Out walking on an autumn afternoon not long ago, I came upon five-letter inscription written in chalk on an otherwise unoccupied sidewalk near my home. Written entirely in upper case letters, it was apparently the work of child who lives in the neighborhood. The letters were these: STRTE. A box-like rectangle of chalk lines was drawn around the set of five letters, creating the impression that the text may have been designed to resemble a sign or banner. Combining my knowledge of the neighborhood, in which children sometimes organize sidewalk races on bicycles or big-wheel riding toys, and my experience deciphering young children’s early experiments with written language, I arrived at the guess that STRTE was written by a six or seven year old child, was meant to represent the word “START,” and that the surrounding rectangle signaled an aim to produce a sign or banner indicating the starting position of a riding course for young riders of bicycles or big-wheel toys.
If we grant the plausibility (if not the firm accuracy) of this conjecture, we can see that this small bit of discarded writing was very likely the work of a child who now, as we approach the end of the first decade of a new century, is just beginning to develop the ability to write — is very nearly at the start, so to speak, of understanding how to use written language effectively, of knowing how to create conventional written forms and novel written texts, and of managing various writing tools and processes. Assuming that this child will advance beyond the current “STRTE” level of understanding and skill, what can we say about what lies ahead as he or she continues to develop as a writer? What will be involved as this beginner continues to develop as a writer in the years and decades to come, with the processes of learning, relearning, adjusting, and adapting possibly spanning nearly the entire twenty-first century?
Perhaps the first observation is that the tools for writing — writing’s technology — available to writers and appropriated by beginning writers may vary more than is accounted for in many of the discussions of new media and written communication. This young writer wrote with chalk on a sidewalk. For this child, there was, as Roger Chartier (2004) puts it, a certain abstraction of text from materiality, inasmuch as a starting-line banner, if my guess about this text is right, was simulated rather than produced directly. But there was a palpable materiality to this written composition nonetheless: a mark made with chalk on concrete, a gesture that left a trace. Learning to write for this young writer may be like learning to write for many other young writers, involving a physical, social, and cognitive act that extends the functions not only of speaking but also of drawing and certain kinds of play (McLane and McNamee 1990).
Even this glimpse of one young child’s experimentation with writing alerts us to the complexity and variability of writing development. Writing development can be shaped in crucial ways by formal writing instruction, but, as recent scholarship has suggested, a premise of understanding writing development is that learning to write often involves more than being taught. (Gundlach 1992, Tolchinsky 2006). Viewed more comprehensively as a dimension of language development, learning to write can be understood as an outcome of the interplay of interacting histories, which, for each individual person, are both broadly cultural and specifically biographical. Individuals begin learning to write, and continue developing as writers — when indeed particular individuals do continue to develop — along various trajectories. These trajectories are shaped by the interplay of individuals’ own inclinations to experiment with writing and their experiences with writing and written language in their families, their communities, their schools, and, especially notable in our time, in the extended virtual geography, sometimes multilingual, of both public broadcast media and personal computer-based, on-line reading and writing activity. (Danet and Herring 2007, Gundlach, 2004). Generalizations about writing development must be tempered by the steady recognition — and hence the firm qualification — that people differ in the ways they learn to write and in the resources they are able and inclined recruit to support the process. These differences are not determined exclusively, and perhaps not chiefly, by the extent to which a writer has access to advanced technology. Access to chalk, a neighborhood sidewalk, and friends who ride bicycles may form at least a small part of the story for some beginning writers, both now and in the years ahead.
