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Computer Assisted Language Learning


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Word-processor or pencil-and-paper?
A comparison of students' writing in
Chinese as a foreign language
a

Yu Zhu , Shiu-Kee Mark Shum , Shek-Kam Brian Tse & Jinghui


Jack Liu

Xiamen University, Xiamen, China

University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

California State University at Fullerton, Fullerton, USA


Published online: 25 Jan 2015.

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To cite this article: Yu Zhu, Shiu-Kee Mark Shum, Shek-Kam Brian Tse & Jinghui Jack Liu (2015):
Word-processor or pencil-and-paper? A comparison of students' writing in Chinese as a foreign
language, Computer Assisted Language Learning, DOI: 10.1080/09588221.2014.1000932
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09588221.2014.1000932

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Computer Assisted Language Learning, 2015


http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09588221.2014.1000932

Word-processor or pencil-and-paper? A comparison of students


writing in Chinese as a foreign language
Yu Zhua*, Shiu-Kee Mark Shumb, Shek-Kam Brian Tseb and Jinghui Jack Liuc

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a
Xiamen University, Xiamen, China; bUniversity of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China; cCalifornia
State University at Fullerton, Fullerton, USA

A study is reported of the performance and attainment of 32 students from overseas


studying elementary Chinese as a foreign language (CFL) in a Chinese university.
With an AB-BA design, they were asked to use two forms of writing media to present
two essays: one a word-processed essay entitled My Favourite Female and the other
a conventional hand-written essay entitled My Favourite Male. The essays were
marked by experienced Chinese language experts and the learners impression of
using each type of writing medium was gathered via questionnaires and interviews.
Inferential statistics showed that the students performed significantly better when
using a word-processor, and they thought that completing writing tasks using penciland-paper and word-processors were markedly different. Most of them felt that their
work was more professional when produced on a word-processor. A small number of
students considered that writing by hand in Chinese was aesthetically pleasing, but
they appreciated the convenience of writing in words spelled and written correctly by
the computer. Inter-marker consistency was more homogeneous for essays written on
the computer. In conclusion, word-processors are suggested as the preferred writing
medium for beginning learners of CFL.
Keywords: word processing; handwriting; essays; foreign language; Chinese

Introduction
Writing is a key channel of communication, a crucial component of literacy and an important reflection of a persons language proficiency. While there is a growing body of literature on the efficacy of foreign language learners use of modern information technology
for sending and receiving email, for machine translations and in the social media (Arslan
& Sahin-Kizil, 2010; Biesenbach-Lucas & Weasenforth, 2001; Garcia & Pena, 2011), relatively few studies have investigated the relationship between the writing medium used
and the quality of writing the learner produced. Although there is widespread agreement
the days of students sifting through piles of file cards, producing detailed outlines, and
handwriting drafts have slipped into the distant past (Kuriloff, 2004, p. 36), what
remains unclear is whether or not using a word-processor or using pencil-and-paper as
the writing medium will impact differently on the quality of written output and the users
preferences when different writing media are employed. This study compared the relative
impact of pencil-and-paper and word-processing media on the quality of essays written
by learners for whom Chinese is a foreign language (CFL).
A number of questions facing teachers, test takers and administrators helped shape the
research. More specifically: (1) Is inter-marker consistency for handwritten and keyboardtyped essays the same? (2) How do learners perceive writing in the two modes, and what
*Corresponding author. Email: zhuyu@xmu.edu.cn
2015 Taylor & Francis

Y. Zhu et al.

are their impressions of using the two forms of writing? (3) Does the form of language
instrument used when writing result in different levels of performance on writing tasks,
and are learners likely to write more fluently when writing by hand or using a computer?
Do any findings above apply to writers at all ability levels? These and other issues
prompted the authors to conduct a small-scale, comparative attainment inquiry with university students learning CFL.

