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Shi, Matos, and Kuhn. Dialogue and Argument. JoWR, Spring 2019. Posted 06/15/2019.

Shi, Yuchen, Flora Matos, and Deanna Kuhn. “Dialog as a Bridge to Argumentative Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 11.1 (2019): 107-29. Web. 5 June 2019.

Yuchen Shi, Flora Matos, and Deanna Kuhn report on a study of a dialogic approach to argumentative writing conducted with sixth-graders at “an urban public middle school in an underserved neighborhood in a large Northeastern city in the United States” (113). The study replicates earlier research on the same curriculum, with added components to assess whether the intervention increased “meta-level understanding of the purpose and goals of evidence in argumentative writing” (112-13).

Noting that research has documented the degree to which students struggle with the cognitive demands of argumentative writing as opposed to narration (108), the authors report that while the value of discourse as a precursor to writing an argument has been recognized, much of the discourse studied has been at the “whole-classroom level” (108). In contrast, the authors’ intervention paired students so that they could talk “directly” with others who both shared and opposed their positions (108).

In the authors’ view, this process provided students with two elements that affect the success of written communication: “a clearly defined audience and a meaningful purpose” (108). They argue that this direct engagement with the topic and with an audience over a period of time improves on reading about a topic, which they feel students may do “disinterestedly” because they do not yet have a sense of what kind of evidence they may need (110). The authors’ dialogic intervention allows students to develop their own questions as they become aware of the arguments they will have to make (110).

Further, the authors maintain, the dialogic exchange linking individual students “removes the teacher” and makes the process student-centered (109).

Claiming that the ability to produce “evidence-based claims” is central to argument, the authors centered their study on the relation between claims and evidence in students’ discussions and in their subsequent writing (110). Their model, they write, allowed them to see a developmental sequence as students were first most likely to choose evidence that supported their own position, only later beginning to employ evidence that “weaken[s] the opposing claim” (111). Even more sophisticated approaches to evidence, which the authors label “weaker my” and “support other,” develop more slowly if at all (111-12).

Two class were chosen to participate, one as the experimental group (22 students) and one as a comparison group (27 students). The curriculum was implemented in “twice-weekly 40-minute class sessions” that continued in “four cycles” throughout the school year (114). Each cycle began a new topic; the four topics were selected from a list because students seemed equally divided in their views on those issues (114).

The authors divided their process into Pregame, Game, and Endgame sections. In the Pregame, students in small groups generated reasons in support of their position. In the Game, student pairs sharing a position dialogued electronically with “a different opposing pair at each session” (115). During this section, students generated their own “evidence questions” which the researchers answered by the next session; the pairs were given other evidence in Q&A format. The Endgame consisted of a debate, which was then scored and a winning side designated (115). Throughout, students constructed reflection pieces; electronic transcripts preserved the interactions (115).

At the end of each cycle, students wrote individual papers. The comparison group also wrote an essay on the fourth topic, whether students should go directly to college from high school or work for a year. For this essay, students in the both groups were provided with evidence only at the end of the cycle. This essay was used for the final assessment (116-17).

Other elements assessed included whether students could recall answers to 12 evidence questions, in order to determine if differences in the use of evidence in the two groups was a function of superior memory of the material (123). A second component was a fifth essay written by the experimental group on whether teens accused of serious crimes should be tried as adults or juveniles (118). The authors wanted to assess whether the understanding of claims and evidence cultivated during the curriculum informed writing on a topic that had not been addressed through the dialogic intervention (118).

For the assessment, the researchers considered “a claim together with any reason and/or evidence supporting it” as an “idea unit” (118). These units were subcategorized as “either evidence-based or non-evidence-based.” Analyzing only the claims that contained evidence, the researchers further distinguished between “functional” and “non-functional” evidence-based claims. Functional claims were those where there was a clear written link between the evidence and claim. Only the use of functional claims was assessed. (118).

Results indicated that while the number of idea units and evidence-based claims did not vary significantly across the groups, the experimental group was significantly more successful in including functional evidence-based claims (120). Also, the intervention encouraged significantly more use of “weaken-other” claims, which the writers characterize as “a more demanding skill commonly neglected by novice writers” (120). Students did not show progress in using “weaken-own” or “support-other” evidence (121).