Nonetheless, the increasingly pervasive use of digital technology for written communication in cultures across the world will very likely change the character of writing development in the decades to come in ways that we can scarcely predict today. Liliana Tolchinsky makes an important contribution in her recent book, The Cradle of Culture and What Children Know About Writing and Numbers Before Being Taught, by emphasizing the value of focusing on the cognitive and linguistics processes involved in the individual “child’s personal work” in “imposing certain principles on the information provided by the environment.” But as Tolchinsky notes, “Children’s ideas [about writing and written language] are not idiosyncratic inventions–although they may appear as such–but rather reflect the selection and elaboration” of what they have encountered in their experience of interacting with readers and writers and their encounters with written language (2003: 93). In the encounters of the future, children will come upon readers and writers who are increasingly likely to use computers to read and write. They will also find themselves engaged with computers themselves, and very possibly with machines that offer a mechanized voice reading aloud a text from the screen, whether the text has been created by another writer or by the child himself or herself. Furthermore, as speech synthesis software programs become more common for reading aloud to beginners, it is also likely that speech recognition programs will also become more common and more adept in transforming a speaker’s utterance into a text on a screen (Sperber 2002, Gundlach 2003). Some children’s apprenticeships in the course of writing development may well become partly facilitated by — and possibly shaped by — software with features designed to convert text to speech and speech to text.
As speech recognition and speech synthesis software programs become more sophisticated, the machine itself will seem to become increasingly “intelligent” in directing the writer’s choices, in making corrections or other adjustments, and in predicting on behalf of the young writer what the unfolding text could or should include next. The processes of writing and re-reading one’s own writing-in-progress could thus become increasingly a matter of managing digital tools that offer meaning-inferring and choice-posing software. Writing with such digital tools may become analogous to mathematical problem solving with the use of advanced calculators and other digital problem-solving tools. Writing development may increasingly involve learning to use “intelligent” composing and editing software effectively.
For at least some children, then, marking sidewalks with chalk may give way in future decades to experimenting with the use of digital writing tools that may resemble hand-held calculators for mathematical operations — writing tools that can create written sentences from a developing writer’s speech and that can speak back, in mechanized voice, the software’s best inference of the words and sentences the child has intended to enter as text. Even in such intensely mediated and highly mechanized future environments for learning to write, however, a young writer’s development will continue to be influenced not only by access to the digital tools themselves but also by engagement with people who provide help with learning the use of the tools and, as important, for whom the writing and reading activities made possible with such tools have evident meaning and importance. Such engagement will continue to provide what Emilia Ferreiro calls a child’s highly consequential “first immersion in a ‘culture of literacy.’” This immersion, Ferreiro suggests in her comments on “Reading and Writing in a Changing World,” provides the experience of “having listened to someone read aloud, having seen someone write, having had the opportunity to produce intentional marks, having taken part in social acts where reading and writing make sense, and having been able to ask questions and get some kind of answer” (2000: 59). It is in this kind of sociocultural context, a context that provides opportunities for a child to interact (and, importantly, to identify) with more experienced members of a cultural community and to learn from observing them, that a child undertakes the social and cognitive work of transforming his or her experience in a linguistic environment into individual linguistic ability.
Chartier, Roger (2004). Languages, books, and reading from the printed word to the digital text.
Translated by Teresa Lavendar Fagan. Critical Inquiry 31, pp. 133-152.
Danet, Brenda, and Herring, Susan C. (eds.) (2007). The Multilingual Internet: Language, Culture, and Communication Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ferreiro, Emilia (2000). Reading and writing in a changing world. Publishing Research Quarterly 16, pp. 53-61.
Gundlach, Robert (1992). What it means to be literate. In Beach, R., Green, J., Kamil, M., and Shanahan, T. (eds), Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Literacy Research. Urbana:NCRE/NCTE, pp. 365-372.
Gundlach, Robert (2003). The future of writing ability. In Nystrand, M. and Duffy, J. (eds.), Towards a Rhetoric of Everyday Life: New Directions in Research on Writing, Text, and Discourse. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 247-263.
Gundlach, Robert (2004). Words and lives: Language, literacy, and culture in multilingual Chicago. In Farr, M. (ed.), Ethnolinguistic Chicago. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 381-387.
McLane, Joan B. and McNamee, Gilliam D. (1990). Early Literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sperber, Dan (2006). Reading without writing. In Origgi, G. (ed.), text-e: Text in the Age of the Internet. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 144-154.
Tolchinsky, Liliana (2003). The Cradle of Culture. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Tolchinsky, Liliana (2006). The emergence of writing. In MacArthur, C.A, Graham, S., and Fitzgerald, (eds.), Handbook of Writing Research. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 83-95.