Academic journal article Journal of Research in Childhood Education

Through the Eyes of My Reader: A Strategy for Improving Audience Perspective in Children's Descriptive Writing

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Childhood Education

Through the Eyes of My Reader: A Strategy for Improving Audience Perspective in Children's Descriptive Writing

Article excerpt

Abstract. The findings in the study suggest "reading-as-the-reader" can improve 5th- and 9th-grade writers" ability to compose descriptive writing consistent with their readers" informational needs. Participants included: 154 writers (78 fifth-graders and 76 ninth-graders) and 52 ninth-grade readers. The study adapted the referential communication design from Traxler and Gernsbacher (1992, 1993) to investigate whether young writers can benefit from a specific perspective-taking condition as they compose and revise their descriptions of tangrams over three separate writing sessions. Three conditions were contrasted: a feedback-only condition, a "rating other" condition, and a "reading-as-the-reader" condition. Readers' correct description-to-tangram matches made for each of three sessions served as the dependent measure. Repeated measures analysis revealed that both the 5th and the 9th-graders showed consistent significant improvement under the "read-as-the-reader" condition when revising their essays and when drafting anew (F(4,296) = 2.96, p=.019). The results indicate that when young writers engage in a process that mirrors their readers" experiences, they can more accurately revise their descriptive writing to meet their readers' informational needs. A qualitative analysis of the writers" reflection comments completed at the end of the experiment found that reading-as-the-reader was a positive task that enabled students to consider descriptive strategies and the interpretive effect that their descriptions had on their readers. An analysis of the readers' reflections on their experiences revealed that readers were assisted most if the writer included in his or her descriptions a familiar "global" analogy, with additional specific spatial language that describes the internal organization and spatial orientation of the tangram figure.

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Writing serves numerous purposes. Reading satisfies myriad needs. Lacking a conversational partner, writers are challenged to create a shared perspective with their readers. Writing that serves descriptive purposes presents unique demands for writers. For descriptive writing to be successful, readers need critical information that articulates a clear picture through the writer's words; a writer must paint a picture that the reader can "see." For example, in a "Study of Two Pears," Wallace Stevens (1954) composes a picture of pears resting in a bowl: "They are yellow forms, composed of curves, bulging toward the base. They are touched red.... There are bits of blue. A hard dry leaf hangs from the stem ... the shadows of the pears are blobs on the green cloth" (p. 196). Stevens colors an image with sensuous textures and crystal-like clarity. Without actually seeing a fruit bowl, many readers can delight in this simple but vivid still-life description.

Experienced writers can create pictures with words. Less experienced writers do not always "see" their words as their readers do. Many primary-school and middle-school students find writing personally meaningful, and their readers can marvel at the colorful insight they can create through their writing. At times, however, a student's writing can lack certain information crucial for the reader's full participation in the text. Taking the perspective of the reader represents a developmental accomplishment for young writers.

The following study focused on how 5th- and 9th-grade writers described tangrams to other student readers. The writers were randomly assigned to one of three perspective-taking conditions that varied the amount of reader insight a writer received. Each writer was asked to describe a set of tangrams. The readers used the descriptions to select matching tangrams from other similar-looking tangrams. The guiding question for this study was: Can "reading-as-the-reader" help 5th- and 9th-graders in composing descriptive writing consistent with their readers' informational needs?

Theoretical Overview

Writing is simultaneously an individual struggle and a social undertaking (Dyson & Freedman, 1991; Fitzgerald, 1992; Florio, 1979; Flower, 1994). …

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