With the intention of determining the intervention’s effects on students’ meta-level awareness about evidence in arguing, researchers discovered that the groups did not vary in the kinds of evidence they would like most to see, with both choosing “support-own.” However, the experimental group was much more likely to state that “weaken-other” evidence was the type “they would like to see second most” (122). The groups were similar in students’ ability to recall evidence, in the authors’ view indicating that superior recall in one group or the other did not explain the results (125).

Assessment of the essay on the unfamiliar topic was hampered by an even smaller sample size and the fact that the two groups wrote on different topics. The writers report that 54% of the experimental-group students made support-own or weaken-other claims, but that the number of such claims decreased to a frequency similar to that of the comparison group on the college/work topic (124).

The authors argue that increased use of more sophisticated weaken-other evidence points to higher meta-awareness of evidence as a component of argument, but that students could show more growth as measured by their ability to predict the kind of evidence they would need or use (125).

Noting the small sample size as a limitation, the authors suggest that both the dialogic exchange of their curriculum and the students’ “deep engagement” with topics contributed to the results they recorded. They suggest that “[a]rguing to learn” through dialogue and engagement can be an important pedagogical activity because of the discourse and cognitive skills these activities develop (126).


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Siha, Alfred. Using iPads and iPhones as Teaching Tools. TETYC, Mar. 2019. Posted 04/28/2019.

Siha, Alfred. “In the Palm of My Hand: The Efficacy of Mobile Devices in a Community College Developmental Writing Class.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 46.3 (2019): 192­-209. Print.

Alfred Siha conducted a qualitative study to determine how students reacted to instruction delivered through iPads and iPhones using iOS apps in their developmental writing classes.

Siha notes that despite some instructors’ concerns about the presence of phones and other electronic communication devices in classrooms, technology is becoming more and more common in learning environments, earning generally “positive” reviews in studies (193). Evidence indicates a number of benefits from incorporating technology, such as improvements in motivation, collaboration, and interaction as well as engagement beyond the classroom (194). Siha feels, however, that more research is needed into students’ actual responses to the use of such devices as teaching tools (195).

Siha recruited students from two semesters of face-to-face developmental writing at a community college. Twenty-three of the thirty-eight students enrolled consented to participate. Names of the participants were shielded from the researcher/instructor until after final grades were awarded (196). Participating students allowed their work to be used and were interviewed at the end of the semester (196).

The course was designed around the use of iPads and iPhones; students were notified of the need to have a device. Seventeen study participants already owned a suitable device, while six purchased one (196). Siha writes that the students were also required to open an Apple ID account (204). The textbook for the class, developed through the educational software in the apps, cost $1.99. Students were able to make their purchases through the college bookstore and to use financial aid (204).

The course was built around iTunes U, which Siha characterizes as a “public and private quasi learning management system, or LMS” (192). This platform allowed the instructor to create his own interactive textbook, notify students of new posts, link posts to chapters, and connect directly and immediately with students (200-01). In order to promote a more interactive student-centered experience, Siha assigned a companion “visual project” for each of the five major writing assignments (198). Siha notes that despite being “digital natives,” students did require some help using the new tools (199).

The study yielded many positive responses from the participants. The “simplicity and mobility” provided by the devices allowed students to work on class assignments in any location, even in the company of friends (199-200). Students found responding to notifications sent to their devices to be more helpful than having to check email for posts (200). Siha found that students appreciated being able to communicate more easily with the instructor; he cites one student who “claimed that this class was the first time he ha[d] ever communicated with a professor outside of class time” (201).

Siha advocates an “intentional pedagogy” to make best use of the features devices and apps like the iOS systems provide (201). Student responses indicate that students reacted well to a textbook written by the instructor and specifically paired with posts and assignments, so that components could be accessed with a touch (201). The students responded that they felt the instructor was ‘“talking directly to’ them” (qtd. in Siha 201); this kind of relationship, he maintains, “elicits self-confidence and allows them to feel invested and cared for in their educational experience” (201). Siha also posted sample student work from previous semesters. He writes that such pedagogical approaches are important in any writing classroom but argues that properly “leverag[ing] mobile devices” provides “complete and unfettered access to high-quality course content . . . at their fingertips” (202).

The author found that varying screen sizes did have a small effect on the ease of reading and writing, with some students planning to use different devices in future classes with similar design or working on desktop computers before posting work to their devices (202-03). Compared to iPhones, the iPads used in the course did require students to be near a safe Wi-Fi network in order to receive immediate notifications (203).

