Friendship and collaborative creative writing in the primary classroom

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  • Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (2002) 18, 102-110

    102 2002 Blackwell Science Ltd

    Friendship and collaborative creativewriting in the primary classroomE. VassPsychology Department, The Open University

    Abstract A case study is reported investigating the nature of paired talkand the role of friendship in collaborative creative writing activities. Thisforms the initial phase of a larger research project driven by socio-culturaltheory, studying the beneficial effects of friendship pairing and the role ofthe computer tool in the development of creative writing skills. The jointpoem writing episodes of four 8-year-old girls, one friendship and oneacquaintance pair, were observed on a number of occasions during a two-week long literacy project. The observations were of ongoing classroomactivities in the IT suite and in the literacy classroom of their school; theobserved children worked alongside the rest of the class in their naturalcontext. It was predicted that there would be differences between the twopairs in terms of the process and the outcome of their collaborations whichcould be explained by the differences in their respective relationships. Toinvestigate such differences (if any), a functional model of discourseanalysis was used, developed specifically for the context of collaborativecreative writing. It is claimed that the proposed model is useful to describediscourse patterns characteristic of paired writing and to identifyproductive discourse styles in this specific setting. It helps to understandhow the collaborating writers engage in talk to cope with the demands ofthe task, and how they use discourse to support different phases of thejoint writing process.Keywords: Case study; Collaboration; Communication; Computer;Creativity; Friendship; Literacy; Primary, Socio-cultural theory

    Introduction

    Socio-cultural theory which draws heavily upon the works of Vygotsky (1962) views human learning and development as fundamentally social processes, embed-ded in the immediate and wider context and mediated by cultural tools and artefacts.Research with such theoretical orientation is concerned with studying and under-standing the mediational role of social interaction and cultural resources in learning.

    Although contemporary neo-Vygotskian theory places growing emphasis on peerinteraction among children, the dynamics and cognitive outcomes of different peerrelationships, such as friendship, are rarely investigated (Azmitia, 1996; Hartup,1996). Yet, pairing children with a friend is clearly beneficial when they are working

    Accepted: 6 November 2001

    Correspondence: Eva Vass, Psychology Department, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes,MK7 6AA Email: E.Vass@open.ac.uk

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    on challenging problem solving tasks (Azmitia & Montgomery, 1993) or engaged inactivities relying on metacognitive processes, such as creative writing (Hartup, 1996;Jones & Pellegrini, 1996). The question is, which features of friends collaborativedialogues contribute to their greater efficiency, when benefits are reported overnonfriendship pairings. In order to find an answer to this question one first needs tolook at how the nature of the task (for example problem solving or creative design)impacts on the nature of the collaborative activity and shapes paired discourse.

    It has been suggested that creative writing differs from scientific problem solvingin the sense that it is an unstructured activity with no fixed goals or clearly specifiedand ordered stages (Sharples, 1999). It involves both content generation(engagement) and reflection (reviewing, contemplation and planning), and relies onaffect-linked thinking: the deliberate re-creation of emotional experience in themind (Sharples, 1996 p. 134). If so, collaborative writing activities may require orallow for discourse patterns different from paired problem solving, and a newtypology is needed to map features of paired talk to cognitive and emotionalprocesses associated with the composition of written texts.

    This paper presents the findings of a case study, which forms the initial phase ofa longitudinal research project on childrens collaborative creative writing. Drawingon contemporary neo-Vygotskian theory, the research seeks to identify features offriendship discourse which mediate joint work in this particular context and examinehow the computer tool can support collaborative writing activities.

    Method

    ParticipantsThe study followed a two-week long creative-writing project in a Year 3 class(children aged between 8 and 9) of a Milton Keynes middle school, located in thecentral England. Due to practical limitations, the researcher focused on thecollaborative writing episodes of two pairs only, selected by their form teachers. Thefour children were of the same gender (girls) and of matching (mainstream) ability.The friendship pair (FP) were close friends both in and outside school, and theacquaintance pair (AP) were not regarded and did not regard themselves asfriends, yet they had a positive attitude to working together.

