More subtle yet – but equally powerful – is the fluency with which they compose. Students not only write more, they write more quickly. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but in 1917, the act of writing was arduous. Fountain pens spilled ink and shredded paper if you tried to write quickly. They were such a nightmare that when the ballpoint pen emerged in the 1940s, businesspeople happily spent the equivalent of $90 in today’s money for a single pen.
And when it comes to writing and thinking, speed matters. It’s what’s called transcription fluency: “If you can’t write fast enough, you can lose an idea or a way of phrasing something, and it never comes back,” Steven Graham, a literacy scholar at Arizona State University, told me. In contrast, when you can write and edit more swiftly, you can include more ideas and flesh them out more deeply. The emergence of the cheap ballpoint pen, the typewriter – and now the computer and smartphones and tablets – precisely match the cognitive curve of our students’ performance.
Take the curious recent findings from the National Association of Educational Progress in the United States, which analyzed student writing samples: The best-performing writers with the highest grades were massively more likely to use the backspace key. Why would that be a sign of literacy? Because it’s the heat-signature of a writer who is fluent with the technology at hand – their hands moving quickly, iterating as they compose, going back over bad phrasing, just as well-trained adults do.
13,000 words, for you
But technology doesn’t just make students better writers or more fluent. Digital tools also let them communicate easily with others – their peers, their friends and the world at large. And this, it turns out, can make them even more powerfully motivated to become genuinely (and wittily) literate.
Consider the case of Eric Davey. In Grade 10, he decided to write a “walkthrough” for one of his favourite Star Trek video games. Walkthroughs are fascinating technical documents: They describe – in nuanced detail – what happens as you play a particular game, so that if you’re stuck, you can use it as a reference to help you out. They’re fiendishly hard to write, because you need to take extensive and meticulous notes on a game. And to write them well, you have to inhabit the mindset of a neophyte player – an act of domain awareness that many journalists, frankly, aren’t very good at.
Eric spent about 18 months on his walkthrough, plastering his room with sticky notes. The final work was 13,000 words and carefully written. (I used it myself.)
And here’s the thing: He wrote that at the age of 14, in his spare time, at a point when the longest assignment he ever had in school was maybe 500 to 1,000 words. What motivated him? Other gamers. He had written a little bit of the guide and put it online – when he started getting e-mails saying how much other players liked it, were using it and asking when he was going to complete it.
Part of what makes the online environment so powerful, as Prof. Lunsford says, is that it provides a sense of purpose: “[Students are] writing things that have an impact on the world – that other people are reading and responding to.”
One reason students phone in their school assignments – and only halfheartedly copy edit and research them – is that they’re keenly aware that there’s no “authentic audience.” Only the teacher is reading it. In contrast, academic studies have found that whenever students write for other actual, live people, they throw their back into the work – producing stuff with better organization and content, and nearly 40 per cent longer than when they write for just their instructor.
Smart teachers have begun to realize they can bring this magic into the classroom. In Point England, New Zealand – a low-income area with high illiteracy rates – the educators had long struggled to get students writing more than a few sentences. So they set up blogs, had the students post there and, crucially, invited far-flung family and friends to comment. At first, the students grumbled. But once they started getting comments from Germany and New York, they snapped to attention.