As a developmental writing class, the study course required students to pass with a C or higher to move on to credit-bearing college work. The 74% pass rate for the course compared favorably to the 70% institutional pass rate (203). Siha argues that in addition to pass rates, courses should be assessed on their contribution to student confidence and understanding of writing. He cites student responses indicating that students did find the course a positive influence as they considered moving forward in their college careers (203-04).

Siha notes both his own bias as a researcher and the small sample size of his study (204). However, he states that his sample was a “diverse participant group in age, gender, race, and ethnicity” (205).

Throughout, Siha emphasizes the importance of course design to ensure that “the technology is being implemented wisely into the class curriculum” (204). Instructors, he urges, should receive adequate training and should have administrative support (205). In his view, an “intentional pedagogy” using applications and devices like iPads and iPhones should aim to exploit the “potential technological advantages” in order to move beyond “merely replacing paper handouts with PDFs” (197).


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Lewis Ellison & Solomon. African American Families and the Digital Divide. RTE, Feb. 2019. Posted 04/04/2019.

Lewis Ellison, Tisha, and Marva Solomon. “Counter-Storytelling vs. Deficit Thinking around African American Children and Families, Digital Literacies, Race, and the Digital Divide.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.3 (2019): 223-44. Web. 25 Mar. 2019.

Tisha Lewis Ellison and Marva Solomon address mainstream narratives that depict African Americans’ relationship with digital resources through a deficit model. Lewis Ellison and Solomon argue that “counter-storytelling” as a research methodology reveals a more accurate picture of the ways African Americans interact with digital environments.

The authors define digital literacy as “multiple and interactive practices mediated by technological tools . . . which include reading, writing, language, and exchanging information in online environments” (223). They see the dissemination of this literacy as imbricated in racial identity, yet believe its impact is overlooked in scholarship on race (223). In their view, stories drawn from African American experience with computers and other technologies must be “honor[ed]” rather than marginalized if a full understanding of the role of digital experiences in this community is to be fully understood (224).

Lewis Ellison and Solomon quote Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic to define “counter-storytelling” as a kind of narrative that “aims to cast doubt on the validity of accepted premises or myths, especially ones held by the majority” (qtd. in Lewis Ellison and Solomon 224). Such stories, in the authors’ view, are an important methodological resource in the attempt to move beyond misconceptions about cultures (238). Such stories, in this approach, are more revealing than data collection about actual practices in their portrayal of the ways people interact with and see themselves in relation to digital literacy (225).

The literature review lists studies that explore the use of digital resources among African Americans and that counter prevailing assumptions about the existence and nature of a digital divide. In addition, scholarship has explored how listening to counter-stories has helped educators improve learning opportunities for minority students in school settings (226-27). Still, the authors maintain, there is a “shortage” of studies of African American counter-stories about the interactions of race and digital access (227).

The authors write that the concept of a “digital divide” imposes “strict binaries” along social, educational, and economic lines (227). Citing Pippa Norris, they break the divide into the “global divide” among rich and poor geographical areas; the “social divide” that delineates “the information the rich and poor receive within various nations or social groups”; and the “democratic divide,” which addresses the degree to which “access plays a major role in an individual’s agency and power” (227-28). Lewis Ellison and Solomon argue that most discussions around the digital divide locate African American users among the poor with limited access and depict users as White, thus furthering a misleading narrative about “what Internet access looks like, who has it, [and] who does not” (228), with the result that digital resources are often not directed toward communities of color. In fact, the authors contend, research shows that African Americans are making substantial gains in Internet use (228).

The authors’ current research derives from two studies. Lewis Ellison used survey, interview, and observational approaches along with analysis of digital story-telling practices for a qualitative case study of the use of computers in the home by five African American families. Her discussion centers on “Chant,” a professor in an urban university in the south, and Chant’s nine-year-old son “Rem” (229). She asked,

In what ways did the digital literacy and story-making practices of an African American family dyad (mother/son) display evidence of agency in the context of a family-focused digital storytelling activity? (231)

Solomon conducted a “naturalistic inquiry” with eight African American first-graders at the school where she had taught for fourteen years in order to learn “what would happen if first graders had the opportunity to use digital tools in their own storytelling” (231). This study also collected surveys, artifacts, observations, and transcripts. Seven of the eight families studied had home computers. Solomon focuses on two girls, “Penny” and “Jordan” (232).

