Analysing interactions during collaborative writing with the computer:
an innovative methodology
Kristiina Kumpulainen, University of Oulu, Finland
David Wray, University of Warwick, U.K.
The commonest context for the use of word processors with primary school
children is collaborative small group work. The two major reasons for this
organisational decision are resource-based (i.e. due to the scarcity of
computers in the classroom) and educational, stemming from an increased
use of cooperative learning methods. In order to improve the quality of
children's collaborative work at the word processor, it is important that
some attention is paid to the nature of their interactions during the writing
process. Such interactions can reveal important information about writing
and learning processes and about the impact of the computer. In this paper
we shall present and illustrate a newly developed analytic method, based
on functional analysis, which can be used to investigate the nature of
children's verbal interactions during the collaborative writing process
at the computer. The theoretical framework of the method will be briefly
described and located in socio-culturally based ideas of learning. Possible
applications of the analysis method will then be discussed and a possible
agenda for research outlined.
Word processors are often used in primary schools by small groups of pupils.
Although the reason for this organisational arrangement has been partly
the scarcity of computers in classrooms, the cognitive and social gains
related to cooperative learning methods have played a major role in increasing
collaborative writing with computers. A number of studies have shown that
the use of computers and cooperative learning methods in the school affects
the roles of a teacher and pupils (Cohen, 1994; Mercer & Fisher, 1993;
Fish & Feldman, 1989). In these classrooms the teacher has been able
to step back and take the role of a facilitator of children's learning.
Pupils, on the other hand, have been able to take more control over their
working and learning. Although this shift in roles appears to have given
pupils more opportunities to learn, it has also increased their responsibilities.
It is now the task of educators to help pupils manage this responsibility.
In collaborative writing, and cooperative learning in general, discourse
is the means through which interpersonal meanings are established. It is
through discourse that children construct their knowledge, express their
opinions, values and feelings. Verbal communication which takes place during
collaborative writing with word processors can, therefore, provide important
information about the processes of children's learning and about the effects
of the computer context. It is actually through discourse that educators
can observer the quality and direction of their pupils' working and learning.
Ideas about the significant role of verbal interaction as a facilitator
of learning draw heavily on socio-cultural theories (e.g. Bruner, 1990;
Harré, 1984; Wertsch, 1991; Vygotsky, 1962, 1978). Among the key
tenets of this theoretical perspective are the following:
Although recent developments in socio-cultural theory have brought more
understanding about the processes of learning in classroom discourse (Bornstein
& Bruner, 1989; Newman, Griffin & Cole, 1989; Palincsar, 1986;
Wells, 1994), there are areas which need further clarification. For example,
we still lack evidence of the ways in which pupils' talk functions as a
means of learning in collaborative learning situations (i.e. in intermental
plane) and how it is related to pupils' intramental level of functioning.
Moreover, not enough consideration has been paid to the relationship between
the nature of pupil discourse and the social context and conditions in
which occurs. Part of the difficulty of research into these issues has
been methodological: we have lacked appropriate analytical tools for the
investigation of children's verbal interactions in classroom settings.
In this paper we shall present and illustrate a newly developed analytic
method, based on functional analysis, which can be used to investigate
the nature of children's verbal interaction during the collaborative writing
process at the computer. The theoretical framework of the method will be
briefly described and located in socio-culturally based ideas of learning.
Finally, the analysis method will be evaluated and its possible research
Learning is highly social and culturally embedded;
The development of semiotic mediational means, of which language is an
important aspect, is a vital means through which humans construct and internalise
resources in culture;
Learning is the collaborative construction of a shared knowledge through
Learning which occurs in social interaction proceeds from the interpsychological
plane to the intrapsychological plane with the assistance of knowledgeable
members of the culture.
Despite a recent emphasis on cooperative learning, the literature shows
that systems designed to analyse classroom talk have been, for the most
part, developed for examining teachers' and pupils' talk during whole class
teaching (see e.g. Delamont, 1976; Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975; Bellack,
et al, 1966). Methods aimed at understanding peer discourse, particularly
in small group work learning, are more limited in number (Young, Arnold
& Watson, 1987). The methodological approaches used for analysing peer
interaction at computers appear to have varied between studies. On the
one hand, categorising systems have been used for investigating pupil talk
(e.g. Dickinson, 1986; Hill & Browne, 1988). On the other hand, pupil
interaction has been studied with interpretative methods without a systematic
means of coding (e.g. Nastasi & Clements, 1992; Anderson, Tolmie, McAteer
& Demissie, 1993; Mercer, Phillips & Somekh, 1991; Mercer &
Fisher, 1993). Although heavily interpretative forms of research can be
suitable for certain research objectives by giving in depth and rich information
about the nature of peer interaction, this form of analysis automatically
decreases the external validity of the findings. Studies aimed at understanding
the ways in which pupil talk functions as a means of learning across computer
and other educational learning contexts may not profit from very qualitative
forms of analysis. Instead, a method which uses more systematic means of
coding may be more usable. This enables comparisons to be made between
the nature of peer discourse and the contexts where discourse is produced.