    ProcedureThe study comprised of naturalistic observations of poem-writing activities (acrosticsand limericks) of the four children, whose collaborative work was observed andrecorded by using video and audio equipment in the literacy classroom (twooccasions each) and in the IT suite (one occasion each) of the school. Since theresearcher studied ongoing classroom activities with no intervention, the length andcontent of the recordings varied according to the teachers lesson plan. The observedchildren were working together alongside the rest of the class and were not asked todo anything differently.

    Acrostics are poems in which the first letter of each line forms a meaningful word, usually the title or

    the theme of the poem. Limericks are humorous poems with a strict syllabic and rhythmic pattern. Thereare five lines, the first two rhyme with the fifth one and have three feet each, whereas the third and fourthform an independent rhyming couplet, 2 feet each.

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    Discourse analysisThe recordings were transcribed and the conversational turns were counted in eachtranscript. Each time a child spoke without interruption was regarded as a turn,ranging from one word to several statements. However, a pause longer than 3 s or achange in the subject was taken as the marker of a new conversational turn,regardless of no interruptions. The transcripts were analysed in terms of discoursefunctions linked to underlying processes of content generation and reflection, asillustrated in Table 1.

    Turns were coded into five categories, or otherwise were left uncoded. Four out ofthe five functions were content-oriented: Content generation (CG) [Child A: S-A, S-A-I. I, what do we do for I? Ice-

    creams melting] (Note that the study did not distinguish instances of affect-linked thinking from other sequences of content generation.);

    Planning (CP) [Child A: We do sailing Child B: Yeah, we do sailing]; Editing (CE) [Child A: Remember, you are not supposed to end with -ork, you

    are supposed to end with another sound Child B: I said the pork was so FAT, F-A-T!];

    Transcribing (CT) [Child A:What does it say? I dont understand your writing]. Process-oriented (P) was used to label discussion about the step-by-step

    procedure, management issues, role division, sharing, strategies for collaboration,or the use of technical equipment (Child A: [looking at their printed draft] Letsuse this to help us).

    However, the model was not intended to focus on individual turns. Rather, the focusof analysis was extended to longer sequences, in which utterances were coded ascentring around one or the other function. On the basis of the categories, friendshipand acquaintance episodes associated with different functions were identified andcompared in a qualitative fashion. (Note however, that content-generation andreflection are not completely separate but intertwining processes: the coauthors mayalternate them cyclically, or in the extreme, may appear to be engaged in the twoprocesses simultaneously, which makes coding difficult.) The ultimate aim was toanalyse how children engaged in talk to cope with the demands of the task, and howtalk is used to mediate different phases of the joint writing process.

    Findings

    Table 2 does not reveal major differences between the two pairs in terms of theproportion of different discourse functions. High ratios of editing (40 and 31% of thefriendship and acquaintance discourse, respectively) and transcribing (24% for FPand 33% for AP) imply that the reflective phases took up a large proportion of thechildrens joint efforts. On the other hand, talk was used less frequently for the

    Table 1 Processes central to writing and associated discourse functions

    Processes central to writing Associated discourse functions

    Content generation Collective thinking: free pooling, joint brainstorming, moulding:the extension and refinement of ideasAffect-linked thinking: musing, acting out, humour

    Reflection PlanningEditingTranscribing, spelling

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    generation (13% for FP and 9% for AP) and planning of content (6 and 3% for FPand AP, respectively), or to discuss process-related issues (10 and 16% for FP andAP). These numbers indicate that the childrens difficulties with the task of poem-writing (constraints of syllabic and rhythmic pattern) and their inexperience inspelling resulted in an increased emphasis on these areas, allowing less time andeffort spent on others. Note however, that the friendship pair paid twice as muchattention to editing as to problems of transcription (40 and 24 per cent, respectively),whereas the two acquaintances dedicated an equal amount to both (31 and 33%).Yet, such differences in emphasis are most probably due to differences amongindividual children (such as varying levels of confidence in spelling), rather than tothe nature of the relationship between the partners. There was also a slight differencein the amount of process-oriented language (10% for FP and 16% for AP,respectively). This may be due to the fact that, at least initially, the acquaintance pairengaged in frequent discussions about role management, which may explain thehigher proportion of talk dedicated to process-related issues.

    Although the analysis of individual turns does not uncover much about thedynamics of social interaction, the study of longer sequences of the discoursehighlights important distinctions in terms of the particular styles the children adoptedto support different functions. The following discussion concentrates on differencesin content generation, editing and process-related discourse.

