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.

November 8, 2009   1 Comment

The school library and the breakout of the visual

In Chapter 4 of his book, Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print, Jay David Bolter (2001) discusses the rise of the visual and its impact on text.  As a Teacher-Librarian the rise of the visual in our culture is particular interest to me.  As our post-print generation moves through the education system we are being challenged to redefine the nature of libraries and their role in education.  In this commentary I view Bolter’s work through the lens of my profession.


Of immediate interest in Bolter’s work is the notion that images on the World Wide Web dominate but images on the printed page are contained by the text that surrounds them.  There is an element of control in print culture that is not evident in web-based applications.  Specifically mentioned is the way that professional journals and other scholarly texts surround the images they permit and supervise the reading of the image.


Bolter points out that even when images dominate in scholarly text there is little doubt that the text is in a position of control.  He refers to this use of image as “textural”.  This notion gives rise to the question of whether images in web-based works don’t often provide this same function.  When I think of the way that I, my colleagues and my students use images in the products of our learning it seems that they often serve to give texture to the work.  Images are frequently included after text is written or are accompanied by explanatory text.  This may indicate that our use of image is still in its infancy to some extent.  Are those of us born of a predominantly print-based culture slow to learn how to harness the power of the visual?


Bolter questions what is happening to print and prose in what he calls the, “late age of print” (2001) and suggests that text is morphing itself to both compete with and incorporate the proliferation of images and their inherent cultural power.  In the school library this is evident in the rise of graphic novelizations of classic children’s books such as the Hardy Boys series by Scott Lobdell and Paulo Henrique.  Text in these graphic novels is far less than in the original book versions and are accompanied by images that serve to both complement and supplement the story.  Works such as the ground-breaking, The adventure of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick offer a combination of text and stand-alone images to tell the story.  Additionally, many text-based works now offer web-based links to additional story features and activities based on the books.  These applications are largely visual and demonstrate the turning tide children’s literature.  An excellent example of this is the 39 Clues series, by Scholastic Press.


Interesting too is the suggestion that this remediation of print is born out of both enthusiasm and fear.  Change is generally a feared state of being and as a Teacher-Librarian I am constantly aware of the combination of these reactions to changes in our formerly print-based culture among my professional colleagues.  While some embrace and endorse the changes in literacy there are a great number who wish to stem the tide of change in order to maintain their sense of purpose.


Teacher-Librarians, in their quest to maintain the sanctity of the physical library space and all that it contains, are also uniquely challenged by the fact, as Bolter explains, that text is now competing, “for a reader’s attention with a variety of pictorial elements, any or all of which may be in motion” (2001).   This increasingly visual world with its cultural expectation of high quality images, special effects and incredible animations makes capturing the attention of today’s students very difficult.  Students are often witnessing works of text as image-based before they discover that the material existed in a print-based form long before it was released as a full-length feature movie.  There have been a number of films based on children’s literature in the last few years.  What Teacher-Librarians are commenting on is how often these movies serve as the first introduction to the material for most children.  Eragon, Cloudy with a chance of meatballs, Where the wild things are, and Hoot are some of the many movie scripts derived from books.  Many of my professional colleagues criticize these movies and what they perceive as their detrimental effects on reading.  However, I often notice in my own practice that these movies often lead my students to seek out the books that the movie plots came from.  In this way the text seems to be benefited by the image and draws a new generation of consumers of print into the fold.


The breakout of the visual will undoubtedly have significant impacts on many areas of our culture.  This impact will not escape the school library and its keepers.  Teacher-Librarians are at a cultural turning point.  They will need to find a way to adapt and manage as text changes in the wake the rise of the visual.  How well they will fare remains to be seen.



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

November 8, 2009   1 Comment

Library 2.0 – The Community of the Library

This past week the Toronto Star reported on the reinvention of libraries in the City of Toronto. Though the article does not delve into the deeper issues of knowledge organization, it illustrates how libraries have been evolving to remain relevant within their communities.