It should be recognised, however, that every method of analysis aimed at
investigating as rich data as classroom interaction has evidently its own
limitations. If a study is interested in the uses for which pupils put
their talk in classroom discourse, and in the relationship between the
nature of interaction and the context in which it occurs, a method which
classifies children's talk according to functions appears to be among the
most suitable approaches. This is called a functional analysis (Young,
et al, 1987). In the following the basic ideas of the functional approach
to language are introduced and their relationship with the socio-cultural
The functional approach to language begins by recognising
its social nature, that its structures have been shaped by co-ordinating
purposes and that it has developed in human societies as a potential for
making meaning within different social settings (Halliday & Hasan,
1989). In the light of this approach text (oral / written) is both a process
and product, a social exchange of meanings. On the one hand, text is a
process since participants in social interaction have to make semantic
choices. On the other hand, text is also a product in the sense that is
an output. This, in fact, makes the investigations of the meanings of language
possible. Viewing language as a socio semiotic tool, the functional approach
regards the meanings of language as covering Ideational, Interpersonal
and Textual aspects which are all embedded in the individual, social and
cultural contexts. The Ideational metafunction which consists of the experiential
and logical functions (e.g. cognitive aspects) is seen as specifying the
available options in meaning. The Interpersonal metafunction is, on the
other hand, viewed as conveying information about personal and social relationships
whereas the Textual component facilitates the meaning potential to be connected
with linguistic structure.
The functional approach to language emphasises
the relationship between social environment and the functional organisation
of language (Halliday & Hasan, 1989). In fact, it regards the relationship
between text and context as a dialectical one: the text creates the context
as much as the context creates the text. To make the investigations of
the relationship between the text and the context of situation possible
this approach introduces three features. The field of discourse reveals
information about what is happening in interaction. The tenor of discourse
covers information about the participants (e.g. roles, statuses, social
relationships). The mode of discourse, on the other hand, covers information
about the role of language in interaction (e.g. what functions does language
serve in context?, Is it spoken, written or both?, What is being achieved
by the use of language and particular functions?, What is the status given
to the language?). It is these three aspects which should be taken into
consideration when investigating the meanings and purposes for which language
is used in socio-cultural contexts.
The functions of language in the light of a socio-cultural approach
An interest in ways in which a growing child uses language as a tool for
expressing meanings and intentions in culture appears to be common to both
functional approaches to language and socio-cultural theories of development.
Vygotsky (1962), investigating the relationship between language and thought,
found the unit of verbal thought in word meaning. He saw the meaning of
a word representing a close relationship of thought and speech. In regarding
word meaning as a unit of generalising thought Vygotsky also sees it as
a unit of social interchange. Thus, for him, a word meaning is a unit that
covers both the intellectual and social functions.
Halliday (1978,1984) ,in his systemic functional theory of language,
also sees talk as a semiotic tool
which simultaneously covers cognitive and social features. For him, the
ideational metafunction encode aspects of the speaker's experience whereas
the interpersonal semantic metafunction encode the speaker's relation to
other participants of interaction. The functional approach to language
and socio-culturally based ideas of learning also recognise the situation
and culturally specific nature of interaction and learning. Moreover, both
approaches recognise that different social structures and contexts affect
the nature of interaction and the ways in which language is used (Vygotsky,
1978; Halliday & Hasan, 1989).
In developing the ideas of socio-cultural
theory, Wertsch (1991) addresses the issue of the organisation of "mediational
means" in a dominance hierarchy in terms of the notion "privileging". It
refers to mediational means, such as a certain social language, which can
be viewed as being more appropriate or more efficacious than others in
particular socio-cultural settings. In his writings Wertsch recognises
that there exist different types of verbal thinking. Thus a fundamental
characteristic of human activity is in the existence of a variety of qualitatively
different forms of representing and acting in the world. The different
forms of acting can be found in the heterogeneity of using language. For
Wertsch, the heterogeneity of using language is not a simple issue of higher
versus lower levels. Instead, his ideas hold that different speech genres
are suited for different social contexts or spheres of life (e.g. "privileging").
In consequence, Wertsch sees one of the fundamental processes of development
in mastering the ability to use various social languages and speech genres.