Lewis Ellison’s study of Chant resulted in conversations in which Chant provided counter-stories challenging the view that African Americans were emblematic of a digital divide. As a professor, Chant spent much professional time using digital resources, and she and her son did so at home as well (229, 237). Chant emphasized the importance of being included as “part of the conversation” for minority communities (233). She revealed the effects of the deficit model in that the less-affluent community where she chose to live was seen by Internet service providers as not in need of advanced online options; as a result, her community was forced to pay higher prices for home service (234).

Solomon’s study of Penny revealed another effect of inaccurate assumptions about African American use of digital resources. Penny did not have access to a computer at home, a fact that drove assumptions about her online competence. However, the authors note that she had access through her extended family, and in fact, Penny proved very adept at telling stories with computers (235).

Jordan’s teacher characterized her as “very creative,” and stated that students had many opportunities to use digital resources creatively (236). The authors state, however, that these opportunities were school-based prompts that prevented Jordan from exercising agency (236). Once permitted to write on her own for the study, Jordan produced images that “announce[d] her status as multiracial in a bivariate family and world,” revealing sophistication that had gone unremarked in comments from the teacher 237).

The authors urge educators to invite counter-stories from students and also from families in order to understand more fully how African Americans interact with digital resources and to dispel oppressive assumptions based on the expectation that they will be constrained by a digital divide (238). Using Adam J. Banks’s model of digital access (233), the authors found that their study subjects exercised all five kinds of access Banks listed: material, experiential, critical, functional, and transformative (237-38).

Lewis Ellison and Solomon conclude that

to date, there are no known opportunities to cultivate discussions and strategies for learning between teachers and parents (and particularly parents of color) concerning digital and nondigital practices. (239)

Awareness of counter-stories as a research methodology, the authors state, can serve as a corrective to deficit models that adversely affect classroom practice.

 


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Moe, Peter Wayne. The Importance of Ordinary Sentences. Comp Studies, Fall 2018. Posted 03/21/2019.

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Inhabiting Ordinary Sentences.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 79-95. Web. 14 Mar. 2019.

Peter Wayne Moe investigates the rhetorical work of “ordinary sentences” like those in his “collection” from first-year writing students (81). He shares with Jennifor Sinor a definition of “ordinary writing as a text that is not literary, is not noticed, and one that should have been discarded but that instead somehow remains” (qtd. in Moe 92n4). Student writing, Moe contends, meets this definition (92).

Moe builds his argument around the concept of writing as an act of “inhabitation.” He notes that this concept is embedded in “elocution,” the Latin roots of which mean “out of” a “place” (80). Similarly, the Latin sources of “composition” are “to place” and “together” (81). He draws on a number of writers, including both scholars and fiction writers, to demonstrate that the possibility that a writer can “inhabit” his or her prose is widely accepted (79-81). In this view, “location” moves “beyond physical places to include the rhetorical situation, the ways language locates a writer in relation to other people, other ideas, other discourses” (81).

In this sense, Moe argues, ethos becomes a function of the nature of a writer’s location. He cites Kathleen Blake Yancey’s sense that who a writer is will be enabled and constrained by the people and circumstances around her, often in ways that are hard to recognize (80). Moreover, Moe evokes the participation of the reader, who also does the work of “locat[ing] the writer” based on interrelationships between a text and larger contexts that the writer may not control (82).

Moe cautions that his project of developing “a theory of the inhabited sentence” in this larger sense of “inhabitation” is not meant to provide models for imitation because the meaning of individual sentences emerges from the circumstances surrounding them, and therefore the work of any one sentence is “not reliably repeatable or transferrable from one piece of writing to another” (82). He also distinguishes his analysis from the moves of location via metatext highlighted by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say/I Say. In Moe’s approach, writers are seen to make communicative moves without “heavy-handed metatext” that can be “overbearing” or even “violent” (82). In contrast, Moe argues, sentences in his collection allow readers to construct connections in which they, along with the writers, inhabit meaning (82).

Finally, Moe argues for the value of studying ordinary sentences like those students produce, in contrast to the practice in many textbooks of “[p]lucking ideal sentences by masters,” a practice that Moe maintains delivers the message that ordinary writing, especially that by students, is not “real” writing (83). In addition, in Moe’s view, making extraordinary sentences the basis for writing instruction neglects the need for students and writers to see how their choices in “worker sentences” serve to establish their relationships with others and with issues (91). Students who struggle to note counterarguments or cite sources, he contends, are actually grappling with the problem of locating themselves in and alongside texts (91).

