Writing

Scardamalia and Bereiter (1985; Scardamalia, Bereiter, and Steinbach, 1984) have developed an approach to the teaching of writing that relies on elements of cognitive apprenticeship. Based on contrasting models of novice and expert writing strategies, the approach provides explicit procedural supports, in the form of prompts, that are aimed at helping students adopt more sophisticated writing strategies. Like other exemplars of cognitive apprenticeship, their approach is designed to give students a grasp of the complex activities involved in expertise by explicit modeling of expert processes, gradually reduced support or scaffolding for students attempting to engage in the processes, and opportunities for reflection on their own and others’ efforts.

According to Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987), children who are novices in writing use a “knowledge-telling” strategy. When given a topic to write on, they immediately produce text by writing their first idea, then their next idea, and so on, until they run out of ideas, at which point they stop. This very simple control strategy finesses most of the difficulties in composing. In contrast, experts spend time not only writing but also planning what they are going to write and revising what they have written (Hayes and Flower, 1980). As a result, they engage in a process that Scardamalia and Bereiter call “knowledge transforming,” which incorporates the linear generation of text but is organized around a more complex structure of goal setting and problem solving.

To encourage students to adopt a more sophisticated writing strategy, Scardamalia and Bereiter have developed a detailed cognitive analysis of the activities of expert writers. This analysis provides the basis for a set of prompts, or [procedural facilitations], that are designed to reduce students’ information-processing burden by allowing them to select from a limited number of diagnostic statements. For example, planning is broken down into five general processes or goals: (a) generating a new idea, (b) improving an idea, (c) elaborating on an idea, (d) identifying goals, and (e) putting ideas into a cohesive whole. For each process, they have developed a number of specific prompts, designed to aid students in their planning, as shown below. These prompts, which are akin to the suggestions made by the teacher in reciprocal teaching, serve to simplify the complex process of elaborating on one’s plans by suggesting specific lines of thinking for students to follow. A set of prompts has been developed for the revision process as well (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1983, 1985).

Scardamalia and Bereiter’s teaching method, like reciprocal teaching, proceeds through a combination of modeling, coaching, scaffolding, and fading. First, the teacher models how to use the prompts, which are written on cue cards, in generating ideas about a topic she is going to write on. The example below illustrates the kind of modeling done by a teacher during an early phase of instruction. Then the students each try to plan an essay on a new topic using the cue cards, a process the students call “soloing.” While each student practices soloing, the teacher, as well as other students evaluate the soloist’s performance, by, for example, noticing discrepancies between the soloist’s stated goals (e.g., to get readers to appreciate the difficulties of modern dance) and their proposed plans (to describe different kinds of dance). Students also become involved in discussing how to resolve problems that the soloist could not solve. As in the reciprocal teaching method, assumption of the role either of critic or producer is incremental, with students taking over more and more of the monitoring and problem-solving process from the teacher as their skills improve. Moreover, as the students internalize the processes invoked by the prompts, the cue cards are gradually faded out as well.

Scardamalia and Bereiter have tested the effects of their approach on both the initial planning and the revision of student compositions. In a series of studies (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1987), procedural facilitations were developed to help elementary school students evaluate, diagnose, and decide on revisions for their compositions. Results showed that each type of support was effective, independent of the other supports. And when all the facilitations were combined, they resulted in superior revisions for nearly every student and a tenfold increase in the frequency of idea-level revisions, without any decrease in stylistic revisions. Another study (Scardamalia, et al., 1984) investigated the use of procedural cues to facilitate planning. Students gave the teacher assignments, often ones thought to be difficult for her. She used cues, like those shown above to facilitate planning, modeling the process of using the cues to stimulate her thinking about the assignment. Pre- and post-comparisons of think-aloud protocols showed significantly more reflective activity on the part of experimental-group students, even when prompts were no longer available to them. Time spent in planning increased tenfold. And when students were given unrestricted time to plan, the texts of experimental-group students were judged significantly superior in thought content.

Clearly, Scardamalia and Bereiter’s methods bring about significant changes in the nature and quality of student writing. In addition to the methods already discussed, we believe that there are two key reasons for their success. First, as in the reciprocal teaching approach to reading, their methods help students build a new conception of the writing process. Students initially consider writing to be a linear process of knowledge telling. By explicitly modeling and scaffolding expert processes, they are providing students with a new model of writing that involves planning and revising. Most students found this view of writing entirely new and showed it in their comments (“I don’t usually ask myself those questions,” “I never thought closely about what I wrote,” and “They helped me look over the sentence, which I don’t usually do.”). Moreover, because students rarely, if ever, see writers at work, they tend to hold naive beliefs about the nature of expert writing, thinking that writing is a smooth and easy process for “good” writers. Live modeling helps to convey that this is not the case. The model demonstrates struggles, false starts, discouragement, and the like.

Second, because writing is a complex task, a key component of expertise are the control strategies by which the writer organizes the numerous lines of thinking involved in producing high-quality text. A clear need of student writers, therefore, is to develop more useful control strategies than evidenced in “knowledge telling.” Scardamalia and Bereiter’s methods encourage this development in an interesting way: The cue cards act to internalize not only the basic processes involved in planning but also to help students to keep track of the higher-order intentions (such as generating an idea, elaborating or improving an idea, and so on) that organize these basic processes.