For him, the process of socialisation is not one of replacing one speech
genre with another. Instead, it is one of differentiating and adding to
speech genres. It is a case of "heterogeneity despite genetic hierarchy"
To characterise the heterogeneity of children's use of
oral language during conversations in different socio-cultural contexts,
also in educational learning environments, a number of researchers have
distinguished different speech genres, or registers, within children's
talk. Although their aims for investigating children's talk have varied,
there exist marked similarities between them. This similarity can be found
in the distinction made between concrete and abstract uses of language
in which the latter is believed to reflect children's ability to use their
language in context free ways whereas the former is seen as being more
context bound. For example, Basil Bernstein (1972) refers to elaborated
and restricted codes of talk and James Britton (1972) talks about displaced
versus embedded speech. Other researchers who have divided children's talk
into more specific functions seem also to agree with this simple categorisation
(see e.g. Tough, 1973; Phillips, 1985, 1990; Barnes & Todd, 1977).
For example, monitoring or commenting upon action is regarded as being
one of the simpler functions (e.g. context-bound talk) if compared to explaining
or reasoning about the relationships that can exist between the various
components (e.g. abstract talk). The explanation for the low level of cognitive
gain is considered to be in that although children are making commentaries
on what is happening this does not necessarily mean that they are thinking
about the problems and possibilities. Neither does this mean that children
are sharing any of their thoughts. This is seen as discouraging long term
planning and reflective thought (Phillips, 1985).
One of the most important
tasks of education has been to make children aware of the different language
genres, oral or written, which exist in the culture and to create learning
situations which enable pupils to use their talk as a full resource for
learning. In the socio-cultural contexts of classrooms the ability to use
exploratory and argumentative language modes appears to be highly valued
in contrast to procedural and context specific interaction (Cohen,1994).
This is, because this form of interaction is considered to encourage the
development of children's higher order thinking skills. It should be recognised,
however, that before the value of different uses of language to the development
of children's thinking and learning is fully understood, more research
needs to be done both at theoretical and practical level.
The Functional Analysis of Children's Classroom Talk (FACCT) System
The functional analysis system we have been developing was originally designed
by Fourlas (1988) to investigate children's role as communicators in the
teacher-centred and peer group-centred classrooms. When reviewing earlier
literature Fourlas noted that most of the functional analysis systems developed
for educational purposes had been designed to study children's functional
development of oral language rather than to understand the ways in which
discourse is used as a means of learning in educational contexts (see e.g.
Halliday, 1973, 1975; Tough, 1973, 1977, 1984; Phillips, 1985, 1988, 1990).
Furthermore, there appeared to be few discourse analysis systems applicable
to analyse children's use of language functions during both teacher-centred
and peer group-centred lessons. In his study Fourlas recorded the verbal
interactions of Greek primary children during whole class and small group
lessons. The lessons the children were attending to during the investigation
were first language and environmental studies lessons. After audio recording
children's oral language interactions and transcribing the tapes Fourlas
tried to identify all the functions which occurred in the children's talk,
using his knowledge of the contexts in which this talk was produced. Sixteen
individual functions were detected, subsequently labelled as the Intentional,
Responsive, Reproductional, Interrogative, Experiential, Informative, Judgemental,
Hypothetical, Argumentational, Affectional, Compositional, Organisational,
Expositional, External thinking, Imaginative and Heuristic. The Reproductional,
Informative and Compositional functions were each further divided into
In the following, the functions identified in the system will be described.
1. Intentional (IN)
The Intentional function indicates an intention to speak. In addition,
it can imply that a child wants to continue speaking and does not want
to be interrupted.
2. Responsive (R)
Talk used in this function respond to a question or statement. The use
of the Responsive function also indicates the ways in which flows of speech
are connected together. Usually this function is accompanied by other functions
in the same language utterance.
3. Reproductional (RP)
The Reproductional function includes two sub-functions. The first involves
the reading aloud of a text. This can be connected with children's own
text production, with the use of other resources or it can stem from the
word processing software itself. The second sub-function involves the repetition
of what has been recently said by another person.
4. Interrogative (Q)
Questions either requiring information or social approval were classified
as belonging to the Interrogative function of oral language. There are certain features that can help in distinguishing the
Interrogative function in children's language. These are the use of certain
words such as "why, "when" and "how"; the use of "do" in front of a sentence
like "Do you like skiing ?" and also intonation and word order. Barnes
& Todd (1977) argue that in certain language utterances questions can
be recognised on the basis of intuitive knowledge acquired through the
context of discussion. This type of knowledge is seen by them as being
only available to the participants of the conversation and to the observer
who is present whilst the discussion is taking place. This illustrates
the important role of the observer in analysing and understanding the nature
of children's oral language interactions.