Moe’s collection addresses moves that he feels are both mundane, performed by all writers at some point, and yet important. As one example among eight, he contends that the choice of whether “I” or another writer discussed in the text is chosen as the subject of sentences can map a writer’s changing location with regard to that other writer (84). In another example, he argues that a parenthetical aside “allows the student to speak back to herself, to question what she’s already said” (87). In yet another case, he shows how removing the locative adverbial components leaves a sentence “decontextualized, devoid of urgency, devoid of relevance, devoid of exigency” (88).

For Moe, acknowledging the “rhetorical density of ordinary sentences,” especially through the lens of inhabitation, underscores the degree to which any sentence occupies space, “among other sentences, other clauses, other phrases” (91). This understanding, he argues, is “more important than being able to identify President Lincoln’s use of epistrophe in ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’” (92). Helping students see how their easily overlooked choices locate them among others, in this view, should be the primary academic task (91).


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Daniel, James Rushing. Student Debt and Composition Classes. CCC, Dec. 2018. Posted 01/30/2019.

Daniel, James Rushing. “‘A Debt Is Just the Perversion of a Promise’: Composition and the Student Loan.” College Composition and Communication 70.2 (2018): 195-221. Print.

James Rushing Daniel addresses “debt” as a pervasive force in current culture and in the lives of students in writing classes. He argues that a course based in the study of debt’s history and effects is a useful and pedagogically appropriate composition option.

Daniel presents statistics illustrating the increasing financial pressure associated with a college education, in particular the influence of the student-loan industry. For example, in the early 1990s, 51% of students graduated with debt averaging $10,200, while in 2012, 71% owed loans averaging $29,400. Time to repayment has risen from 10 years to 19.7 years (196).

In Daniel’s view, this phenomenon is part of a larger component of the neoliberal “fast capitalist economy” discussed by Tony Scott in Dangerous Writing: Understanding the Political Economy of Composition (199). Daniel writes that debt, in such theories, is “an ideological apparatus with significant bearing on the agency of subjects in contemporary global society” (197). As such, it drives choices of educational environment and direction, career, and life events such as marriage or home-owning (197, 215). Debt also carries moral weight that further reduces citizens’ abilities to resist the pressures of neoliberal culture (201). Moreover, it forces students to view education “increasingly . . . through an economic framework” (198). Daniel sees debt as a ubiquitous and pervasive element students will face in college and beyond.

To Daniel, composition scholars and the academy in general have failed to properly attend to debt as a component of students’ lives (215). He cites robust efforts to retain students that ignore these students’ financial burdens and thus actually exacerbate the conditions that drive many students to leave college without completing their degrees (201). While, for Daniel, scholars like Marc Bousquet, Chase Bollig, and Pegeen Reichert Powell address debt as a factor in the political economy of writing classrooms, with some exceptions such theorists tend to “gloss its enduring effects while overstating composition’s capacity to prepare students to navigate it” (201). He quotes Bollig, for example, as arguing that a critically active writing class can help students “resist and thrive” in the face of capitalist exigencies (qtd. in Daniel 201).

The author cites scholars from varied fields, such as anthropology, sociology, and philosophy as well as literary studies to enlarge his discussion of debt. Among insights gleaned from those fields is a critique of “debt’s most disempowering aspect,” which is “its narrative of impermanence” (204). Accepting that most people will be “in debt forever,” in this reading, means disabling the illusion that any debt is a “temporary financial transaction” on the path toward an affluent, entrepreneurial future, replacing it with a more accurate awareness of the function of debt in fast capitalism (205).

Daniel asks compositionists to recognize how writing programs are “necessarily entwined with the problem of student debt” and to consider the costs that students ultimately pay to join a college writing class (202). He presents his own intervention, a course designed to introduce students to the ways debt functions in neoliberal society. He contends that this course stops short of promising to free students from debt’s powerful influence. Rather, he hopes that by bringing the issue of debt to the foreground, the course can provide students with a deeper awareness that may lead to more informed choices and one day inspire them to “strive for financial justice in public contexts” in whatever ways they feel are open to them (203).

Suggesting the first-year students will need more scaffolding than students taking the course in later semesters (206), Daniel responds to several potential critiques of his course plan. To the concern that the topic may be too narrow, Daniel responds that because of its influence in all aspects of current life, the topic of debt speaks to the field’s goal of making coursework meaningful to all students (207). While Daniel notes that some students may find the topic irrelevant if they haven’t borrowed to attend college, or if they have already made debt commitments they can’t change, he points out that many may need to borrow later and will benefit from the broader awareness that can inform future decisions (207-08). Some students, he argues, may be reluctant to share personal information, but this resistance can be addressed with work on personal writing as part of a composition curriculum (207).

