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Alternative Models of Writing Development

Arthur N. Applebee

* This excerpt is a chapter that appears in Writing: Research/Theory/Practice, Roselmina Indrisano and James R. Squire, Eds., Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2000.

The elementary and secondary school curriculum in writing has always been a somewhat precarious affair, dependent on implicit models of the interrelationships among reading, writing, and oral language, as well as on assumptions about the nature of writing ability itself. During much of the nineteenth century, the teaching of writing focused on penmanship and little else. Later, writing instruction was often postponed until the middle and upper grades, when students have presumably achieved basic literacy in reading (Applebee, 1974).

In this chapter, I will review the current status of writing instruction in the schools and discuss alternative models of the developmental process that have influenced how writing is taught, suggesting that none is fully adequate as a guide to curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Writing in U.S. Schools

The last thorough examination of the status of writing in the school curriculum in the United States was the National Study of Writing in the Secondary School (Applebee, 1981, 1984). Replicating and extending James Britton’s work in the United Kingdom (Britton et al., 1975), the study found that the curriculum in writing was narrow in scope and problematic in execution. In general, students wrote infrequently within a narrow range of genres for limited purposes. In fact, although students were expected to put pencil to paper some 44 percent of the time, only about 3 percent of class work and of homework involved composing original text. Instead, most of the "writing" that students did, across English and other subjects, involved writing without composing: fill in the blank and completion exercises, direct translation, or other seat work in which the text was constructed by the teacher or textbook, and the student supplied missing information that was, typically, judged as right or wrong. When more extended writing was required, it tended to be similarly limited in scope. The typical assignment was a first-and-final draft, begun in class and completed for homework, and requiring a page or less of writing. Topics for these assignments were usually constructed to test previous learning, rather than to convince, inform, or entertain a naive audience.

Within this broad pattern, there were some consistent variations by grade and subject. Assignments that required some extended writing were most common in English classes, but, in total, students wrote more for their other subjects combined than they did for English. Thus, though English is usually seen as the locus of instruction for the development of writing abilities, students’ experiences in their other subjects play a significant role in learning to write. English classes were also most likely to include some imaginative writing (primarily story writing) as part of the curriculum. Both the amount of writing and the level of abstraction expected (moving from simple reporting of events toward analysis and theorizing) also increased somewhat in the upper grades compared with the lower grades.

Although no more-recent comprehensive survey is available, the responses to background items that have been included as part of the periodic writing assessments given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggest that there have been some changes in recent years. In particular, the NAEP results at grades 4, 8, and 12 indicate that teachers are spending more time on writing instruction than they have in the past, with perhaps somewhat more attention to a wider variety of genres. On the 1992 assessment (Applebee et al., 1994), for example, 12th grade students reported some regular (at least monthly) attention to persuasive writing, analysis or interpretation, report or summary writing, and story or narrative writing. Grade 4 students were asked fewer questions in the assessment, but reported regular journal writing and story or report writing.

By 1992, 50 percent or more of the teachers were also reporting that writing process instruction and integrated reading and writing were central to their teaching, and another 49 percent reported similar emphasis on grammar or skill-based instruction. Rather than treating writing process approaches and skill-based instruction as in opposition to one another, all but a handful of the teachers surveyed reported some emphasis on both. Teacher reports were available only for 8th grade instruction, but student reports at grades 4, 8, and 12 similarly suggest more use of writing process activities than the Applebee (1981) study had found. The 1992 NAEP assessment also found that attention to spelling, grammar, and punctuation exercises was highest in the lower grades, and for low achieving students within each grade.

Alternative Models of Writing Development

The phrase "writing development" is ambiguous in an interesting way: it can refer to the ordinary developmental course of learning to write, or to the systematic (or less so) curriculum or program of instruction for developing those skills. This ambiguity, or conflation, is also present in most attempts at specifying appropriate curricular sequences or emphases. Discussions of writing development have had many different starting points, but they can be roughly categorized as emphasizing purposes for writing, fluency and writing conventions, the structure of the final product, or strategic knowledge. These in turn imply different emphases in curriculum and assessment.

