, the 15-year-old "mainframe" (run from a central computer to smaller units, unlike the "micro" computer units that are wholly self-contained) PLATO program.

In the last year or two, several programs, called "remarkable" by those familiar with them, have been developed to assist in the teaching of writing.

Bell Laboratories researchers in New Jersey, for example, have developed microcomputers that can analyze writing styles for faulty diction, excessive use of the passive voice, or overuse of complex sentences. Release of the program for commercial use is being considered.

But while improved software, lower prices, and widespread acceptance of microcomputers will result in much greater use of them in English courses, that growth poses many potential problems and questions, according to Mr. Komoski, who is also executive director of the Education Products Information Exchange, a consumer group that examines the relative merits of the various kinds of equipment and curricular materials that schools purchase.

Poorer Students Shortchanged

He warns that students in poorer school districts will be shortchanged in the coming computer-learning boom. "There will be a have and have-not situation," he says, "with only the rich districts having them. Just as there is a gap between students in rich and poor districts in traditional literacy, there will be a gap between these districts in computer literacy."

In addition, many English teachers remain vehemently opposed to introducing computers into their classrooms, either because they think it is inappropriate to use computers to teach English or, as Ms. Keran of the Minnesota computing consortium put it, "They are afraid of looking dumber than the kids or being replaced by a machine."

(There was unanimous agreement among those interviewed for this article that microcomputers can effectively assist teachers, but not replace them.)

Also, a number of experts say that those teachers who do have microcomputers in their classes are inadequately trained to use them effectively.

'Computer Literate'

"It takes a lot of money and extra time to train teachers," said Colette A. Daiute, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, who teaches a course on "Computers in Writing"--one of the few such courses in the country. "Very few of them are 'computer literate."'

The education schools, the critics point out, continue to fail to train teachers in the use of computer technology.

Microcomputer instruction is too often not effectively coordinated with other parts of an elementary- or secondary-school student's curriculum, they also charge.

David G. Moursund, president of the International Council of Computer Educators, a professional organization for teachers who use computers in their classrooms says, "There is close to zero integration of software with other teaching materials."

But he adds that this situation is "changing rapidly."

Other Problems

And there are other problems blocking the wider use of microcomputers in English classes: school districts too often buy computer equipment without a clear understanding of their needs; decisions about computers are frequently left in the hands of mathematics or science teachers, instead of curriculum coordinators; and publishing companies are reluctant to develop any marketable product beyond the simple and proven "drill and practice" programs. Ernest R. Marx, who heads the microcomputer software division for the Milliken Publishing Company, the first company to enter the school software market three years ago, points out, "There are no real experts among the publishing companies; there are no precedents to follow. We are all groping."

Mr. Marx adds, however, that as a result of increased computer program sales Milliken's educational software division has doubled its profits in each of the last three years.

'Growing Like Wildfire'

Sensing the potential of the microcomputer market, which one publishing-industry official describes as "growing like wildfire," nearly every major print publishing company has opened, within the last year or so, an educational software division.

In 1981, sales of educational software totalled an estimated $8 million to $12 million. Jeanne A. Dietsch, president of TALMIS, predicts that by 1985 the figure will be $50 million.

But whatever happens to the market, one thing, at least, is already clear: students, especially younger ones, like computers.

Children Approve

"The children have turned each other on," says Peggy E. O'Brien, an English teacher at the United Nations International School. "They help each other out, and they can't wait to use the computer themselves."

"It's very difficult to keep the kids off them," adds Lois A. Braun, who is directing the microcomputer sentence-combining experiment for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District near Los Angeles.

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