Home > Strategies and Skill Development > Social Reasoning Strategy Families > Social Modeling > Literature Note - Development of Social Expressive Skills for Written Text

It is useful to consider what the literature suggests about how people learn to express themselves in writing, viewed in terms of their ability to socially model the writing situation. Bazerman (2004) presented a useful model for thinking about the social aspects of writing, in terms borrowed from linguistic pragmatics and sociolinguistics. He points out that writing presupposes social facts that govern expectations about writing and speech acts (Austin, 1962) that define the purpose and relevance criteria that apply on any particular occasion of writing, including Austin’s three-way distinction between the locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts (roughly: the literal act of communication, the immediate communicative force of the act, and its desired social effects).

Bazerman (2004) presented these analytical tools primarily as introduction to the study of genre, since he argued (in effect) that particular text genres are standard solutions to complex social problems. Given an activity system—a recurrent, coordinated set of interactions—particular purposes for writing recur, and they must satisfy recurrent constraints. A genre may then be defined as a recurrent, easily recognizable pattern of writing that effectively satisfies the constraints that apply to a purpose that recurs in a characteristic situation in a literate activity system. For example, consider the so-called Gricean maxims (Grice, 1975, pp. 45-46):

Maxim of Quantity
1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Quality
1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Relevance
Be relevant.

Maxim of Manner
1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
2. Avoid ambiguity.
3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
4. Be orderly.

While Grice was primarily concerned with what happens in conversation when one of these principles is violated and examined in depth what kinds of licensed inferences or implicatures may be drawn as a result, these maxims also summarize rather succinctly the kinds of constraints that govern expository writing in general, and more particularly such genres as the informational report. The writer of purely informative prose must, at each stage, take into account what the audience will perceive as being insufficiently or excessively detailed, credible or incredible, relevant or irrelevant, clear or confusing. And conversely, of course, the reader will take the expectation that the author was trying to comply with such conventions into account during the process of interpretation. Expository text emerges as a genre because, simultaneously, these constraints force authors to follow the same expository strategies consistently, and the reader recognizes such texts and reads them more efficiently as a result.

Social facts such as the Gricean maxims are far from the only elements of the social mode that affect writing. Kintsch and van Dijk (1983) presented an in-depth analysis of factors that influence the construction of discourse, an analysis that includes a rather wide range of information that is relevant to deciding what message to produce next, even in an oral, conversational context: knowledge about goals and inferences, interests and values; knowledge about the specific communicative interaction; social and cultural knowledge; knowledge about cooperative principles and other social communicative norms; knowledge about appropriateness conditions for speech acts. All of these feed into cognitive processes that create global plans for speech acts, strategies for execution, and specific plans for actual utterances.

All of the same factors carry over into written production—at least insofar as it is sensitive to social, conmmunicative considerations, although writing is by nature more complex. Kintsch and van Dijk’s model is focused on the processes that govern a single conversational turn, or at most a short sequence of preparatory speech acts leading up to a culminating goal. Of necessity it does not address the complexities of producing longer, sustained textual outputs.

Relatively little literature focuses directly on the question of connections between social skills and writing in general (though there is rather more about the connection between social skills and narrative, to be discussed below). Jurecic (2006) presented an interesting case study of a college student with Asperger’s syndrome and the author’s solution for that student’s writing problems. Given the student’s inability to form an internal mental model of audience response, Jurecic was still able to help the student write more effectively by devising procedures that used consultation with third parties to provide the writer with information about audience response. This is consistent with the results of Surian, Baron-Cohen, and van der Lely (1996), who found that autistic children performed at chance in detecting violations of the Gricean maxims in conversation, and with evidence that such students typically also have problems in writing (Asaro & Saddler, 2009; Griffin, Griffin, Fitch, Albera, & Gingras, 2006). Similar results obtain for ADHD students, who appear to construct much less elaborated social representations (Milch-Reich, Campbell, Pelham, Connelly, & Geva, 1999) and for whom writing difficulties are also frequent (Barbro, Thernlund, & Nettelbladt, 2006).

Here, as with reading, it would be a mistake to assume that any but the most skilled writers automatically bring the full resources of social reasoning to bear during the process of composition. In fact, the literature on writing appears to support a three-stage theory rather similar to that we have postulated for reading. We suggest, in particular, that the growth of writing skill approximates into three phases, as follows:[1] An initial situation-bound approach to writing, where the choice of content and manner of presentation is closely bound up with the immediate social situation. Content is driven by the immediate needs of the social situation and generally does not exceed the length of text necessary to complete a single turn in conversation. The style of text is very much driven by context as well, as seen (for instance) by a tendency to use pronouns and other deictic elements consistent with the immediate context, even if those choices render the text itself less comprehensible.
  • A content-focused phase focused on the generation and organization of ideas without too great a reliance on immediate context. This corresponds to what Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) termed the knowledge-telling approach to written composition.
  • A final phase characterized by the development of expertise in generating content in ways that are sensitive to an absent audience, the larger, literate context, and the conceptual and rhetorical problems that have to be solved to achieve the writer’s rhetorical purpose. This corresponds in large part to what Bereiter and Scardamalia termed the knowledge-transforming approach to written composition.