Purposes for Writing

James Britton et al.’s (1975) Development of Writing Abilities provides a good example of an emphasis on purposes for writing. Reporting on a study of the uses of writing in secondary schools in the United Kingdom, Britton and his colleagues offered both a survey of the kinds of writing students were being asked to do, and a taxonomy whose internal structure suggested a way to think about the relationships among different kinds of writing. At its most basic, Britton’s model suggests that learning to write is a process of learning an increasingly diverse array of uses of language in general and writing in particular. At the core of this model is what Britton called expressive uses of language. Expressive language is the relatively informal language of everyday use, of gossip among friends who share a common context and frame of reference. It has the developed form neither of story nor of exposition but instead moves back and forth easily among both. The expressive is also the language of intimacy, and of infancy. In Britton’s system, it is the first genre of language use to emerge out of the reciprocity (Bruner, 1968) between infant and care giver.

Britton argues that other uses of language develop as differentiations from the expressive, and are characterized by formal structure that allows language users to communicate for new purposes with increasingly distant audiences with whom they share fewer initial understandings. As language becomes increasingly formalized, it takes on new purposes– to persuade, to inform, to entertain rather than simply to explore the shared understandings that are characteristic of the expressive. As new uses of language develop, however, the expressive does not disappear. It remains the primary means of coming to understand new experiences, as a language of the working group as well as the language of self-exploration. In Britton’s argument, the expressive becomes an important tool for learning, the genre in which a learner explores and assimilates new ideas and experiences whether working alone or with groups of peers.

Britton’s model has other features important to understanding the development of writing abilities. One is a sharp distinction between the language of the world (transactional in his terminology) and the language of literature (poetic in his terminology). He argues that these involve very different techniques of formalization: those of exposition, which lead ultimately to the formalizations of mathematics and symbolic logic, and those of story telling, which lead instead to the layered meanings of the most sophisticated literature. Like Bruner (1986), Rosenblatt (1978), and Langer (1995), Britton argues that these two approaches lead to different yet complementary ways of making sense of the world. Each in turn has its own range of special genres and a developmental trajectory that involves developing competency in the use of an increasing range of genres and structural devices.

Grounding their work in a diverse sample of school writing, Britton et al. (1975) also laid out a developmental continuum within transactional writing. This continuum, drawing from the work of Moffett (1968), is based on the distance from immediate experience, beginning with simple reporting of ongoing events (as in a sports commentary), moving through report and analysis to theorizing. The developmental hypothesis implicit in these categories would predict that expressive writing would dominate in the earlier years, with a gradual movement toward the more abstract forms of transactional writing, and of literary writing, in later years (Britton et al., 1975). Instead, as in Applebee’s (1981, 1984) studies in the U.S., Britton found that curricular goals "did not include the fostering of writing that reflects independent thinking; rather, attention was directed towards classificatory writing which reflects information in the form in which both teacher and textbook present it" (p. 197).

In spite of the disappointing portrait of what was going on in schools, Britton’s model has been widely used in the study of writing in the English-speaking world (cf. Durst & Newell, 1989). Its strengths include its grounding in actual samples of student writing and its emphasis on the overall purpose of the writing, thus focusing attention on the effectiveness of the writing as a whole instead of on its parts. Criticisms of the model have focused on the sharp dichotomy that is drawn between literary and expository writing, and the emphasis on the expressive as the primary matrix out of which other uses of language develop (Durst & Newell, 1989; Newkirk, 1987, 1989).

These criticisms aside, Britton’s approach illustrates the conflation that is inevitable in discussions of the "natural" development of writing abilities. As he and his colleagues argued in discussing their results, the patterns that were observed can only be understood as a reflection of the aims of the curricula the students were experiencing. To a very large extent, they learned what they were taught in the order in which they were taught it. Britton’s study, like others that have followed (e.g., Applebee, 1981), is more successful as an assessment of the balance (or lack thereof) in the curriculum than it is as a study of the developmental course of writing skills.