He responds as well to concerns that a focus on a single topic may not teach the more general competences that have been defined as the field’s obligation to students (213). Drawing on the scholarship of Patricia Bizzell and others, Daniel argues that “taking up social issues and viewing them rhetorically” aligns with compositionists’ goal of creating writers who are critically aware of the power of writing as social action and able to engage in public discourse effectively (213-14).

The course Daniel introduces begins with an introduction to basic economic concepts, then moves to personal writing that encourages students to situate themselves in the matrix of capitalist economics by sharing their experiences of the financial system (208-10). A third unit may involve rhetorical analysis of financial documents and advertisements so that students can assess how debt is presented as impermanent and empowering when it may be a more complex factor in students’ lives (211-12). As a final focus, the course examines possible ways of negotiating or resisting common narratives about and normalized interactions with debt to present “models and opportunities for activism that could be emulated if students so desired” (213). He provides readings, assignments, and examples of student work.

In Daniel’s view, it may not be possible for students to “resist” and “thrive” simultaneously (214). He reiterates that writing professionals should temper their expectations that critical awareness can free students from capitalist exigencies. He encourages the “short term” goal of “present[ing] students with more agentive modes of thinking and acting in the context of neoliberalism while being clear that there are no panacea” (214). To this end, he urges writing studies to respond to his claim that the field “has largely failed to acknowledge debt’s vast material and ideological function” (215).

In particular, he notes, future research should address how debt as a necessary adjunct to education affects how students understand and value the writing they find themselves viewing “through a financial lens” (216). By correcting its neglect, he claims, the field can address the degree to which debt as a permanent reality in capitalist culture has endangered “the fundamental connection between education and democracy” (215).


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Worthy et al. Teacher Educators’ Perspectives on Dyslexia. RTE, Nov. 2018. Posted 01/05/2019.

Worthy, Jo, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey. “‘What If We Were Committed to Giving Every Individual the Services and Opportunities They Need?’ Teacher Educators’ Understandings, Perspectives, and Practices Surrounding Dyslexia.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.2 (2018): 125-48. Print.

Jo Worthy, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey discuss a study on approaches to dyslexia in teacher education. The authors note that while research has not been able to clearly define dyslexia or agree on an ideal intervention, many states are passing legislation that treats dyslexia as a specific condition with specific treatment protocols (125).

Worthy et al. address the discourse surrounding dyslexia through the Bakhtinian categories of “ideological becoming” and “internally persuasive discourse” as opposed to Bakhtin’s understanding of “authoritative discourse” (AD) (126). “AD” consists of dicta handed down by those claiming expertise; it tends to take over conversations and silence those it does not credential to speak (127). In the authors’ view, AD surrounding dyslexia is based on a medical model in which dyslexia is a narrowly defined “deficit,” which is described in medical terms and which can only be treated by those specifically trained to do so (127). This discourse, the authors state, views educators as inadequately informed and unqualified to deal with students diagnosed with the condition (130).

The authors, in contrast, address the issue through the “field of disability studies in education,” which sees “variation among learners as natural,” as well as “socially constructed” and influenced by “context and social interactions, as well as social, political, and historical systems and discourse” (127). “DisCrit” scholars or those practicing “disability critical race studies” further note the degree to which matters of “race, class, privilege, and power” affect how labels are assigned and addressed (126; 127-28).

Surveying research in dyslexia studies, the authors note that none of the “top 10 most published authors, . . . none were educators” (126). According to Worthy et al., research has failed to find any specific causal or measurable factor that separates students believed to be dyslexic from other students in the reading continuum (128). Brain imaging studies have thus far been inconclusive (129).

Worthy et al. report consensus that “there is no best method for teaching reading” (128), yet many state legislatures have mandated specific treatments like the Orton-Gillingham program (O-G), even though its “multisensory” processes have not been shown to be effective (130). Programs that focus primarily on decoding, the authors state, also show little effect in themselves (130) and should be part of, rather than the core of, “comprehensive, meaning-based reading instruction” (129).

Worthy et al. position themselves as experienced public-school teachers and teacher-educators who began to question the current discourse on dyslexia when it failed to jibe with their own experiences. They began to find similar discomfort with the AD surrounding dyslexia among students and colleagues (130-31). For their study, they recruited 21 women and 4 men from a range of universities in Texas; the participants, who had many levels of experience both as teachers and as teacher-educators, engaged in semi-structured interviews (131). The authors explain their coding process, which yielded three “a priori” categories and three “inductive” categories (132).

