Learning Disabled students, as well as English as a Second Language students, can benefit greatly from several techniques made possible by new computer technology. In his article, "The Impact of Microcomputer Word Processing on the Performance of LD Students in a Required First Year Writing Course," Terence Collins explains a study he and his colleagues performed at the University of Minnesota's General College to determine if computers helped to improve the writing of LD students. The study was conducted due to several concerns about LD student's high incidence of failure, withdrawal from and multiple attempts to pass a required first-year writing class. The "intervention" of using computers helped LD students overcome their "low self-esteem, difficulties with socialization, [and] fear of failure . . ."(2) in their writing. ESL students were also very apprehensive about their writing prior to their computerized writing classes. No explanation of the computer techniques utilized were given in this study. The author simply notes that "word processing . . . improved surface features of texts, increased motivation for writing, decreased apprehension toward writing, [and] improved self-concept as a writer" (2). Two courses composed of LD and non-LD students were studied over a period of three years. There was no control group of students working in a classroom without word processing, but the significant increase in the number of LD students who passed, and even excelled in, first-year writing courses showed that a control group was not needed.
The results of the measurement and comparison
of retention rates of the students in a microcomputerized classroom showed
that LD and non-LD students had almost the same retention rate for all three
years, an unprecedented improvement from the previous standards that LD
students retained less material than non-LD students. Overall, the performance
and grades of LD students improved, and the difference between the grades
of LD and non-LD students was minimal for every course. The average grades
of LD students even surpassed the grades of non-LD students for two
of the six terms studied. The attitude of LD students towards writing changed
in that they were significantly less apprehensive about writing after taking
the computer writing class. LD students were interviewed after they took
and passed this writing class, and the feedback was generally positive:
In nearly every case, the LD students reported
new ways of "seeing their thinking" and "seeing their words"
while writing at the computer . . Other(s) [LD students] speculated that
they could use the computer to "dump" their ideas faster than
with a pen, and therefore were better able to keep up with what they acknowledged
to be a scattered and sometimes uncontrolled thought process (12).
Flower's and Hayes's cognitive thought process
of writing is enriched by the use of the computer, which increases the facility
of writing, and allows for the "scattered and sometimes uncontrolled"
hypertext format many writers' minds work in.
In Charles A. MacArthur's article, "Using
Technology to Enhance the Writing Processes of Students with Learning Disabilities,"
several programs that facilitate Learning Disabled students' comprehension
of the many skills required to write are explained. This article, as several
other articles previously discussed shows how networked classrooms and publishing
with networks can benefit students, specifically LD students. For instance,
in the opening of his article, MacArthur explains a class of LD students
that collaboratively publishes a magazine every month. He writes, "This
regular publishing project has had a dramatic impact on the amount and quality
of writing produced in this class. Parents and peers who read the magazine
cannot tell from the product that the writers are all students with learning
disabilities (LD)" (344). Another example of improved writing due to
a larger audience are essays written for an audience of peers in different
cultural backgrounds that are more explicit than those written solely for
the teacher. The social context of student writing changes when the audience
changes, and publishing articles on a network or in the form of a magazine,
has been proven to motivate LD students to write better. This expansion
of audience was earlier discussed in relation to Balester et al.'s article
on collaboration in a computer-based course and Cassidy's article on ESL
students and the use of email. Another example of peer interaction that
enhances the learning of LD students is using a networked classroom to teach
writing to hearing impaired students. "Discussion" was made possible
by using the computer.
It is important to note that the several computer
tools discussed in MacArthurs's article alone cannot truly help LD
students; however, they are only useful to LD students when "effective
instructional methods" (353) are used in collaboration with them. Teachers
find the use of the visible computer-projected screen in front of the classroom
aids in class discussion, as in our English 376 class. Multimedia programs
with visual aids help LD and ESL students with word associations and with
building background knowledge in a subject area. Other aids such as programs
that can outline or create the structure for semantic maps, or "issue
trees" for students on the computer screen visually aid in the planning
of a paper. Teachers can program specific blank maps for students to complete
for different basic paper formats, such as Compare/Contrast or Description
papers. A visual, vocabulary, and physical aid for LD students is word prediction.
One of the purposes of word prediction is to reduce the number of keystrokes
required to type words and sentences. A word bank is a limited version of
word prediction that presents an alphabetical list of words that appears
as a student types. For instance, if I typed "g" then "gather"
and "get" would appear first in the word bank. Then if I added
an "r," "grab" and "grass" would appear in
the word bank. The student can select the word she wants to write with the
mouse, or continue typing. Word banks may also have pictures included to
aid the choice of words and increase the student's knowledge of vocabulary.
All of these computer tools help to improve the writing skills of LD students.
LD students do not plan or revise papers as extensively as non-LD students. As explained by Flower and Hayes, writing is a continuous process of planning, composing and revising. In order to help LD students plan, a program called prompting can be run before the student begins to write. This program consists of a series of questions about the assignment that lead to brainstorming, freewriting, and categorizing as a means of gathering ideas and organization for the LD writer. There are also prompts that can be activated while students write as a means for revising during writing. For many students of college age, revision of writing is usually performed at the end of the writing process, but LD students need the extra help revising and therefore it may be best to instruct them to revise as they write. These revision prompts are reminders that pop up after every sentence to assure that students reread every sentence. Another type of revision process available to LD students is the use of speech synthesis. By hitting a button, the computer translates the written text into speech, so the writer can listen to what she is written and determine if it makes sense. This is similar to the technique used in our Writing Center of reading a student's paper out loud to revise it. This may predict a sort of collaboration with the computer for the future that aids students' writing even more. Without computers, none of these ingenious aids to LD students learning to write effectively would be available. Computers help LD students learn the skills necessary to interact and compete with their non-LD peers. More emphasis has been placed on computers aiding LD students, and not necessarily on the collaboration computers help to provide. MacArthur does explain an excited classroom of LD students that are busy collaboratively creating a publication. Other computer tools, aside from networking, that LD students use on an individual basis are effective because they allow the students to improve their writing skills and feel more adequate and less apprehensive about writing in comparison to their non-LD peers.
Back to my discussion of Computers and ESL Writing Classes
To my Conclusion: On My Discovery
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