A number of other studies have looked more closely at the development of children’s skills when writing for different purposes. Langer (1986), in an extensive study that examined the relationship between reading and writing development, explored children’s knowledge of story and report genres at ages 8, 11, and 14. She found that even at age 8, the children differentiated clearly between story telling and exposition, but in general had a more developed repertoire of story-telling devices available to them. Between 8 and 14, their stories became richer and more fully elaborated, but there was little change in overall structure. For reports, on the other hand, there was a rapid growth of structural devices during this age span. Langer argued that this difference in the developmental trajectory stemmed from the children’s out-of-school experiences, which involved considerable contact with stories similar to those read in school, but less contact with the forms of exposition with which schools typically deal.

Applebee (1978) explicitly set out to examine development within the poetic dimension of Britton’s model. His studies, which involved a diverse range of tasks and a wide age range, demonstrated that children as young as two had a clear sense of story as a separate use of language, and that between two and five they learned to use a variety of formal and structural devices in their story telling. In later years, students’ writing about literature showed many of the developments that Britton had predicted for transactional writing in general, as students became increasingly competent at analysis and generalization.

Studies that have examined early forms of expository writing have also found a range of genres available to even very young children. Newkirk (1987, 1989), for example, provides an inventory of types that begins with labels and lists and moves through ordered paragraphs; he argues that the variety of forms he found calls into question Britton’s emphasis on the expressive as the developmental matrix out of which other forms are differentiated.

Assessing Mastery of Diverse Purposes for Writing

The major approach to assessment of mastery of diverse purposes is primary trait scoring, developed by Richard Lloyd-Jones and Carl Klaus for NAEP (cf. Lloyd-Jones, 1977). Primary trait assessment in its initial formulations focused on the specific approach that a writer might take to be successful on a specific writing task; every task required its own unique scoring guide. Over the years as primary trait approaches were used more widely, they evolved into a more generic approach which recognized the similarities in approach within broad uses or purposes. The basic question addressed in scoring, however, remained, "Did the writer successfully accomplish the purpose of this task?" To insure that raters maintained this focus, scoring guidelines usually instructed raters to ignore errors in conventions of written language, and to focus on overall rhetorical effectiveness.

The Development of Fluency and Control of Written Language

If Britton’s work focuses on the diverse purposes for writings, many other studies have focused on more limited aspects of writing development– on fluency irrespective of purpose, or on the subskills or components that are believed to contribute to such fluency. There is a long tradition of research, for example, that has looked at the development of syntactic structures in students’ writing. Dating at least to the 1920s, such studies have reflected changing emphases in the larger field of linguistics, moving from Latinate school grammars to structural to transformational analyses of writing development. One of the most extensive studies in this tradition was Walter Loban’s (1976) longitudinal analysis of oral and written language development. For this study, Loban followed a representative sample of 211 Oakland, CA, students for 13 years, from kindergarten through grade 12. Oral language samples were gathered every year, complemented by writing samples from grades 3 through 12 and a variety of other measures (teachers’ ratings of achievement, IQ scores, and reading, listening, and language measures). Loban’s analyses focused primarily on syntax; he found that factors that characterized language development included the use of longer communication units (sentences), greater elaboration of subject and predicate, more embedding (from analyses of grammatical transformations), greater use of adjectival dependent clauses, more use of dependent clauses of all kinds, greater variety and depth of vocabulary, and greater use of tentativeness (i.e., supposition, hypotheses, conjecture, and conditional statements) (Loban, 1976). Written and oral language seemed to develop in parallel, although in many analyses trends observed in written language occurred approximately a year after they were observed in similar analyses of oral language samples.

The attempt to find a developmental sequence of syntactic structures appropriate for the teaching of school writing eventually failed. As Kellogg Hunt (1965) put it in the conclusion of his own study of grammatical structures written at grades 4, 8, and 12, the structures he studied "are virtually all used by fourth graders and are used often enough and successfully enough to indicate that fourth graders command them. The study provides no justification for teaching some structures early and others late" (p. 155). Other investigators pushed these conclusions further, arguing that by the time children enter school, they are already competent in the grammatical structures of English. Rather than the accumulation of new structures, what seems to develop during the school years is the student’s ability to manage an increasing degree of structural complexity–that is, to include more structures effectively within a single sentence.

