The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

How word processors and beyond may be changing literacy

Commentary #2

The word processor, in combination with the computer disk and CRT monitor, was first introduced in 1977 (Kunde, 1986). As Bolter points out “the word processor is not so much a tool for writing, as it is a tool for typography (p. 9).” It seems that, even today, the word processor is essentially used as a tool to mimic conventional methods of typing. Whereas older printing processes lock “the type in an absolutely rigid position in the chase, locking the chase firmly onto a press,” a word processor only differs in that it composes text “on a computer terminal” in “electronic patterns (letters) previously programmed into the computer (Ong, p. 119).” Bolter notes this by stating “most writers have enthusiastically accepted the word processor precisely because it does not challenge their conventional notion of writing. The word processor is an aid for making perfect printed copy: the goal is still ink on paper (p. 9).” The word processor helps better facilitate the processes that were once done on the typewriter. That is, writers still type in text letter by letter, but the computer greatly improves revision. A few of these improvements include copying/cutting and paste, changing fonts and paper size, and inserting automatically updating table of contents, outlines, references. It is “in using these facilities, the writer is thinking and writing in terms of verbal units or topics, whose meaning transcends their constituent words (Bolter, p. 29).” In this regard, the word processor did not change the printed word. However, although the word processor did not fundamentally change how a printed product looks, it did have a major impact on industry and business and on literacy in education.

In the early 1980s there was much focus on the difference word processors were making in industry, business, and scholarly work. Bergman points out that “this electronic revolution in the office [word processing] may change who does what sort of work, create some jobs and eliminate others (p. F3).” In fact, in 1977 5.8% of jobs offered in the New York Times mentioned computer literacy skills such as word processing, this number doubled by 1983 (Compaine, p. 136). This was especially evident in clerical positions in which “the proportion of secretary/typist want ads that required word processing skills went from zero in 1977 to 15 percent in 1982 (Compaine, p. 136).” Furthermore, Word processors, coupled with a phone line greatly increased the speed that documents were sent and received. Instead of mailing or dictating documents to another person, documents including graphs and charts could now be written and transmitted, in seconds, over the telephone, more cheaply than previous methods (Bencivenga, p. 11). Scholars “with the help of a computer programmed to scan the text quickly, picking out passages that contain the same word used in different contexts (Compaine, p. 137).” In the early 1980s Word processors and computers fundamentally changed how we process information and thus had much impact on literacy. Compaine refers “to computer skills as additional to, not replacements (p.139)” to literacy and that “whatever comes about will not replace existing skills, but supplement them (p. 141).” Compaine’s essay was written in 1983, but this trend continues today.

Furthermore, the word processor has affected literacy amongst students. In 1983 Ron Truman published an article in The Globe and Mail in which he reported that elementary teachers said word processors were “having a remarkable effect on how children learn to use language: writing on a computer screen improves spelling, grammar and syntax (p. CL14).” An article by Goldberg et al. entitled “The effect of computers on student writing: A meta-analysis of studies from 1992 to 2002″ summarizes that thirty-five previous studies concluded that the “writing process [in regards to K–ı2 students writing with computers vs. paper-and-pencil] is more collaborative, iterative, and social in computer classrooms as compared with paper-and-pencil” and that “computers should be used to help students develop writing skills . . . that, on average, students who use computers when learning to write are not only more engaged and motivated in their writing, but they produce written work that is of greater length and higher quality (p. 1).” Similarly, Beck and Fetherston conclude that “The use of the word processor promoted students’ motivation to write, engaged the students in editing, assisted proof-reading, and the students produced longer texts” and “produced writing that was better using the word processor than that which was achieved using the traditional paper and pencil method (p. 159).”

Different forms of electronic writing have participated “in the restructuring of our whole economy of writing (Bolter, p. 23).” Even as early as 1983, Compaine predicted that in respect to electronic texts, “many adults would today recoil in horror at the thought of losing the feel and portability of printed volumes . . . print is no longer the only rooster in the barnyard (p. 132).” Looking at present day and into the future, the computer continues to reshape and challenge the traditional form of the printed book: “our culture is using the computer to refashion the printed book, which, as the most recent dominant technology, is the one most open to challenge (Bolter, p. 23).” The World Wide Web and most recently the advent of web 2.0 have challenged traditional writing media and the way in which we create electronic media. Word processors have become one tool in an arsenal of programs developed for electronic publishing (such as Dreamweaver for web development, PowerPoint for presentations, iMovie and Movie Maker, and Adobe Flash for animations). As such, literacy still includes traditional texts, but much has been added with digital literacy. Books, magazines, newspapers, academic journals, etc. predominately written using a word processor (or another desktop publishing software), in their traditional form will not be replaced in the near future, but they have certainly had to give up much of their dominance to non-traditional, electronic, writing spaces.



Barbara R. Bergmann (1982, May 30). A Threat Ahead From Word Processor. The New York Times. p. F3.

Beck, N., & Fetherston, T. (2003). The effects of incorporating a word processor into a year three writing program. Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual, 2003 (1), 139 – 161.  Retrieved January 15, 2009, from

Bencivenga, Jim (1980, March 28). Word processors faster than dictation. The Christian Science Monitor. p. 11.

Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Compaine, Benjamin, M. (1983). The New Literacy. Daedalus, 112(1), pp. 129-142.

Goldberg, A., Russell, M., & Cook, A. (2003). The effect of computers on student writing: A meta- analysis of studies from 1992 to 2002. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 2(1). Retrieved November 7, 2009, from

Johnson, Sharon. (1981, October 11). Word Processors Spell Out A New Role for Clerical Staff. New York Times, p. SM28.

Kunde, Brian. (1986). A Brief History of Word Processing (Through 1986). Fleabonnet Press. Retrieved November 7, 2009 from

Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Truman, Ron. (1983, November 24). Word processors prove boon in making youngsters literate. The Globe and Mail. p. CL.14.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 9:19 am }

An interesting commentary

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