Eliza Beth Littleton-Department of English - Carnegie Mellon University

Emerging Rhetorical Knowledge for Writing: The Effect of Audience Presence on Five- Through Nine-Year-Olds' Speech

Author: Eliza Beth Littleton
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1995

Can young children be informative, descriptive, and persuasive for an audience they cannot see or hear? Researchers interested in the nature and development of writing abilities have speculated that composing language for an absent audience is a significant challenge in writing (Olson, 1977; King & Rentel, 1979; Kroll, 1981; Ong, 1982; Tannen, 1985). Presumably, the challenge lies in the fact that writers, unlike conversational partners, do not get immediate feedback (e.g., questions, expressions of interest) from their intended audiences, nor do they share immediate contexts and perspectives. In their influential theory of composing abilities, Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) assert that children cannot think about the needs of an absent audience and use that information to devise appropriate changes in their language. The researchers hypothesize that, as a default, children behave as if the absent audience can be available for feedback, and they write almost what they would say in a conversational turn. Unfortunately, the researchers never test their claim about the effect of audience- presence on children's rhetorical behavior. They theorize that only adults are able to think about the needs of the absent audience and choose appropriate language. From classical rhetorical theory and instruction to cognitive theories of writing, scholars assume that children are not able to generate discourse sensitive to an audience's needs. This study investigates whether children can adapt their speech for the absent audience, who requires more verbal information and explanation than does a present audience. Ten children between ages five and nine taught absent and present peers five magic tricks through dictated and face-to-face instructions. Children's informative, descriptive, and persuasive speech was compared for absent and present peers, and effects of age, practice, and trick complexity were assessed. When dictating their instructions for an absent peer, children used more descriptive words and phrases, talked about more steps, and listed the materials needed for the tricks. However, children were less likely to remark about their absent peer's attitudes or explain steps in the tricks for absent peers. These results reveal skills for writing that elementary school teachers can scaffold in young children.