This sense of writing development as learning to combine a variety of structures within a single linguistic unit led to a related line of research on transformational sentence combining. Researchers at a variety of grade levels developed sentence combining curricula and sought to demonstrate that these in turn led to growth in writing abilities. Early versions of these programs (Mellon, 1969) began with explicit teaching of specific "transformations" drawn from then-current systems of transformational grammar; later versions relied on non-technical cues ("Join these sentences using ‘although’.") or invited students to combine sentences in any way that would make the resulting writing more effective. Initial studies demonstrated that sentence combining practice did in fact lead to the use of more complex syntax, though gains in overall writing quality were less clear (cf. Daiker, Kerek, & Morenberg, 1985; Hillocks, 1986). As a result of these studies, a variety of sentence combining curricula were developed, and sentence manipulation exercises became a standard part of more general writing textbooks.

The aspects of fluency and control that can and have been examined are almost limitless. In addition features of syntax and punctuation, these include the development of cohesion and cohesive harmony (Halliday & Hasan, 1976; Rentel & King, 1983; Irwin, 1988; Cameron et al., 1995; Crowhurst, 1987); rhetorical strategies (Beach & Anson, 1988); spelling (Read, 1975); and vocabulary (Beland et al., 1987).

Assessing Fluency and Control of Written Language

Models of writing that emphasize fluency and control of written language have led to a wide variety of approaches to writing assessment. At the level of the essay as a whole, Paul Diederich at Educational Testing Service developed holistic (or general impression) scoring methods that sought to achieve a synthesis among the many different components of fluency and control, including vocabulary, punctuation, spelling, and organization (Diederich, 1974). On the other hand, many approaches to assessment have focused on the individual components. T-unit length, for example, essentially a measure of the degree of embedding and syntactic complexity, has become a widely used measure in studies of first and second language learning. Various schemes for analyzing specific spelling, punctuation, and usage errors have also been proposed, though in practice patterns of errors have been too topic specific to be very useful as achievement measures (cf. NAEP, 1975). More successful have been multiple choice or short answer measures, where content can be controlled. Such measures have been widely used as part of standardized achievement tests, IQ measures, and college entrance or placement examinations (Breland et al., 1987). Even simple number of words has been used as a rough measure of fluency, since essay length tends to correlate highly with other ratings of overall writing quality (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987).

Structural Knowledge

Just as there is a long tradition of viewing writing development in terms of fluency and control of written language, there is an equally long tradition of viewing writing development as the learning of larger structural patterns. This has had many variations over the past century, varying from an emphasis on alternative models of paragraph development (compare-contrast, comment and elaboration) to the study or imitation of models to the learning of larger patterns such as the structure of the five paragraph theme. All of these approaches share a focus on conventional structures that students must master, whether through the analysis of what others have written, through the study of abstract rules, or through writing and revision.

The emphasis on larger structural patterns in writing is usually traced to Alexander Bain (1866). From Bain comes both a belief in the value of patterns derived from the writings of the "masters" of vernacular literature, and the beginnings of a prescriptive tradition in the study of writing as well as of grammar. Bain’s broad patterns–description, narration, exposition, and poetry–have provided a guiding structure for composition programs for nearly a century and a half. The categories are limited and overlapping, however, having little direct relation to the ways in which writing is structured in out of school contexts. Britton’s analysis of the uses of writing was in part an attempt to correct the distortions that Bain’s modes of discourse create.

Other writers have questioned the value of traditional schoolbook advice about essay structure. Braddock (1974), for example, studied the usefulness of advice to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence, and found that only 13 percent of the paragraphs in published prose followed this prescription. (Fewer than half of the paragraphs in his sample even had a topic sentence in the textbook sense.) Meade and Ellis (1970) similarly examined the use of composition-textbook prescriptions on approaches to paragraph development (e.g., cause-effect, chronology, definition, comparison), and similarly found little correspondence between the traditional axioms and the structure of published prose.