This characterization is essentially the same as Bereiter and Scardamalia’s, and there is considerable evidence for its essential correctness. Let us review the evidence briefly. The initial stages of writing development require a shift from a primarily oral to a primarily graphical communication modality (Vygotsky, 1978); a shift from a communicative situation focused upon an immediately present audience to one where the audience is absent (Goody & Watt, 1963; Olson, 1977) and, as Bereiter and Scardamalia noted (1977, pp. 55-62), a shift also from language production driven by conversation turns to language production under autonomous, internal control. This corresponds to a general trend from written production that is typically oral, making heavy use of deixis, to more typically academic, referentially self-contained language, (Biber, 1988; Biber & Conrad, 2001; Chafe, 1982; Tannen, 1982), though children’s knowledge of written style can emerge well before children learn to write (Purcell-Gates, 2001). It also corresponds to an increase in the length of written production, from short productions comparable to single conversational turns to longer texts (Berninger & Swanson, 1994; Hidi & Hildyard, 1983; Loban, 1976).

Littleton (1998) provided one of the few direct studies to examine how the absence of a responding audience actually affects children’s language production in speech. It thus provides a key baseline with which to compare early-stage writing, where children’s writing production is primarily driven by their oral conversational skills. Littleton examined differences between children’s oral productions when explaining how to perform a magic trick either to another, physically present child, or to an absent child via tape recorder. Littleton observed several ways in which children were able to take an absent audience’s needs into account, but the absence of an audience had several significant effects: production of significantly shorter responses, loss of verbal clarity (often because children referred to objects and actions in ways that would only make sense if their audience were physically present), and failure to provide explanations and elaborating commentary.

The critical role of a conversational partner in the transition from oral to written communication is at least partly confirmed by evidence that writing is easier when the audience and task more closely resemble familiar oral tasks. There is clear evidence that when students are provided with a live audience—such as another student responding to their writing or collaborating with them in producing the text—that the quality and length of children’s writing output increases (Calkins, 1986; Daiute, 1986; Daiute & Dalton, 1993). In the case of argumentation in particular, it has also been demonstrated that providing students with a partner for live interaction increases the quality of the resulting text (Kuhn, Shaw, & Felton, 1997). Similarly, Cohen and Riel (1989) demonstrated that providing a more contextualized, socially real occasion to write results in students performing better on a writing task.

Leaving socially scaffolded situations aside, the growth of writing skill in the early grades appears to be driven primarily by increases in the fluency and accuracy of the transcription process and by increasing fluency in content generation (Berninger & Swanson, 1994; Juel, 1988; Juel, Griffith, & Gough, 1986; McCutchen, 2006). McCutchen (1996) noted that children’s planning processes for writing typically focus on content generation, rather than on the development of the more sophisticated (and often audience-sensitive) types of plans developed by more experienced writers. Rhetorically sensitive control of the writing process appears to develop relatively late for the more complex, academic styles of writing. While children do show some sensitive for audience in writing, this ability improves significantly as children mature (Crowhurst, 1995; Kroll, 1985, 1986), though writers often have considerable difficulty taking audience into account during drafting, and show greater audience sensitivity if allowed to focus on it during revision (Roen & Wiley, 1988). Even at the college-entry level, Flower (1987) noted that one of the differences between experienced writers and college freshmen was that the expository writing of freshmen tended to be “topic-bound,” whereas experienced writers made significant adjustments of presentation based upon audience considerations.

It appears, therefore, that the ability to apply social modes effectively to text develops relatively late. The three-stage pattern suggested by the literature in both reading and writing can reasonably be viewed not as three strict stages, but as a sequence in which maturation of other aspects of writing (the ability to generate representations of the written text, text structure, and literal content) generally precedes elaboration of social and pragmatic skills for the interpretation and production of written text.[2]

Asaro, K., & Saddler, B. (2009). Effects of planning instruction on a young writer with Asperger's Syndrome. Intervention in School and Clinic, 44(5), 268-275.

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words: The William James lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955. Oxford, England: Clarendon.

Barbro, B., Thernlund, G., & Nettelbladt, U. (2006). ADHD and language impairment. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 15(1), 52-60.

Bazerman, C. (2004). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems. In C. Bazerman & P. A. Prior (Eds.), What writing does and how it does it (pp. 309-340). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bereiter, C. (1980). Development in writing. In L. W. Gregg & E. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive processes in writing (pp. 74-93). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1987). The psychology of written composition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Berninger, V. W., & Swanson, H. L. (1994). Modifying Hayes and Flower's model of skilled writing to explain beginning and developing writing. Advances in Cognition and Educational Practice, 2, 57-81.

Biber, D. (1988). Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Biber, D., & Conrad, S. (2001). Register variation: A corpus approach. In D. Schiffrin, D. Tannen, & H. E. Hamilton (Eds.), Handbook of discourse analysis (pp. 175-196). Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing.

