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'Promising' Computer Programs Developed for Writing Instruction

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Los Alamitos, Calif--A group of "promising" computer software programs was the focus of a two-day meeting this month on the use of computers in writing instruction sponsored by the Southwest Regional Laboratory (swrl). Officials billed the gathering as "the first of its kind ever held."

In describing the programs, conference speakers also discussed with their audience, composed mostly of secondary- and postsecondary-level faculty members, the current status of the development of microcomputer software for teaching writing to students of all grade levels--from preschool through college.

Although the speakers agreed that the use of microcomputers is "just at the beginning stage" and that much of the software now available is "very poor," they noted that some existing programs offer "exciting options in the tough job of teaching writing."

Following is a brief description of the eight software programs based on the speakers' comments, particularly those of the keynote speaker, Robert Shostak, professor of English at Florida International University.

Writer's Workbench is a creation of scientists at the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., and offers perhaps the most advanced editing system available today, according to Mr. Shostak. The 32-program system requires a minicomputer; it corrects spelling, punctation, and grammar. It also analyzes style and provides feedback to the student on sentence length, cliches, wordiness, and jargon.

"The program literally suggests editorial changes to the writer," Mr. Shostak said. It searches a text for stylistic breaches and suggests alternatives. For example, it picks up the use of split infinitives or forced expressions ... and offers specific alternatives to improve the text. In addition, it gives the writer the readability level of his writing sample, offers suggestions on sentence length and sentence types; and provides the percentage of passive verb phrases. "Writer's Workbench" has been completed, but it is yet to be released; it will operate on a Digital Equipment Company minicomputer.

Story Maker was rated by Mr. Shostak as "exceptionally promising for teaching the first stage of the composing process--prewriting--in the elementary school." The program encourages children to concentrate on the whole test instead of emphasizing drills with letters, words, or phrases, he said. The child is guided to consider the logical flow of narrative and the role of examples in an explanation, and is engaged in a creative story-making exercise which involves the choice of options from already-written story segments. After all the decisions have been made, the child has produced a complete story which he or she can read and share with other students.

The child maintains control of the creative process while the computer handles the bookkeeping details, according to Mr. Shostak. Through simple commands, the computer presents structured options for the child, keeps track of the choices, and displays and prints the complete story when the activity is finished.

Since the program includes a printing capability, hard copy can be produced for further activities planned by the teacher.

"Story Maker" programming was developed by Andee Rubin of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman Inc., Boston. It operates on an Apple II microcomputer and will become available within a month. Price: $30 for two disks.

The Burns Program for the prewriting stage was devel-oped by Major Hugh Burns, a professor of English at the U.S. Air Force Academy, for his college-level students.

The program was said to provide substantial help to students in generating new ideas, facts, opinions, and arguments for the subjects they are going to write about.

It uses a set of questions based on Aristotle's "enthymemes" (syllogisms in which one premise is implicit) to engage the students in a Socratic dialogue that can last for 40 minutes. When students leave the computer lab, they will have more than 20 pages of this computer-assisted dialogue to help them in their writing project.

Mr. Shostak said the program is promising "because Major Burns's findings suggest that students can be encouraged to increase the number and sophistication of their ideas. ... Any computer-assisted instruction which can improve students' skills of inquiry will be welcomed by teachers of composition." The software will be available shortly for microcomputers.

Compupoem, for teaching the composing process, was developed by S. Stephen Marcus, assistant director of the South Coast Writing Project and professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The program asks students for choices, provides advice to encourage them to think about what they want to say, and even provides the opportunity to see instant reproductions of their poems in different structural formats.

Used by students from the fourth-grade to the college level, by graduate students, and by teachers, Compupoem stresses planning, coherence, structure, and revision. It also emphasizes basic parts of speech and provides advice on using nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. The program's disk works on an Apple II (48K) microcomputer and may be obtained for $15.95 from Mr. Marcus, English Department, University of California at Santa Barbara, Calif. 93106.

The Electric Poet was developed by Edmund Skellings, director of the International Institute for Creative Communication at Florida International University. It "marries" technology and poetry to produce a poem that is viewed rather than read or heard. The poem may be seen in various colors, and it may even appear to move as it is presented on the screen, according to Mr. Shostak. He noted that "many possibilities exist for developing color-coded writing models which could be visually taken apart and put together again instantly by the computer."

This approach, he said, "offers a powerful tool for the teaching of writing." For more information on "Electric Poet" contact: Mr. Skellings, International Institute for Creative Communication, Florida International University, Miami, Fla.

The Wisher Programs. Two programs for teaching the last stage of the writing process--rewriting and editing--have been developed by Robert Wisher of the Navy Personnel Research and Development Center in San Diego.

The first program leads students through a procedure for organizing preconstructed sentences into a meaningful paragraph. After the student has organized the paragraph, he can edit it in a variety of ways to clarify meaning and provide stylistic effects.

This is accomplished by a series of "prompts" that allow optional positioning of the topic sentence, placement of short sentences before longer ones, deletion of unimportant sentences, and the insertion of a single sentence written by the student.

The second program assists students in combining phrases into sentences. The student can see immediately how phrases can be combined to form clauses and how clauses can can be combined to form sentences. There is also an option built into the program to write a sentence in a particular style.

R.S.V.P. (Response System with Variable Prescriptions), to assist students in the prewriting and editing process, has been developed by Kamala Anandam, a faculty member at Miami-Dade Community College, Miami.

Described by Mr. Shostak as "very sophisticated," the system allows teachers to evaluate and respond to each student's writing. In the first step of the process, the teacher reads the essays and places them in one of four levels--Primary, Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced. In the second step is the teacher identifies specific problems to be pointed out to the students. In the third step, the teacher indicates on a computer card the kind of feedback the student is to receive.

The computer then provides a personal letter for each student. The feedback or critique is written to correspond with the student's writing-skill level, which was determined by the teacher in the first step. The critique consists of written prescriptions that reinforce what the student accomplished and suggest ways to avoid the same errors in future assignments.

In addition, rsvp generates individualized-study/exercise assignments, keeps a record of the student's errors on each assignment, and provides a status report for the teacher. Available now for larger computers, rsvp is expected to be available shortly for microcomputers.

Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (mecc) is one of the largest sources of microcomputer software on language arts (and many other subjects). The state-supported organization sells its software disks in most states and in many foreign countries.

mecc offers three microcomputer programs designed to help elementary-school teachers teach language arts. The first program permits teachers to enter lists of spelling words into the computer's program. These lists are used by the computer for programs entitled "Spell," which drills students on spelling; "Mix-up," which presents the words in mixed-up order; and "Word Find," which creates a puzzle for the teacher to duplicate.

The second program contains five lessons that both teach and require practice in the usage of the prefixes un-, re-, dis-, pre-, in-.

The third program offers drills on alphabet sequence and on the initial sounds of the word, and a concentration game to reinforce skills.

The mecc language-arts library offers software for prekindergarten through higher education and operates on both Apple II and Atari 400 and 800 microcomputers. The cost: $10 per disk in Minnesota and $30 per disk outside Minnesota. The software may be obtained from mecc, 2520 Broadway Dr., St. Paul, Minn. 55113.

Software may also be ordered through two distributors that permit the return of software "for any reason, within 30 days" after it was ordered: K-12 MicroMedia, P.O. Box 17, Valley Cottage, N.Y. 10989 (250 programs from 50 producers) and Scholastic Inc., 904 Sylvan Ave., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 07632 (more than 200 programs).

George Neill

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