Some studies have looked at how students actually come to master more complex prose structures. Langer (1986), in her study of 8 to 14 year-olds, found that new organizing patterns (such as causal structures) appeared first as lower level structures in limited contexts that students could handle more easily, and only with age and experience became central organizing structures for an essay as a whole. Development was also marked by a wider repertoire of organizing devices and deeper elaboration of the writing as a whole. Durst found similar processes at work in the writing of 11th grade students as they struggled with the new demands of analytic as opposed to report writing. In a retrospective analysis of three students’ writing from grade 3 through the end of high school, Durst (1984) found the students’ writing shaped by rigid formula (for lab reports and book reports, for example) that initially helped them master new forms but eventually seemed to limit their continuing growth as effective writers.

More recent attention to children’s mastery of structural patterns has come from heightened interest in genre as a theoretical concept. In the U.S., this has stemmed from treatments of genre as an inherently shifting and fluid response to particular social and cultural contexts (Miller, 1984). In this tradition, genres can be modified as well as mastered. In Australia, however, another tradition of genre theory has developed, emphasizing the importance of particular genres to success in academic as well as out of school contexts. Australian genre theory, which merges a version of Michael Halliday’s systemic linguistics with a strong concern for social justice, emphasizes the explication of the characteristics of the genres of schooling, and of power, so that they can be mastered by all students (Cope & Kalantzis, 1993; Halliday & Martin, 1993). This approach begins with a detailed linguistic analysis of the genres of each of the school subjects, in order to isolate the structural features characteristic of each genre (which differ markedly from one school subject to another). These features in turn become the basis of a new literacy curriculum that emphasizes the grammars (or text structures) of the genres that are central to each discipline.

Assessment of Structural Knowledge

Assessment of structural knowledge has usually taken the form of ratings of "organization" or "use of appropriate evidence or detail." Such scales are a prominent part of most analytic rating schemes, as well as of Diederich’s (1974) holistic rating procedures. Like other parts of such scales, they have typically been highly correlated with ratings of other dimensions, rather than yielding independent information about students’ writing development. (Diederich suggests that the separate scales in his system are best used as a way to socialize teams of examiners to a common standard; experienced raters can move directly to the final "holistic" score without completing the separate subscales.)

Alternatively, there have been some multiple choice measures of structural knowledge, usually requiring students to specify the most effective order of sentences in paragraphs, or to choose among alternative paragraph structures (e.g., Godshalk, Swineford, & Coffman, 1966).

Strategic Knowledge

The approaches discussed so far have treated writing development as a function of what writers produce–that is, of the success of their "products." Another important tradition has sought to explain development in terms of the strategies or "processes" that the writer uses to create those products (Hairston, 1982). Emig’s (1971) study of the composing processes of 12th graders is usually taken as the start of this tradition, and it was quickly followed by a flood of studies that treated writing as something that evolved over time, usually through a recursive cycle of generating ideas, drafting, revising, editing, and sharing. (For reviews of this work, see Hillocks, 1986). Emig’s description of composing processes was opportunistic and atheoretical, but it was quickly followed by more systematic explorations. One of the most comprehensive of these was proposed by Linda Flower and John R. Hayes (1980; Hayes & Flower, 1980), within a cognitive problem-solving paradigm. Though it lacked an explicitly developmental dimension, Flower and Hayes, and their students at Carnegie-Mellon, used this model to guide a long and careful series of studies contrasting novice and expert writers at the college level (for a recent formulation, see Hayes, 1996).

A second series of studies, by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia (1987), focused on the development of writing processes in school age children. These studies delineated two quite different approaches to writing, one that Bereiter and Scardamalia called knowledge telling and a second that they called knowledge transforming. Knowledge telling strategies enabled writers to efficiently "tell what they know" about a topic, an appropriate approach to the limited kinds of task that dominate school writing assignments. On the other hand, knowledge transforming strategies went beyond knowledge telling to allow for the development of new ideas within the process of composing, as the writer rethinks previous knowledge and ideas and finds appropriate ways to present the new understandings.

