The Development of Writing Expertise: From Telling to Crafting.

Although there are lots of models for describing writing, many split it into three main cognitive processes: planning, writing (often called ‘translating’ in research) and reviewing. These processes should not be seen as sequential or separate and the act of writing will involve recursive interaction between all three:

But what does expertise mean in writing? How can we describe the development of expertise? One particularly influential model (Bereiter and Scardamalia 1987) splits the development of expertise in writing into three stages:

  1. Knowledge Telling
  2. Knowledge Transforming
  3. Knowledge Crafting

The diagram above attempts to describe how writers develop in expertise by focusing on the wider processes of writing (planning, translating and reviewing) as well as the mental representations that writer’s rely upon. Cognitive Load Theory and research into expertise would suggest that an important difference between experts and novices is the depth and breadth of their background knowledge. Experts have more accurate and comprehensive mental representations of whatever it is they are thinking about and are able to retrieve and apply these from their long term memories, thereby circumventing the seemingly unalterable limitations of working memory. If you look at the diagram above, you will see that this model of writing development is in agreement with these ideas.

Knowledge Telling

At this novice stage of writing, pupils are focused on retrieving what it is they want to say and then turning these ideas into a written form. Writing at this stage will be a simplistic restatement of a pupils’ thoughts. While they are unlikely to be focused on how an imagined reader may interact with what they have written, this is not to say that they are entirely solipsistic in their approach: even very young children recognise that other people think differently and have different perspectives.

At the ‘knowledge telling’ stage, it is assumed that the pupil is likely to have an impoverished mental representation of what the text they have written actually says as well as how a reader may interpret it.  Young children can sometimes struggle to understand what they have just written and this may be because when they are writing, they are almost entirely focused on the process of converting their thoughts into writing and not on how the text actually reads. At this stage, pupils’ transcription skills will be far from fluent: their handwriting may be laborious and their spelling may require sustained concentration and focus. Because pupils have to direct their attention to these component skills, they may be unable to concentrate fully on the meaning of what they have written.

A second assumption here is that it is impossible to focus on reader interpretation in the absence of fully comprehending what has been written. Additionally, because these mental representations are not stable or clear within a pupils’ mind, they are unable to use them when planning and reviewing and this explains the limited use of planning and reviewing by writers who are within this early stage.

Knowledge Transforming

This second stage involves a constant interaction between the writer and the text that they are writing, with the writer changing what they want to say as a result of the process of writing. As they read what they have already written, they will not only strengthen their mental representation of their writing, but they may also trigger additional planning or sentence generation. For example, if the writer was writing a paragraph about Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy, they may begin by writing about his introspective questioning; this may then help them to decide what would come next in their analysis.

At this stage, the act of writing has become a process of actively constituting knowledge. Whereas knowledge telling involves the simplistic translation of thought into text, proficient writing (and the ‘knowledge transforming’ stage could be seen as the beginnings of proficiency) often involves a process of discovery in that writers only discover exactly what it is they want to say during the actual process of writing.

Flower and Hayes (1980) describe the shift from’ knowledge telling’ to ‘knowledge transforming’ like this:

‘At one end of the spectrum, writers are merely trying to express a network of ideas already formed and available in memory; at the other, writers are consciously attempting to probe for analogues and contradictions, to form new concepts, and perhaps even to restructure their knowledge of the subject.’

Knowledge Crafting

This third stage represents true proficiency and expertise; writers who are operating at this level are constantly thinking about their readers and how what they have written will be interpreted. This will likely involve review and adjustment during the writing process, perhaps changing words or rephrasing sentences in order to maintain a specific tone or perspective. Writers operating at this level of expertise are more likely to make extensive structural adjustments and will be concerned with the form and shape of their argument. At this stage, writers are able to devote attention to what they have written, the ideas in their head that are yet to be translated into text as well as the needs or reactions of a potential reader.

Instructional Implications of this Model of Expertise

Knowledge Crafting requires a writer to do multiple things at once as they juggle different mental representations (text, author and reader) whilst simultaneously generating ideas, spelling accurately, forming letters properly and writing coherent sentences. Writers will also be recursively planning and reviewing as they write.

Writing is a composite skill made up of multiple interacting components. If pupils are to develop in expertise and therefore devote attention to the text, author and reader, they will need to reduce the load on their working memories. Beginners are likely to only focus on ‘telling’ because their dysfluent spelling and handwriting will take up a lot of their working memory capacity. Once their spelling and handwriting has become fluent and therefore automatized, they are more likely to be able to devote attention to the wider processes of planning and reviewing.

So what can we do to help pupils develop in expertise? How can we ensure that pupils move from telling to transforming to crafting?

  1. Reading and Writing: connecting the two.

One possible avenue for instruction is through harnessing the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing, both of which share a common knowledge base. Reading can improve writing and writing can improve reading.

2. Knowledge

Effective composition requires an extensive range of knowledge, including vocabulary, grammatical know-how, discourse structures and domain specific knowledge. If writers are to be successful, they need to be able to rapidly retrieve this knowledge when writing. If it is not accessible from long term memory, perhaps through lack of practice or because too much time has passed since they original learned it, then they will be unable to use it when writing.

3. Attentional Funneling

It can be helpful to explicitly teach pupils strategies for each of the three main cognitive processes of writing (planning, translating and reviewing). Initially, and in order to reduce unwanted cognitive load, each process should be taught in isolation. Strategy instruction, like almost everything else, will be made more efficient if it is taught through the I-We-YOU continuum, beginning with lots of modelling and moving gradually towards independent practice. While splitting up the writing process and teaching each part separately may be very different to how experts write, this is to be expected: effective instruction will often look different to the final performance.

4. Deliberate Practice

If pupils receive sufficient practice in the components and wider cognitive processes of writing, then each will require gradually less attention and effort. Like attention funneling, the goal of deliberate practice is to bring pupils to an acceptable level of writing fluency so that they can then successfully use and juggle multiple representations (text, author, reader) whilst writing.

Deliberate practice requires:

  1. Effortful exertion to improve performance
  2. Intrinsic Motivation to engage in the task
  3. Tasks that are within the reach of an individual’s current level of ability
  4. Effective feedback
  5. High levels of repetition

If you are interested, many of the ideas in this post are based on ‘Training writing skills: A cognitive development perspective‘ by Ronald T Kellogg

Next post: Writing Expertise: The Case For Deliberate Practice

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