Calkins, L. M. (1986). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Chafe, W. (1982). Integration and involvement in speaking, writing, and oral literature. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Spoken and written language: Exploring orality and literacy (pp. 35-53). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Cohen, M., & Riel. (1989). The effect of distant audiences on students' writing. American Educational Research Journal, 26(2), 143-159.

Crowhurst, M. (1995). The developmental stylistics of young writers' communicative intentions. In D. L. Rubin (Ed.), Composing social identity in written language (pp. 189-202). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Daiute, C. (1986). Do 1 and 1 make 2? Patterns of influence by collaborative authors. Written Communication, 3(3), 382-408.

Daiute, C., & Dalton, B. (1993). Collaboration between children learning to write: Can novices be masters? Cognition and Instruction, 10(4), 281-333.

Englert, C. S., Mariage, T. V., & Dunsmore, K. (2006). Tenets of sociocultural theory in writing instruction research. In C. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 208-221). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Flower, L. S. (1987). Interpretive acts: Cognition and the construction of discourse. Poetics, 16, 109-130.

Goody, J., & Watt, I. P. (1963). The consequences of literacy. Comparative Studies in History and Society, 5, 305-345.

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics: Vol. 3. Speech acts (pp. 225-242). New York, NY: Seminar Press.

Griffin, H. C., Griffin, L. W., Fitch, C. W., Albera, V., & Gingras, H. (2006). Educational interventions for individuals with Asperger's syndrome. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41(3), 150-155.

Hidi, S. E., & Hildyard, A. (1983). The comparison of oral and written productions in two discourse types. Discourse Processes, 6(2), 91-105.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(4), 437-447.

Juel, C., Griffith, P. L., & Gough, P. B. (1986). Acquisition of literacy: A longitudinal study of children in first and second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(4), 243-255.

Jurecic, A. (2006). Mindblindness: Autism, writing and the problem of empathy. Literature and Medicine, 25(1), 1-23.

Kintsch, W., & van Dijk, T. A. (1983). Strategies of discourse comprehension. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Kroll, B. M. (1985). Rewriting a complex story for a young reader: the development of audience-adapted writing skills. Research in the Teaching of English, 19, 120-139.

Kroll, B. M. (1986). Explaining how to play a game: The development of informative writing skills. Written Communication, 3, 195-218.

Kuhn, D., Shaw, V., & Felton, M. (1997). Effects of dyadic interaction on argumentative reasoning. Cognition and Instruction, 15(3), 287-315.

Littleton, E. B. (1998). Emerging cognitive skills for writing: Sensitivity to audience presence in five-through-nine-year-olds' speech. Cognition and Instruction, 16(4), 399-430.

Loban, W. (1976). Language development: Kindergarten through grade twelve (NCTE Committee on Research Report No. 18). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

McCutchen, D. (1996). A capacity theory of writing: Working memory in composition. Educational Psychology Review, 8(3), 299-325.

McCutchen, D. (2006). Cognitive factors in the development of children's writing. In C. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 115-130). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Milch-Reich, S., Campbell, S. B., Pelham, W. E., Jr., Connelly, L. M., & Geva, D. (1999). Developmental and individual differences in children's on-line representations of dynamic social events. Child Development, 70(2), 413-431.

Olson, D. R. (1977). From utterance to text: The bias of language in speech and writing. Harvard Education Review, 47, 257-281.

Purcell-Gates, V. (2001). Emergent literacy is emerging knowledge of written, not oral, language. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 92, 7-22.

Roen, D. H., & Wiley, R. J. (1988). The effects of audience awareness on drafting and revising. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 75-88.

Surian, L., Baron-Cohen, S., & van der Lely, H. K. J. (1996). Are children with autism deaf to Gricean maxims? Cognitive Neuropsychology, 1(1), 55-71.

Tannen, D. (1982). The oral/literate continuum in discourse. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Spoken and written language (pp. 1-15). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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  1. ^ Bereiter (1980) postulated five overlapping phases of writing development: associative, performative, communicative, unified, and epistemic. The associative and performative stages concern relatively early stages of writing development when the student may have very little understanding of writing as a communicative act, and very little grasp of the mechanics of putting sentences on the page. The three remaining stages appear to correspond roughly to what we postulate in the discussion below, though the final stage of Bereiter’s scheme, the epistemic, may concern more the development of what we term the conceptual mode than of the social mode.
  2. ^ It is not clear from this literature how much this delay is due to unavoidable maturation issues and how much it is due to the way writing pedagogy is structured. On the one hand, as McCutchen (2006) notes, the processing demands of written production appear to limit younger students’ ability to attend to higher-level processes such as audience demand. On the other hand, it is possible that instruction focused on the more mechanical aspects of writing could short-circuit social skill development by encouraging students to develop task schemas in which social elements are missing. The literature on sociocultural models of writing instruction, particularly the concept of cognitive apprenticeships is relevant here, as summarized in Englert, Mariage, and Dunsmore (2006).