Handbook of Writing Research

By Charles A. MacArthur; Steve Graham et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
The Emergence of Writing

Liliana Tolchinsky

"Writing" is a polysemous word, with many different meanings. It can refer to the process of tracing letters on a surface, and also to the system of letters (I.e., to the abstract set of signs) used for recording a language, such as when we speak about Writing systems. The term can also refer to the process of producing novels, poetry, scientific articles, newspaper reports, and other types of text. When someone replies to the question "What are you doing?" with "I'm Writing," we assume that he or she is Writing a novel and not simply a list of letters, although, in fact, either one could be the case. Yet another use of the term applies to the language used in Writing. This is the sense that is implied when teachers complain about the way their students write, by which they usually mean that students are not producing the kind of constructions or vocabulary suitable for a written register. We can thus distinguish among writing (1) as a notational system, (2) as a mode of production (I.e., as a process of discourse production), and (3) as a discourse style or, more precisely, as a collection of discourse styles or genres (Ravid & Tolchinsky, 2002). Any of these aspects can be approached from a "developmental perspective," which considers how individuals learn the Writing system used in their community, and how they come to understand the way Writing works as a notational system for producing a diversity of discourse modes.

A developmental approach to Writing is based on two main assumptions: First, children are sensitive to the presence and use of Writing in their environment. Second, the ideas developed by children about Writing and the different steps by which they come to understand how Writing works cannot be equated with the way they happen to be taught to write.

Throughout the history of Writing, "there was a constant concern for the structured transmission of the system from generation to generation and the method of instruction was passed along with the practical knowledge of the script" (Cooper, 1996, p. 37). Even among the earliest ancestors of our Writing system, it was possible to find "writing manuals," which were lists of words (lexical lists) used to teach people how to write. it is no exaggeration to say that schooling and Writing were born hand in hand (Halliday, 1987). However, noting that literacy in general, and Writing in particular, are institutionally supported cultural practices or wondering about the possible relation between learning and instruction is one thing; another, very different thing is believing that what children know about Writing is what they are institutionally taught. A developmental approach makes little sense for those who believe that learning is created by teaching.

From this perspective of literacy, even children who have not yet had formal instruction in how to read or write are asked to "read" or to "write," and their way of doing so can be observed and analyzed. The idea of

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