    Individualistic styleEpisodes of content generation by the acquaintanceship pair were highlyindividualistic, with the exception of one possible episode at the end of the writingproject. The children developed ideas individually, challenged or accepted eachothers ideas, but did not use them as raw material for joint association. The lack ofcollectivity is highlighted by the sequence below (Sequence 1).

    Collective thinkingIn contrast, the friendship pair had a different strategy for content-generation, oftenengaging in talk which reflected collective thinking, as shown in Sequence 2.(Although their content generation was not solely collective, this style waspredominant in their joint brainstorming episodes.)

    The two lines the friends come up with in Sequence 2 (Sharks swimming swish-swash and Sharks eating scales of fish) cannot be attributed to either child. Indeed,most of the utterances themselves are better seen as working on collective ideasrather than on ideas of individuals. This sort of organic talk, in which each ideaseems to enter into a collective pool, open to extension or elaboration for both

    Table 2. Discourse functionsOccurrence of turns CP CE CG CT P Other Totalwith function*

    Friendship pair 27 187 60 112 49 36 471Acquaintance pair 22 265 72 280 137 73 849

    *sum of occurrence in 3 episodes

    Sequence 1.G Now, think. We have got some Yorkshire pork,M (interrupting/overlapping) I thought.G (continues without a pause, overlapping) then he got a fork and started toM Now, look, thats what I am gonna put! (takes the draft paper and is about to write)G No, wait a minute, tell me first, tell me first, because I might agree, I might agree.

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    children, was a distinctive discourse feature of the friendship pair. A further exampleis given in Sequence 3 below.

    The above sequences (2 and 3) consist of short utterances which either build on ideasuncritically, without challenging or evaluating them using repetitions and reform-ulations with slight changes or reject them without any reasons offered. Suchcumulative or disputational features are not typically associated with productivediscourse (e.g. Mercer, 1995). Yet, the above sequences highlight how cumulativediscourse can be used to glue individual ideas together and thus mould the material.In episodes of such lively brainstorming explicit argumentation is superfluous, itwould probably hinder the processes of joint pooling and free association.

    Another important distinction related to content generation is the use of musingand acting out reflecting affect-linked thinking to enhance the process. AsSequences 2 and 3 reveal, musing and acting out was a strategy favoured by thefriends, whereas no such features were found in the acquaintance discourse. Thefriends emotional engagement with their work is also obvious from the followingextract (Sequence 4).

    EditingThe acquaintance pairs individualistic style was not restricted to content generation.The following extract is an example of individualistic or parallel editing, oftenoccurring in the AP discourse.

    In Sequence 5 both children are trying to reshape the drafted line, but seem to beworking simultaneously, until one of them decides to pay attention to the other. In

    Sequence 2.C: Right. We do sailing. There. What can we do for S?I: Sharks, swimmingC & I: Swish-swashI: Swish-swash.C: No (singing voice, followed by gestures): SHarks, SWimming, SWish-SWash!I: Swish-swash!C: Sea,I: Shall wexxxx (inaudible) this one!C: Right.I: Sharkseating.I KNOW! SharksC& I: EatingC: Scales of FISHYeah.

    Sequence 3.I Ocean octopus.C Octopus (giggling).I CrunchingC Octopus (now facing the other, heads close, almost touching, funny intonation)

    Octopusxxx (inaudible) eyes looking everywhere.I (looking at the other) No, beady eyes.C OK.

    Sequence 4.C Its here(printed sheet with previous poem). Youd better copy it. I think if you

    copy that line, thats xxx (inaudible), I really like that, I like them two lines best.Especially Natures best under the sea, I like that. Under the sea, under the sea(mocking/teasing intonation, giggling).

    I I copy that down.C Under the sea, under the sea (giggling, talking straight into the microphone with a

    funny voice)

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    contrast, such parallel editing was highly infrequent in the friendship discourse.Furthermore, the use of recital as an editing strategy is a key feature

    distinguishing the two pairs. The friends used this strategy during each observedpoem-writing episode, just as they were about to finish their work. Reciting seemedto be a natural, familiar finishing point for both of them (see Sequence 6 below). Theacquaintances, in contrast, only recited their poems when prompted.