Other scholars concerned with the development of strategic processes in younger writers have focused their attention on particular components of the process (prewriting, revising, editing) or on meaning making strategies that may be more general than simply writing. Langer (1986), for example, in the study discussed earlier, used both think-aloud protocols and retrospective reports to examine the writing and reading processes of her 8, 11, and 14 year olds. Looking at strategic processes from a variety of perspectives (reasoning operations, monitoring behaviors, meaning making strategies, and sources of knowledge drawn upon), she found that individuals were consistent in their use of such processes across both reading and writing, and across story and report tasks. Based on these results, Langer suggested that students were deploying a set of common cognitive and linguistic resources in approaching these tasks. On the other hand, the patterns in which these resources were deployed varied with task and showed clear development with age. Overall, the 8 year olds were more restricted in the strategies they deployed, and less able to reflect forward or back on their ideas.

Other research relating strategic processes to types of writing has similarly found that, faced with different tasks, writers deploy their cognitive and linguistic resources in different ways (Durst, 1987; Newell, 1984).

Assessment of Strategic Processes

The concern with writing processes has had a widespread effect on teachers’ beliefs and on the writing curriculum. As noted earlier, the majority of teachers in the 1992 NAEP assessment of writing claimed it had a "central" role in their teaching (Applebee et al., 1994). Writing processes are also a major feature in the Standards for the English Language Arts developed by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (1996). Writing textbooks from major publishers also now give extensive attention to strategic processes, usually presented as discrete "steps" in the writing process.

Attempts to assess students’ development of strategic processes have been less successful. NAEP has experimented with assessments of revision strategies at least since 1974 (NAEP, 1977), but has been unable to find a format that leads students to make extensive revision. Similarly, some NAEP assessments have provided opportunities for students to make use of prewriting strategies, but relatively few students make use of these opportunities (cf. Applebee et al., 1994). Given the complex nature of writing, these attempts may in fact be wrong-headed. Writers are most likely to make extensive use of prewriting or revision strategies with tasks that are particularly new and difficult. On-demand assessments, on the other hand, are likely to present relatively contained and familiar tasks for which little overt use of composing strategies will be needed. In the end, the best assessment of the effectiveness of strategic processes may be the quality of the writing that is produced.

The one widely used set of measures that can be seen as related to strategic processes involves editing. The College Board has over the years used a variety of multiple choice and interlinear editing exercises to assess writing ability (Godshalk, Swineford, & Coffman, 1966), and has recently reintroduced them as a measure of writing skills on the SAT. Such tasks, however, can also be seen as part of the tradition of concern with fluency and the avoidance of error.

Toward a Broader Model: Writing as Participation in Social Action

At present, writing development remains ill-defined and difficult to assess. It is confounded with language development more generally, as well as with the development of content knowledge in particular domains. (Even the "best" writer will write unsuccessfully in a completely unfamiliar domain.) Indeed, performance on most of the components of writing achievement varies with topic and type of writing: vocabulary, syntactical patterns, fluency, patterns of errors, organizing structures, and even writing processes will all vary from one topic or type of writing to another.

At the same time, any particular topic will be redefined by each individual writer in ways that make it difficult to array specific topics along a developmental scale. (A topic such as "An interesting person" can lead, for example, to a well-written paragraph by a 4th grade student, a short story by a 12th grader, and a New Yorker profile by a professional writer.) Different models of development have led to a wide variety of measures of writing ability, but each measure is limited in its own way, and the patterns of intercorrelations among them are at best modest. The most reliable measures of writing ability are based on multiple choice measures of limited skills; those with the greatest face validity require extensive socialization of raters to a common standard that is difficult to explain and to replicate in other contexts. The limits of all of these approaches were evident in an international study of written composition, which found it impossible to develop agreed-upon definitions of writing quality across countries and cultures (Purves, 1992). Even within the United States, "development," with a few notable exceptions (Heath, 1983; Delpit, 1995; Dyson, 1989, 1993; Gee, 1996), has meant the development of mainstream, middle class students.

The models discussed so far have treated writing development outside of the contexts within which that development occurs. Britton et al. (1975), for example, delineate a variety of uses of writing that occur across the full range of school subjects, with no attention to how a particular use (such as report writing) may differ in history, say, versus mathematics. And this is equally true of studies of fluency, structure, and strategic processes. A second dimension of Britton’s analysis, does, however, give somewhat more attention to the social dimension of writing. Focusing on the audience for student writing, Britton posits a continuum that begins with writing for oneself, passes through a variety of school-specific audiences (such as writing to be graded or assessed), and ends with writing for a wider unknown audience. Again, there is an implicit developmental model inherent in this category system, but one that was foiled by the domination of school writing by writing for assessment purposes. A variety of other studies have looked at students’ developing sense of audience, often in the context of broader skills of social cognition (see Bonk, 1990, for a review).

