The word on processing text

February 10, 1995

Towards the end of the last academic term two first-year students asked me whether I would look over some assignments that they had just completed. They were obviously pleased with their work and yet keen to have confirmation that it was OK, before submitting it formally. They are nice young people, bright and well motivated. Like all of my students they are now expected to submit work in word processed form.

Access to word processors has become easy in recent years and I have developed the strong opinion that word processing is perhaps the most important literacy skill that students of any discipline should acquire; and the earlier they acquire it the better. I believe that children in school should be word processing as soon as they are beginning to learn to read and to write and perhaps even before that time.

When my two students presented me with their essays and asked what I thought, the briefest of glances illustrated that they had put some thought into their work; there were suggestions of thought and reading round the subject.

Their work shouted out that they had tried to use the wealth of fonts and print styles - italics, bold and underlined, to try to make their work look nice; and to be fair, they had tried to use these, albeit unsuccessfully in my opinion, in an attempt to make the form of their argument more plain.

Problems with layout, with the aesthetics of presentation and the use of print to make work easy to read and to follow, are common among those who are just beginning to use word processing, and my students shared in them. However, their work indicated other more serious problems also, as it suggested that very little time had been spent thinking about spelling and punctuation and grammar; most important, it suggested that they had not spent enough time thinking about style. Little attention had been given to the best way of putting their arguments together, to the arrangement of ideas and the order in which they were presented.

Mindful of the need to be positive in my comments, I offered to go over my students' work with them. Mindful also of the fact that I am the only one of their teachers who requires them to word process their work and that this is a difficult business for them, I offered to give them some direct help in sorting things out on a computer.

"But we can't do that,'' they said, "because we've already wiped the disc." Apparently, they had written their essays elsewhere, in longhand, transcribed them laboriously into a computer, printed them out and closed down the machines without saving a copy of the material on file.

My two students had fallen into the trap of believing that word processing is a tool with which they could produce nice neat work. They had also (and I have to confess to irritation and perhaps a feeling of having been insulted by this) made the assumption that the reason I required their work to be produced using a word processor, was that I was primarily interested in neatness of presentation. In truth, what I am interested in is encouraging students to write as well as they can. I believe that the use of a word processor is a very great aid in doing so.

One of the greatest advantages that word processing can give the writer, is the possibility of developing text with ease. The possibility of reviewing one's work quickly whether on screen or in printed form, of deleting and replacing text, moving it about, of storing old versions of text while one tries out newer ones so that the original can be restored with ease if the newer version turns out to work less well than one hoped, are a great boon to anyone who wants to produce text of any kind.

Those who use word processing packages, often with great skill, to reproduce in printed form, work dictated by others, do not word process in this sense. Rather they use word processing facilities to typeset the work of others. Theirs is not a literary but a technological, perhaps secretarial, function. My assumption is that students undertaking higher education and those who work within higher education, should word process in the literary sense. That is why it is important that in teaching word processing, stress is laid upon the literary possibilities the technology makes available, rather than on the secretarial possibilities.

Of course, in order to make the best literary use of word processing, one must master the technology to the extent that one can perform the secretarial task of setting out one's work to some extent; and in order to present work as well as one can, one needs to come to know something about conventions of presentation.

But until students come to view word processing as a means to developing text they will misuse it in a way that is hazardous to their academic development. And that I think is something that teachers and academic institutions should be striving to avoid.

Senior lecturer in education at the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education.

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