    Process oriented talkFinally, process-oriented episodes are also interesting to compare. The friendshippair was exclusively concerned about the technical details of the task and the step-by-step procedure to follow during the activities (see Sequence 7 for an example ofdiscussion relating to technical issues). The friendship discourse contained nodiscussion about collaborative strategies or problems with sharing at all.

    In contrast, the acquaintance pair mostly talked about how to share the work,devising collaborative strategies and constantly renegotiating the roles. This resultedin frequent disputes regarding every possible aspect of the activity, as it is shown inSequence 8.

    Explicit reasoningIn contrast to phases of content generation, both pairs made frequent use of explicit

    Sequence 5.[The children are editing the lines There was a boy from York, who sat on some porkfrom York, and changing the second York in order to avoid repetition.]M Some pork from Cork.G Who sat on some pork from York -Shire!M No, I thought we could do this: Corks from York!G What did you say?M Corks from York

    Sequence 6.I Shall I do the next line?C Shall we read it through?I Yeah.C Sharks eating sca.you do it with me!C & I Sharks eating scales of fish(they are reading the poem together)

    Sequence 7.C What do we need nowI Clicker.C Microsoft Word.I I thought it was Clicker.

    Sequence 8.G Where(looking for the draft sheet) Here it is. (Tapping on the microphone) Ill

    write it down.M No, I wanna write.G Oh, but I want to write it down.M And so can I. Whats my idea, Im gonna write it down.G Yeah, but you go down in slopes.M Yeah, but its because I cant read, I cant do it that way (the draft paper is in

    front of G) Come on, let me see it too.G Let me write. There was a young (M is still holding the pen) Yeah, but you

    should do it sideways. (M agrees and G gives her the draft sheet.)

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    reasoning by offering justifications and reasons for challenges or extensions ofideas in reflective and process-oriented phases. Sequence 8 contains explicitargumentation regarding role division, whereas in the next sequence (Sequence 9)the friends rely on explicitness in order to sort out problems with the syllabic patternof their poem (limericks).

    Such variance in the adopted styles in different phases hint at the complexity of thewriting process, building on a very rich repertoire of discursive tools. These findingshighlight the need to characterise patterns of paired writing discourse differentlyfrom those in collaborative problem solving contexts. The advantage of thefunctional approach outlined above is its ability to describe text composition in itsfull complexity, and to show how particular discourse styles support some phases butnot others.

    In sum, the identification of discourse functions linked to the underlyingprocesses of writing, and the study of how these discourse functions are reflected bypaired talk, helped to make interesting distinctions between the two pairs. These canbe summed up as the display of different levels of collectivity, indicative of thedifferences in the shared histories and collaborative experiences of friends andacquaintances. The friendship pairs discourse was described as reflecting morecollective thinking (a key feature differentiating between the pairs), which wasregarded as an advanced form of mutual engagement and the possible key toproductive collaboration in the context of creative writing. Note however, that theanalysis of the product (the compositions) was beyond the scope of the present study.Future research needs to link such demonstrations of collective thinking withproductivity indicated by the quality of the resulting compositions.

    Discussion

    The study investigated processes of joint poem writing through the analysis of paireddiscussion. It evaluated joint activities in this specific context, linking paired talk todiscourse functions associated with processes of writing, and looking at whatlanguage forms/discourse patterns are used for these functions. Such model is usefulto investigate how collaborative discourse supports the creative planning,composition and editing of texts.

    Sequence 9.C There was a young girl from York. So we have to xxx I wonder, I want to know if

    all thats one beat.I (counting) There was a young girl fromYeah.C (Interrupting) Young-e, young-e, young-e, young-eI Young.C Young-e, young-e young-e (almost singing)I There was a young girlC No,I (interrupting) There was a young girlC (interrupting) There was a young-eI (interrupting) No, she said young upon there.C girl.I Simultaneously. She said upon there.C from YorkI Yeah but she said up there. Like it used to be young up there, and then we said

    no because thats got one beatC Oh, yeah, beat. So we do one beat.I Yeah.