5. Expositional (EXPO)
Talk used to accompany a demonstration of a phenomenon or an experiment
belongs to the Expositional function. Words like "this", "that", "here",
"there" occur often in children's talk during the use of this function.
6. Heuristic (HE)
The Heuristic function is used by children to express having found out
something. This can relate to the current situation or to children's own
thoughts and ideas. The intonation in children's talk is usually surprised
during the use of this function.
7. Experiential (E)
This function of oral language is used for expressing personal experiences.
These are often related to children's families or personal lives at home
8. Affectional (AF)
The Affectional function concerns the expression of personal feelings and
emotions. It can arise from surprise, admiration, pleasure, amazement,
disappointment, happiness, indignation and even fear, to mention but a
few. Intonation is often a strong indicator of the use of this function.
9. Informative (I)
When a child is using speech as a means of providing information, his/her
oral language serves the Informative function. This function can be divided
into two sub-functions involving: giving information from the resources children have under their
control or giving information based on children's knowledge, interpretations,
personal opinions or ideas.
10. Judgemental (J)
The Judgemental function expresses agreement or disagreement. This can
concern ideas, opinions, information or children's actions.
11. Argumentational (ARG)
The Argumentational function is closely connected with the use of the Judgemental
function and indicates children's support of their judgements. It may be
indicated by the use of causal connectives (e.g. but, so...), or it may
not be indicated lexically but pragmatically (see e.g. James' utterances
12. Hypothetical (HY)
A child providing ideas or suggestions that are used as a basis for further
investigation is using the Hypothetical function. Words like "if", "maybe",
"suppose" or phrases like "what about" quite often characterise the use
of this function. Syntactically, the Hypothetical function may be characterised
by modal verb phrases (e.g. it would be easier) which indicate a hypothetical
13. Compositional (C)
The Compositional function of oral language is divided into two sub-functions:
dictating words to be written and revising what has been said or written.
14. Organisational (OR)
Speech used for organising work or controlling behaviour is classed as
Organisational. The Organisational function often belongs grammatically
to the imperative mood.
15. External Thinking (ET)
When the child is working at a task she/he may sometimes think aloud. This
kind of language use is very seldom addressed to anyone in particular and
language utterances carrying this function can easily sound incomplete
since sometimes only a part of children's thoughts are expressed in speech.
The child may also make stops and starts or just make sounds not regarded
as words, like "...er..." and "...hmm...". Thus utterances indicating the
use of the External thinking function do not always follow the conventional
syntax of sentences.
16. Imaginative (IM)
A child introducing or expressing imaginative situations is using the Imaginative
Further development of the system
The classification system devised by Fourlas (1988) was later applied in
a study by Kumpulainen (1994) of the oral language interactions between
groups of children using computers. The aim of the study was to investigate
primary school children's writing and learning processes as indictaed by
their verbal interactions during the process of collaborative writing with
the computer. The study also aimed at investigating the association of
features such as attainment grouping, gender and the use of the keyboard
with children's oral language interactions in the computer context. The
study was cross-cultural and it involved children from Finland and the
U.K. During the data collection the children's verbal interactions were
audio taped. The audio tapes were transcribed verbatim and supplemented
by field notes from observations and informal interviews. The functional
analysis system was then applied to the transcripts. As a result of this
study the system was modified slightly, as will be described below.
The use of the Compositional function
In the original classification system the Compositional function was divided
into two sub-functions; Revising and Dictating writing. In the Kumpulainen
study, however, perhaps because the focus of study was specifically upon
children writing together using the word processor, it was noted that children
frequently used their talk to create writing. Thus a third sub-function
was included in the Compositional function, that of talk used for the creation
The use of the Interrogative function
In the system used by Fourlas the Interrogative function did not include
any sub-functions. Yet, in the Kumpulainen study it appeared that two kinds
of questions were occurring in the children's talk. On one hand, there
were questions asking for information based on the children's knowledge
or opinions and on the other, there were questions that were looking for
social acceptance or encouragement. While the former type of question was
usually followed by a wait for a response, it appeared that replies did
not necessary occur when questions were of the social kind.
The use of the Responsive function
In the original system language use that provided factual information in
response to a question was coded as Responsive function. Yet, answers which
carried information about "children's personal experience, personal opinion,
descriptions or information important for the development of children's
tasks" were placed into other categories than Responsive (Fourlas, 1988,
pp. 55). For the Kumpulainen study it was decided, however, that talk which
was used to give a reply to a question would automatically be coded as
the Responsive function. By classifying responses in this way, the study
was able to compare the relationship between the number and nature of children's
questions and replies.
