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Why Children Should Write Stories

The value of narrative writing is understood by many teachers, but sometimes an activity such as story writing can seem more fun than useful. Writing stories is, however, a meaningful educational activity. Story writing has several advantages for children, even when compared to oral storytelling or to other forms of writing, such as writing persuasive or informative essays.

Tompkins questioned educators who taught story writing to find out why they thought such writing was beneficial. The seven educators she spoke to each discussed a different way in which they thought story writing helped students. They believed story writing:

They also described other benefits. These include giving children a sense of pride about the stories they create (Tompkins 1982). The creative act of writing a story, in which the child invents the whole world of the story, makes stories particularly satisfying to create. In writing stories, the child goes through a process that itself is the greatest educational reward, but there is also a product, the finished story, that can be shared and enjoyed in the future.

Dehouske, working with emotionally troubled children, found that for both typical and atypical children, "[p]ractice in responding innovatively and exploring alternate strategies are critical activities in cognitive development that can help students develop a thoughtful approach to their daily experience. Story writing is one activity that provides such practice" (Dehouske 1982). Cowie describes several linguistic, cognitive, social, and emotional benefits from story writing, which allows children to distance themselves from events and deal with them in new ways by re-casting them symbolically in creative narrative. Psychoanalysts have suggested this facilitates not just problem-solving development but the resolution of emotional conflicts as well (Cowie 1984).

A more extreme view of the role of stories in human cognition is held by the artificial intelligence pioneer and educational thinker Roger Schank. He contends that stories are the basis of memory and learning.

Human memory is story-based. .... Our knowledge of the world is more or less equivalent to the set of experiences that we have had, but our communication is limited by the number of stories we know to tell. ... we come to rely upon our own stories so much that it seems all we can tell ourselves are our stories as well. (Schank 1990, 12)

Whether or not the story is the single essential unit of cognition, Schank's work and that of his predecessors (Bartlett 1932) demonstrates that stories almost certainly have a central role in the way people make sense of the world. Creative writing can be an important part of improving these cognitive fundamentals. For Schank, true facility with storytelling includes the ability to re-tell and understand cultural and personal stories, but also being able to invent fictional stories.

Stories are also important to the personal development of the child, as an individual and as part of a culture. "There may be a special affinity between narrative and self such that narrative can be said to play a privileged role in the process of self-construction." (Miller et al. 1990). This sort of development of self often depends upon the telling of personal stories and the retelling of cultural stories. By creating stories, children can develop a facility with story that improves such tellings and retellings. They can also find creative new ways to express their feelings and thoughts.

Children who write stories in the classroom have an opportunity to gain linguistic benefits and improve their cognitive development by working with stories. The benefits of story writing described above indicate that it is an important form of writing and should have a place in the grade 2-5 classroom. While other activities can provide some of the individual benefits realized by story writing, the combination of advantages makes the activity particularly worthwhile for children, both in the classroom and outside school.

How a Conversational Computer Character May Help

A computer character may particularly aid in story planning and revision mainly because it can uniquely address certain barriers in moving from oral to written discourse. An additional benefit of such a character is that a conversational interface can be a good way for children to access information about planning and revision. Finally, a character can be a fun addition to story writing software that does not distract from the writing task.

Two problems encountered by young writers in grades 2-5 are not dealt with by existing software. First, children writing at length lack the usual conversational support that comes from the other participants in the conversation. For instance, a person listening to a story indicates verbally and nonverbally whether the teller is explaining in enough detail, or in too much detail. These cues are absent in writing. Second, again in distinction to spoken conversation, it is hard for young writers to imagine who exactly is the audience for the story being written. Children speak differently, for instance, depending upon whether they are addressing a sibling or a teacher, but their audience for a composition is not present to signal which type of language is appropriate. These problems are clearly related but can be distinguished, since a particular child may have less of a problem with one aspect of the transition from speaking to writing than with the other. These two issues are discussed in greater depth under the heading The Transition from Conversation to Composition in the Background section.

A conversational character is particularly appropriate to deal with these two difficulties in moving from spoken interaction to writing. By simulating conversation on the screen, the computer supplies the turn-taking behavior that is familiar from oral conversation. By taking a particular role as an interactive character, the system provides an immediate audience. Independent of the ability to offer help on story planning or revision, this mode of conversational interaction and the identity of the computer character can assist story writing.

A character, compared to a checklist, is also well-suited to providing the writer with greater flexibility in planning a story. A computer character provides a multilinear way of going through story elements, not a unilinear list of prompts. The writer can progress through all of the story planning steps, but in the desired order. One writer might choose to think about character in depth before describing the plot, while another may plan in the opposite order. This advantage is not unique to a conversational character - it could also be provided by a hypertext system or a hierarchical menu - but it is an advantage over a simple paper or computerized checklist.

The inclusion of a computer character helper can also simply be fun for the children using the software. A computer character can be an amusing and engaging interface that makes writing on the computer more enjoyable and novel, without distracting from the central task of writing. Unlike the multimedia components found in existing children's writing software, a conversational character can manifest itself mainly in text and can encourage writing and written interaction during planning and revision.

Testing a Conversational Character's Effectiveness With EddieEdit

To determine whether a conversational computer character is educationally effective, and to show what such a character might be like, software was developed for use in a study. In the study, three groups of students used different software: a word processor; a prompting system that led students through planning, writing, and revising without a character; and a similar system with a conversational character. The study lasted two weeks, and the stories children wrote throughout that time were examined to determine how the students might have improved their writing skills. They were also asked questions before and after the study to determine how they liked the software and how their thinking about the writing process had changed.

The main piece of software developed in this project is EddieEdit. This program features Eddie, a conversational computer character who aids children in writing stories. Eddie has limited understanding but was created to have personality, motivation, and identity. Eddie is himself a elementary student, and offers help as a peer. EddieEdit supports the process of planning, writing, and revising, by offering conversations with Eddie during planning and revision and allowing the child to engage in writing without interruption. After the study, the program was improved based on comments from students and on observation of how it was used, so a better version could be made publicly available. EddieEdit is a simple but fully functional first step into a new way of assisting young story writers: providing conversational and character-based educational interventions.

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