Library 2.0: Libraries are Toronto’s Living Room, Playground, Even Concert Venue, Writes Christopher Hume


November 8, 2009   No Comments

Refashioning the Writing Space

Refashioning the writing space for the elementary school student

Commentary #2~ Kelly Kerrigan Section 65A

What does the writing space look like today?

The writing space has undergone many changes in technology, from stone to papyrus to manuscript to computer screen. “Each writing space is a material and visual field, whose properties are determined by a writing technology and the uses to which that technology is put by a culture of readers and writers” (Bolter, 2001, p. 12). Bolter discusses how recording, organizing and presenting text is now done with a word processor and the Internet. One might see this as the modern take of the wall of a public bathroom stall. There are thoughts to ponder, to take away, and others to merely disregard. Sifting through these thoughts can take a moment or a few trips. It is our prerogative to decide what’s worthwhile.

Most adults are aware of changes to our current writing space, but what does that mean for the elementary school student? “Our culture has chosen to fashion these technologies into a writing space that is animated, visually complex, and malleable in the hands of both writer and reader” (Bolter, 2001, p. 13). For a parent of an elementary school student today, this image of the computer and online writing space as being malleable could provoke major fear for their child. This is especially true if the parent has never used the internet during their secondary or post-secondary education years. As a teacher, I have come across many parents who are opposed to using the internet as a writing space. For the children that I teach, their generation needs to be taught how to use this space appropriately and to their advantage, for this is their codex!

Bolter argues that the writing space is a cultural decision. Our current use of the internet as a writing space is a refashioning of the printed book. That being said, do we try to differentiate within this writing space? Do we as readers and writers tend to shun those rants and raves on weblogs and prefer instead those who have posted a document? As if those who took the time to post a document are much more competent in their thoughts than those who write in the common forum or wiki. Teachers must help students discern what is appropriate, but also help them use these spaces effectively.

For the elementary teacher and student, the forum and wiki are great spaces for students to develop their writing skills (McPherson, 2006). Collaboration within these contexts also provides an excellent space for skill development. “Unlike much of the individualized writing required in school and the real world, writing entries in a wiki demands that students be taught writing skills that emphasize negotiation, cooperation, collaboration, and respect for one another’s work and thoughts” (McPherson, 2006). One could imagine the wiki as the technology replacing the bathroom stall!

How does the changing writing space affect literacy?
As Bolter states, “literacy is, among other things, the realization that language can have a visual as well as an aural dimension, that one’s words can be recorded and shown to others who are not present, perhaps not even alive, at the time of the recording” (p.16). Within a wiki, students can use different mediums to enhance their message. “… Students can use wikis to insert music, graphics, video, and photos in their writing and to communicate meanings that were once inaccessible or not fully expressed through the printed word” (McPherson, 2006). This has a huge effect on the overall literacy of a group of students. For those who struggle with writing assignments or with conveying meaning in their work, using a multimodal approach to complement their writing can foster student achievement in literacy.

Research has shown that these new technologies being employed in the classroom challenge the traditional views of literacy (Jewitt, 2005). The technologies that create a new writing space enable a new level of literacy for elementary school students. What it means to be literate in the 21st century is very different from previously set standards. Unfortunately, students are caught between what is written in the curriculum and what is real. Teachers who embrace the new literacy standards are often criticized or held back from trying out new ideas, such as wikis; While older generations of teachers force their students to maintain the literacy levels they were once held to. The refashioning of the writing space for today’s student population involves new technologies, including the use of online writing spaces. All teachers need to embrace these technologies in order to maintain a high level of literacy for their students.


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

Jewitt, C. (2005) ‘Multimodality, “reading”, and “writing” for the 21st century’,
Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(3), 315–31.

McPherson, K. (2006). wikis and student writing. Teacher Librarian, 34(2), 70-72. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database on November 4, 2009.

November 8, 2009   1 Comment