The use of the Informative function
The Informative function was originally divided into two sub-functions:
the giving of information based on children's knowledge or opinions and
the giving of information from the resources children had under their control.
It appeared, however, that talk used for giving information which was closely
connected with the current situation did not fall into either of these
two sub-functions. In consequence, it was necessary to add a third sub-function
relating to this situational information.
Evaluating the system
The studies in which the functional analysis system has been used so far
(Fourlas, 1988; Kumpulainen, 1994) imply that the method is, in general,
applicable to analyse the functions of pupil discourse cross-culturally
and across learning contexts, particularly during collaborative writing
with computers. It seems worthwhile, however, that the method should be
first piloted and possibly revised into more context specific forms to
meet the aims and purposes of particular research investigations. To understand
the functions for which peer discourse is used, it also is necessary that
field notes are made by participant observation during the recording procedure.
Specific attention should be paid to the field, tenor and mode of dicourse
as well as to the situational context and children's non-verbal behaviour.
The field notes can later be added to the transcripts made from the recorded
discourse. All this facilitates an in-depth analysis of the discourse and
The advantages of the functional analysis system can be found
in that the method focuses on linguistic units and does not use time as
a basic unit of coding. This means that the actual coding of the functions
from peer discourse takes place retrospectively from recordings and transcripts
- not during the actual data collection procedure. The procedure of re-listening
to recordings and re-reading transcripts makes it easier to understand
the contextual features from the discourse and consequently helps in identifying
functions for which talk is used in the course of cooperative problem solving.
The functional analysis system is also comprehensive. The functions
in the method appear to relate to their exponents in the data, facilitating
replicable and clear classification and, hence, making detailed descriptions
of the nature of pupil talk in diverse contexts possible. It is obvious
that there will be problems of interpretation and marginal choices in the
process of coding the functions, but that appears to be common to all classification
systems designed to understand data as complex as classroom discourse (Coulthard,
Montgomery, & Brazil, 1981). An added advantage of the functional analysis
system is also the fact that the method is able to provide both qualitative
and quantitative data on the nature of pupil talk. This makes the comparison
of the nature of peer discourse in diverse learning contexts possible,
without reducing the contextual sensitivity of the research findings.
The shortcomings of this method can, on the other hand, be found in
that it easily limits the scale of the research into a small study. This
obviously decreases the generalisability of the findings. Since verbal
interaction is such rich data, it also is likely that some of the functions
for which talk is used in the course of problem solving may go unnoticed
or be misunderstood. It is possible that audio recording and observation
alone may not provide enough detailed information to enable a full understanding
of the discourse and its functions. One way to increase the validity of
the use of the functional analysis system to examine peer discourse could
be to change research methods in data collection. A video record of cooperative
working processes might give deeper insights into children's non-verbal
behaviour and the situational contexts in which talk is produced. Informal
interviews or thinking aloud protocols stimulated by video-record shown
to the pupils after the completion of a task might also bring further information
about the functions and meanings peer discourse carries during problem
solving. How to overcome the limitations currently identified in the functional
analysis system remain among the future developments of the method.
There seem to be a number of possible research applications of the functional
analysis system. These include the following:
1. Cross-cultural studies of verbal interaction patterns in a variety
of classrooms and curriculum areas. For example: - Is peer discourse during
the process of collaborative writing with computers patterned in different
ways in different cultural settings? - How does the use of computers affect
the nature of peer discourse during collaborative writing? - How are interaction
patterns affected by variables such as group size and composition, teacher
role, the nature of the task and the perception of it by the participants,
the curriculum area location of instances of collaborative work?
2. The relationships between particular verbal interaction patterns
and writing/learning processes. For example: - How does peer discourse
reflect children's writing processes? - Do particular patterns of peer
discourse tend to be associated with higher levels of recall of content?
- How does the quality of peer discourse relate to the quality of writing
in the computer context? - Are different learning outcomes, for example,
transferable understanding, more likely to be associated with different
verbal interaction patterns?
3. Investigations of the linguistic contexts and patterns of particular
talk functions. For example: - What kinds of contexts are more likely to
be associated with, say, External Thinking or Argumentational talk? - How
does writing genre affect the nature of peer discourse in collaborative
writing with computers?
These questions are undoubtedly of importance, not merely to educational
theorists, but also to practitioners. At the moment, answers to them are
very difficult to obtain, largely because we lack appropriate analytical
tools. It is hoped that the functional analysis system outlined in this
paper may be of significant value in providing such a tool.
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