“A priori” categories were “definitions and understanding about dyslexia”; “compliance with dyslexia policies”; and “confidence about dyslexia” (132). The researchers found that their interview subjects reflected the conflict between the AD of dyslexia and a more questioning stance that recognized that research did not provide the same degree of certainty as the prevalent AD (133). The participants reported increased official attention to the question of dyslexia and increased oversight of curricula (134). They reported complying with mandates but, in some cases, “present[ing] the state’s information about dyslexia with a broader discussion of struggle and literacy, where they could contextualize and complicate it” (134).

Participant response regarding “confidence about dyslexia” varied, with five of the educators “express[ing] unqualified confidence” in their ability to address the condition. The authors characterize the “remaining educators” as questioning their own experience in light of the dominant discourse (135); these teacher-educators “stopped short” of claiming they were prepared to work with students identified with the condition (135).

“Inductive analysis” of the interviews (136) led to three categories: teacher-educators’ expertise in teaching reading; their responses to AD; and their use of “critical perspectives” (132). Participants shared a belief that teaching reading should be an observation- and assessment-based, individualized process (136-37). In this view, decoding was important but only as part of a curriculum that engaged students in the whole process of reading (136). New teachers, the educators agreed, would benefit from a “more nuanced perspective” that would allow them to recognize their own ability to teach reading across many skills levels (137).

Participants challenged “the vague definition and subjective identification procedures” (137) that most felt led to “overidentification” and to early labeling that called for unnecessary interventions (138). Some felt that the dyslexia label could remove a stigma from reading difficulties; others saw being labeled as conveying a judgment of “something wrong” (138). The teacher-educators questioned the efficacy of programs like the O-G method that foreground “skill work” and interventions that remove students from classrooms to receive instruction characterized by “a lack of alignment” with classroom work (140). The authors note that these views accord with DisCrit analysis that favors “inclusion” rather than “segregation,” which AD seems to advocate (140).

Challenges to the exclusion of educator voices informed participants’ critical perspectives, with one respondent calling the medical community’s adherence to medical models “cult-like” (“Patrice,” qtd. in Worthy et al. 141). Participants noted that the problematic claim that dyslexic readers were highly creative and intelligent has actually made the label desirable for more affluent parents, with dyslexia “the socially acceptable learning disability” (141) that can shield children from “probable consequences of low achievement” (142). According to “Marty,” discrimination in labeling results in the view that “White kids are dyslexic. Black kids are stupid” (qtd. in Worthy et al. 142).

The authors argue that despite being positioned by the current AD as unqualified to teach students with identified reading disabilities, the teacher-educators they surveyed “are more than qualified—by virtue of their preparation and experience—to teach reading to all children” (142). They advocate for the role these educators can play in helping their preservice teaching students negotiate the rigid political landscape they will encounter when they take their knowledge about teaching reading into the schools (143).

Worthy et al. also recommend that proponents of critical perspectives adjust their use of jargon to communicate with wide audiences rather than falling back on a “righteous authority” of their own (144). Their hope is that research and practice in teaching reading can align more comprehensively, drawing on the contributions of classroom educators to complicate what they see as an ineffective, limited approach to the wide range of variation in children’s paths toward reading skill.


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Witte, Alison. CMSs as Genres. C&C, Sept. 2018. Posted 11/20/2018.

Witte, Alison. “‘Why Won’t Moodle. . . ?’: Using Genre Studies to Understand Students’ Approaches to Interacting with User Interfaces.” Computers and Composition 49 (2018): 48-60. Web. 9 Nov. 2018.

Alison Witte addresses the difficulties her first-year students faced when they encountered the Course Management System (CMS) in use at her institution. She surveyed students in first-year courses over six semesters to discover the factors that may have caused these problems (50). Witte found that examining the CMS interface as a genre provided insights into how students interacted with the program.

The author notes that the use of a CMS has “become a normalized part of many educational institutions’ landscapes” (48). The program’s power to shape interactions between students, instructors, and the institution, she writes, can generate “tensions” (48). She describes Moodle, the CMS in place for her university, comparing its “static” features with the more interactive and responsive features of social media sites; she notes in particular the “teacher-driven design” that permits the instructor to determine what sections to create and to provide the content (49). Witte quotes a faculty mentor who supports the university’s commitment to Moodle because the students are familiar with it from high school and “like it,” even though, according to Witte, there is only “anecdotal” evidence behind this claim (49).