Recent work in writing, however, moves beyond simple notions of audience to a broader consideration of the social contexts within which writing occurs and develops. In these contexts, writers negotiate their place within the many communities of which they are a part, with a variety of resources and competing demands. Dyson (1989, 1993, this volume), for example, in her ethnographies of primary grade children learning to write, has described the complicated interplay among previous experiences, uses of writing, uses of other symbol systems, peer relationships, and the goals and orientation of the teacher. Children in different classrooms learn to write in different ways, and children in the same classroom show great variations in the strategies they use and the genres they prefer as they negotiate their roles with their teacher and their peers. In such contexts, the children develop a sense of the many different uses that writing can serve, and a growing repertoire of strategies for orchestrating what they write. In a later article, Dyson (1995) has argued explicitly that children’s differentiation of ways of using language is linked directly to their differentiation of their own place with the social world. Heath (1983), Gee (1996), and Delpit (1995) have made clear how closely tied such knowledge is to the social and cultural contexts within which students grow up.

At the other end of the developmental spectrum, a number of authors have explored the challenges facing writers at the undergraduate and graduate level. McCarthy (1987) and Geissler (1994) have examined the conflicting demands encountered by college freshmen in a variety of disciplines. Herrington (1985) has similarly analyzed the experiences of students in two advanced courses in chemical engineering, finding that expectations for writing were very different even within this relatively specialized context. Berkenkotter, Huckin and Ackerman (1988) traced the gradual enculturation of ‘Nate’ into the doctoral program in rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon. What each of these studies makes clear is that in order to write well in these new contexts, these already-accomplished writers have to learn a great deal about the particular demands of their new situations. In each case, they serve a kind of apprenticeship during which they come to understand not only the appropriate rhetorical forms, but also the underlying issues that make writing interesting and arguments effective. They learn, in fact, how to participate within the new contexts in which they find themselves. Stuart Greene (1994, 1995) has described this process as one of learning how to assume the role of authorship within a new context, a role which a writer can only assume by learning how to speak with authority within the disciplinary tradition.

The notion of effective participation in important domains offers another way to think about the development of writing ability, as well as a way to bring together some of the diverse emphases in previous models of writing development (cf. Hicks, 1997). If students are to participate effectively in a domain, they must learn how to take action within that domain: how to do science, for example, not simply to learn "about" it. Taking action within a domain involves learning the genres that structure it as well as all of the kinds of knowledge previously discussed–fluency, appropriate uses of language, structural knowledge, and strategic processes. It also requires, however, knowledge of content and procedures appropriate to the domain, knowledge of what is interesting and important and relevant to partake in the ongoing conversation about significant ideas. This notion of an ongoing conversation, which involves reading and writing as well as speech, and contemporary voices as well as those from the past, provides a way to think about the curriculum as a whole as well as about the curriculum in writing. If we want students to participate in important conversations, then we must help them write in ways appropriate to those conversations. And we must judge their development as writers in terms of their ability to participate with increasing effectiveness in an increasingly wide array of culturally significant domains for conversation (Applebee, 1996). We may also need to pay more attention to the goals and expectations that students bring to these conversations—the factors that shape how and whether they will choose to engage with the topics we may proffer (Durst, 1999).

This does not simplify the problem of describing writing development, but it may reorient it in productive ways. Effective participation requires all of the features of writing development that have been explored out of context–fluency, structure, purpose, and strategic knowledge–but it also requires expertise within a domain. The effective participant will be the person who can use writing to make his or her own contribution to the conversation, who can write with authority in ways that others will find interesting and convincing. Because there are many such conversations that are important in our social and cultural world, writing development may in turn become a matter of developing a voice in a wider array of conversations, and learning to make one's contribution in increasingly powerful and effective ways.


Preparation of this chapter was supported in part by the Research and Development Centers Program (award number R305A60005) administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the sponsoring agencies.


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