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    It was argued that creative writing is not simply a complex problem solvingactivity. It requires the use of language to reflect upon, explore and express onesown experiences in a unique, imaginative but meaningful way. In this sense,productive talk can be defined as the sharing and the joint exploration andexpression of such experiences, and communication in which children put ideastogether which would otherwise not have occurred to the person working alone(Miell & McDonald, 2000 p. 350). The function-based analysis revealed importantdifferences in the discourse of the two pairs for example in discourse patternslinked to the functions of paired content generation and editing, which are rooted inthe different levels of collectivity achieved between the two partners. This, in turn,was explained by the differences in the shared histories and collaborative experienceof the two pairs. Finally, it was suggested that differences between individualisedand collective thinking influenced by the nature of the relationship betweenpartners may impact upon the productivity of collaboration in the context ofpaired creative writing.

    To summarise, Table 3 presents the discourse functions and forms that werefound central to the processes of joint creative writing in the study (features presentin the friendship discourse but often absent from the acquaintance talk).

    The study has the limitation of focusing on one gender group only, and offering nolinks between processes and outcomes. Subsequent studies are intended to test howgender-specific or generalisable the insights drawn from the study are, and to findevidence for the links between the discourse styles identified by this study asbeneficial and the productivity of joint writing episodes. Also, furtherinvestigations are planned to test the framework on other genres, such as narration,dialogues, picture books, etc., and to extend the analysis to study how differenttechnologies such as pen-and-paper vs. information technology mediateprocesses of collaborative writing.

    Table 3. Discourse functions and discourse forms associated with collaborative writing

    Processes central Description Associatedto writing discourse forms

    Content generationCollective thinking: The constraint-free generation of ideas with typically Organic talk:free pooling, short exchanges, where propositions, challenges and cumulative,joint brainstorming, alternatives are typically offered without explicit disputationaljoint moulding: argumentation, and the incorporation of each others features,the extension and ideas in a new proposition is typically not accompanied overlapsrefinement of ideas by visible reasoning and interruptions,Affect-linked thinking: The re-creation of emotional experience, reflected in intensitymusing, acting out, and supported by musing over input, acting ideas out, Repetitions,humour. and using humour. intonation, playful

    language

    ReflectionJoint planning goal setting, the discussion of theme, form, style or Explicit reasoning

    content; often involves explicit reasoning in the form of longer, more elaborate exchanges.

    Joint editing The discussion of emerging problems with the written Explicit reasoning,material, redrafting; often involves explicit recitingargumentation (reasons for challenges and alternativesare offered) and can take the form of longer turns

    Joint transcribing, The discussion of spelling problems prior or after Question-responsespelling writing; exchanges about the form of the text during sequences,

    transcribing monologue

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    References

    Azmitia, M. (1996) Peer interactive minds: developmental, theoretical, and methodologicalissues. In Interactive Minds Life-Span Perspectives on the Social Foundation ofCognition (eds. P.B. Baltes & U.M. Staudinger) pp. 133-162. Cambridge UniversityPress, Cambridge.

    Azmitia, M. & Montgomery, R. (1993) Friendship, transactive dialogues, and thedevelopment of scientific reasoning. Social Development, 2, 3, 202221.

    Hartup, W.W. (1996) Cooperation, close relationships, and cognitive development. In TheCompany They Keep Friendship in Childhood and Adolescence (eds. W.M. Bukowski,A.F. Newcomb & W.W. Hartup) pp. 213-237. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

    Jones, I. & Pellegrini, A.D. (1996) The Effects of Social Relationships, Writing Media andMicrogenetic Development on First-Grade Students Written Narratives. AmericanEducational Research Journal, 33, 3, 691718.

    Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge. Multilingual Matters, Clevedon.Miell, D. & MacDonald, R. (2000) Childrens Creative Collaborations: The Importance of

    Friendship when Working Together on a Musical Composition. Social Development, 9, 3,348369.

    Sharples, M. (1996) An Account of Writing as Creative Design, In The Science of Writing Theories, Methods, Individual Differences and Applications (eds. C.M. Levy & S.Ransdell) pp. 127-148. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.

    Sharples, M. (1999) How We Write Writing as a Creative Design. Routledge, London.Vygotsky, L.S. (1962) Thought and Language. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Why JCAL online ?With online access to JCAL there is no longer a problem of a class of students on a course allchasing the one printed copy of a reference in the Library. Accessing your journal online isthe best way to improve the quality of your research time.

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