Three Approaches to Progress: Understanding the Writing of Exceptional Children

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Three Approaches to Progress: Understanding the Writing of Exceptional Children

Within the past two decades, researchers, practitioners, administrators, and politicians have come to recognize, once again, that writing is a phenomenon of great social significance. The result of this recognition has been a call for increased research and practice in the writing area. Researchers and practitioners have responded enthusiastically to this call (see Hillocks, 1986, for a summary). As writing research and practice have come to be recognized as extremely important activities within the general educational community, researchers and practitioners have begun to explore the writing phenomenon within the context of special populations, such as among exceptional children.

In their rush to conduct research and to teach writing, researchers and practitioners have brought with them three assumptions that accompany the enterprise of all educational research. Specifically, these assumptions include (a) research necessarily brings about advancements in our understanding of writing, in general, and among exceptional children, in particular; (b) research advancements can be translated into practice such that writing instruction among all populations can be significantly improved; and (c) the accumulation of these research advancements and improved practices constitute progress in writing (Mosenthal, 1983).

Although this belief in progress has provided incentive for researchers and practitioners to expand the writing discipline, it has produced more confusion than clarity (Mosenthal, 1983). As researchers and practitioners have rushed to advance progress in writing, they have produced a multiplicity of definitions of writing. Many of these definitions make competing claims about what constitutes the nature of writing.

The problem becomes further compounded when one notes that researchers and practitioners are not just talking about "writing." They usually go one step further and distinguish between "good" and "poor" writing (e.g., White, 1986). As such, not only do writing researchers and practitioners differ greatly in terms of how they define writing as an objective phenomenon, but they also disagree on how writing should be defined as a socially valued phenomenon. The problem becomes most acute when one considers what writing is and should be from the perspective of special populations (Walmsley, 1983).

At issue here is the question of what would constitute the ultimate progress in writing research and practice. If one could ideally understand writing in research and practice, what would characterize the ideal definition of writing such that no further improvements would be necessary? Related questions are, What would be the implications of this ideal definition for defining the writing of exceptional children? Are these definitions of writing for general populations to apply to exceptional children? Or are these implications not desirable, such that one would want to identify a different ideal definition of writing for exceptional children?

To date, these questions have been largely ignored. Few attempts have been made to determine what constitutes progress in writing research. Nor has any attempt been made to consider the implications of how to define progress in writing for general populations and how to define progress in writing for exceptional children. Instead, writing researchers and practitioners have simply assumed that progress is progress; what constitutes progress for general populations is the same for exceptional children (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986).

Rather than acknowledging the multitude of competing definitions of writing in research and practice, researchers and practitioners seem to believe that their particular definition is best. To simply decree what writing is and should be does not eliminate the need to recognize that (a) writing is many things to many people; (b) there are many definitions of good writing, each suggesting a different goal or end of what writing should be; and (c) these definitions of good writing, in turn, constitute implicitly different ideals of progress. …