In Witte’s view, if students are indeed comfortable in electronic environments, they should not exhibit the level of difficulty she observes (49). Her survey investigates which kinds of interfaces students have experienced and how these experiences might influence their reactions to Moodle (50).

Drawing on genre theory, Witte proposes, highlights the ways an interface cues users to control what behaviors and actions are acceptable, requiring users to determine the “appropriate response” in the rhetorical situation established by the interface (52). Citing Carolyn Miller, Witte considers genre “a way of understanding how a text responds to a particular recurring situation” (50). Just as Microsoft Word’s presentation of a blank page cues an essaylike response rather than a social-media post, the CMS signals certain kinds of “typified” actions (51).

Arguing that writing studies has not explored electronic interfaces through this theoretical lens, Witte contends that interfaces have generally been seen as tools to produce other things rather than as “text[s] with both expectations and formal conventions” of their own (50). Instructors, she proposes, are like other users of electronic environments in that their use of these familiar programs becomes “unconscious or invisible” because they are so accustomed to the process (51). Her study foregrounds the need for teachers to be more alert to the ways that their use of a CMS acts as a genre students must interpret and positions them in certain ways in the classroom environment (50). Teachers’ understanding of this interaction, she maintains, can help students use a CMS more effectively.

Witte notes two common models of CMS use. In many cases, the system attempts to “replicate” a classroom environment, allowing students to complete familiar academic tasks such as taking quizzes and completing assignments. A second model treats the CMS as a “repository” where students go to procure whatever they need for the class. These models share a “top-down” quality in that the teacher decides on the categories and sections and provides the material (52-53). The models limit students to responding in ways determined by the instructor and indicated by the conventions incorporated into the interface (53).

For Witte, a “guiding assumption” in the study was “that people learn unfamiliar genres by determining how they are like and unlike genres they know and by observing how the unfamiliar genre is used in context” (50). Hence, her survey asks the 68 participating students which interfaces they normally interact with (54). It also asks multiple-choice and open-ended questions about students’ experiences with Moodle, including ease of use and kinds of use across classes. Finally, students were asked what they liked about the CMS and what improvements they might suggest (54).

The majority of the participants were in their first college semesters. Witte proposes that while these students might be among the most likely to report problems with the CMS, surveying this particular population yielded good information on how best to help students navigate their early exposure to such platforms (54).

Data revealed that students used a variety of social media, Word tools for producing documents, and “Miscellaneous Web-based Interfaces” like iTunes, E-bay, or YouTube (54). They most commonly relied on the CMS to “complete course work and to find the information necessary” to do so (55). All of the students used Moodle in some of their classes. Grounded-theory coding of the open-ended responses produced four categories of “likes” that focused on availability of materials and information and ease of completing tasks. Students’ suggestions for improvement addressed usability issues, “Mobile Device Compatibility,” and inconsistency in the ways teachers used the CMS (54).

Analysis of her data suggests to Witte that students receive conflicting genre cues about the function of the CMS, sometimes assuming it is more like social media sites than it is in practice and in fact asking for more interactivity with their mobile devices and other media choices (56). They may see certain cues as inviting informal, interactive responses while other require a more “school/professional response” in which they become “passive consumer[s] of information” (56). In Witte’s view, instructors do not always articulate clearly exactly what role the CMS should play in their individual courses; moreover, students may approach the CMS with a different idea about its purposes than the instructor intends (57).

Seeing a CMS as a genre, Witte contends, helps instructors think about their use of the program in terms of audience, redirecting the focus from “its technological affordances to what it does or how it is used in particular context for particular people” (57). She urges instructors to plan CMS structure in accordance with course design, for example, arranging a course built around weekly schedules by weeks and courses meant to provide materials without regard to due date by topic. The survey reveals that students may need specific direction about the type of response indicated by CMS features, like text boxes or discussion forums (57). Instructors are urged to clarify their own purposes and expectations for how students use the resource and to communicate these explicitly (57-58).

Witte also argues that casting a CMS as a genre provides an opportunity to introduce students to genre theory and to understand through a concrete example how audience and purpose relate to the conventions of a particular form. In this view, students can explore how to use their exposure to other genres to situate new genres like a CMS in their contexts when they encounter them (58); they may then carry the experience of navigating a CMS into their interactions with other texts they may be called on to respond to or produce.