Letter Writing on Computers

Adult Education Inquiry Project April to June 1997

by Julie Fischer and Mary Troeger, International Institute of Rhode Island


An inquiry project to examine improvement in student writing through the use of correspondence on the computer was carried out at the English Language Center (ELC), where both Julie and Mary have been teaching for ten and six years respectively. The ELC began in 1977 with the purpose of trying to meet the needs of nonnative speakers for oral and written English language. The ELC is the educational division of the International Institute of Rhode Island, a nonprofit service agency for immigrants.

Our students were primarily from Spanish-speaking countries, with the greatest number coming from the Dominican Republic followed by several from Guatemala and El Salvador. Other students were from Haiti and Poland. Our students attend classes for two hours four nights a week from September to June, paying a monthly tuition of $25.00.

The composition of the classes is determined by student scores on a standardized basic English skills test, the BEST, and by an intake interview. Students in Julie's class had scored mostly in the 20s and those in Mary's in the high 40s and low 50s out of a possible 83 points. Of the six classes offered at night at the Institute, Julie's is the first or beginning level, after a literacy class. At the time of the project, she had 17 students. Mary's is the middle level. Her class was composed of 15 students. All classes at the Institute receive one hour of computer instruction each week in our twenty-terminal computer lab. While the teachers plan the classes, they are assisted in the lab by a computer teacher/monitor who provides technical instruction and advice.

Nature of Inquiry

The question we posed for our research was this: Will a series of written communications between adult English language students at beginning and intermediate levels demonstrate a change in their writing in terms of the amount written, the development of ideas, and the complexity of ideas?

We structured our project in the following way. We paired students somewhat randomly, but did try to put men and women together and people from different countries, in the hope that these differences would provide opportunities for communication. Then, using a shared computer disk, students in the beginning class wrote letters on Wednesday evenings on the computer to students in the intermediate class. This class responded to these letters on the following Monday evenings. Most students wrote three to four letters during the six weeks that the project lasted. The intermediate class wrote a self-assessment of their writing before and after the exercise. The beginning class made a written assessment before and an oral assessment afterwards.

In terms of teacher involvement and instruction, Mary gave a description of the form of a friendly letter on the first night that students wrote letters and then allowed students to follow whatever form they wished. During the computer class, she answered student questions, but was minimally involved with their compositions. During the first few weeks, she encouraged students to ask their correspondent questions if they had not done this. She did not spend any time on the letters outside of computer class. In contrast, for the first two letters, Julie spent the hour of class time just prior to the computer class facilitating letters on paper. Students then typed these on the computer during the next hour. In addition, she spent some class periods studying question formation and modeling some questions for the letters. For example: What is your favorite________?

At the beginning of June students met each other in a shared class period with refreshments. Although some people were a little shy, all students spent some time talking to their partners. Unfortunately, one or the other of several pairs was absent on that evening.


Aspects of the writing that we looked at to see change were the amount written, the ability to develop an idea, the complexity of ideas discussed, and grammar and usage. We saw no measurable change in the writing of any of the students. We believe this was because the time to carry out the project was too short. We believe it would be necessary to look at work students produced on the computer after this exercise to gauge if the exercise had any effect on their writing. We did see a very basic conversation followed through in some of the sequences of letters. In some of the series that we considered more successful, the letters show a personal interest and involvement on the part of the writers that was greater than it had been for other computer assignments. (Samples follow the body of the report.)

Students, however, in their evaluations of the project said that they had benefitted in several ways. Mary's students said that they learned new words, learned the form for a letter, and got to practice their typing. Several felt that their computer skills had improved. Julie's students said that for them using the computer facilitated their writing because "making mistakes is no problem." Both classes reported that they especially enjoyed the communication with another student.

Some problems that Mary's students commented on were the questions that people asked. Some people felt these were too personal. Some said the questions did not change and therefore they were not challenged. Others commented that when the other person did not ask any questions, this made it difficult for them to write. One person said that the other person did not write very much so there was nothing to respond to. Their suggestion was to have classes be at about the same level of English ability. One thought it would be good for students to meet with each other midway, to converse, and then to return to writing letters.

A major problem we faced was student absences on computer night. In addition, a few old students left the classes and new students were admitted midway through the project. Therefore, we decided to focus on a core group of students who were present for the duration of the project. Another drawback was the lack of time for students to do any reflection on or editing of their work.


We believe that the exercise would have been more productive for the students if the English level of the correspondents had been closer. We believe a longer period of time is necessary to observe any changes. We thought the student's suggestion that correspondents meet for conversation from time to time was useful. An idea we suggest trying in the future is having teachers develop discussion topics in each class that could then be used as content material in the letters.

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