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Background literature
The outcomes of studies looking at the efficacy of using word-processors against penciland-paper are conflicting and sometimes at odds with one another. There is evidence that
replacing the conventional paper-and-pencil medium with a word-processor may provide
learners who dislike writing or who do not spell well with an alternative approach to communicating and presenting ideas. This enables them to focus on the content of what is
written, reduces feelings of panic when asked to write, gives confidence and makes writers more comfortable when their writing is tested (Broun, 2009; MacArthur, 1999; Mirenda, Turoldo, & McAvoy, 2006; Vacc, 1987; Watt, 1983; Yarnall, Carriere, Stanford,
Manning, & Melton, 2007). In fact, several studies reported improvements in the overall
writing quality of computer-delivered essays written by mainstream students (Lam &
Pennington, 1995; Pennington, 1996b; Schwartz, Fitzpatrick, & Huot, 1994). Such is the
pace of technological developments in the field of computer-assisted learning today that
ongoing refinements are often deliberately engineered to make writing on screen more
comfortable and satisfying, making it hard for educators to monitor and keep abreast of
refinements in writing software.
Any procedure that enables students to be more satisfied with their writing in a foreign
language is usually welcomed by learners and their teachers. Word-processors are usually
regarded as being convenient and welcome by foreign language learners who lack confidence in their writing ability. Lee (2004) analysed 42 international students writing samples when writing in English as a second language (ESL) placement test administered in
pencil-and-paper and word-processed modes. Although no significant statistical differences were found between the total mean scores for the essays completed in the two media,
essays completed using a computer gained higher patterns of scores than those produced
using the familiar pencil-and-paper method on almost every aspect of the scoring rubric.
The inter-marker reliability for computer-delivered essay marking was also found to be
higher than that produced for matched pencil-and-paper counterparts. Analyses of questionnaire responses about computer-assisted writing approaches indicated that many
habitual computer users prefer to complete writing assessments using a word-processor
due to the impression that this helps raise the standard of their work (Li, 2006). When
investigating the impact of using word-processors on ESL writing assessments, Li had 21
advanced Mandarin-speaking ESL learners complete two comparable writing tasks: one
completed on a computer capable of detecting and logging an examinees writing and
revising processes, and the other written using the conventional pencil-and-paper system.
Accompanying think-aloud protocols were also tape-recorded, the findings showing that,
when composing using a computer students engaged in more active higher order thinking,
made more revisions at every linguistic level and scored higher on argumentative skills
than did peers using traditional pencil-and-paper methods. In another study, although no
significant difference in quality was found between word-processed and handwritten
essays, Lovett, Lewandowski, Berger, and Gathje (2010) found that students who handwrote their essays produced fewer words than peers who used a word-processor. Findings

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Computer Assisted Language Learning

of this kind attract teachers into considering the potentiality of having learners use the
computer as a writing medium. However, there also exists conflicting evidence suggesting a preference for pencil-and-paper as medium of writing. For example, some researchers have found that, compared with word processing an essay, the process of handwriting
can facilitate essay writing in terms of planning (Hass, 1989), focus and coherence
(Burley, 1994), and that hand-written essays have often in the past been scored more
highly than word-processed compositions (Bridgeman & Cooper, 1998; Powers, Fowles,
Farnum, & Ramsey, 1994; Sweedler-Brown, 1991). In addition, Arnold, Legas, Obler,
Pacheco, Russell, and Umbdenstock (1990) and Roblyer (1997) have attempted to explain
the bias of many educators toward word-processed essays, citing higher expectations of
word-processed compositions, the potential Reader Empathy Assessment Discrepancy
effect on handwritten papers, perceived essay length, readability, correctness, and so on.
More recently, Wolfe and Manalo (2004) found that learners of English generally perform
better on writing assessments when pencil-and-paper approaches are used. Breland, Lee,
and Muraki (2005) demonstrated that although the writing medium effect on examinees
performance was not significant on every single topic, hand-written essay scores tended
to be higher than those of computer-delivered counterparts for almost every case
investigated.
At the same time, other studies have failed to find any serious differences in essays
produced in either medium, word-processed or handwritten (Benesch, 1987; Chadwick &
Bruce, 1989; Harrington, 2000; Jackson, 1984).
What complicates the situation is that some seemingly unrelated factors such as computer proficiency and/or language proficiency are reported to interact with the effects of the
writing medium. For instance, Collier and Werier (1995) found that professional computer
writers composed similarly in either media, even though in general they were uncomfortable and irritable when paper writing. On the other hand, non-professional computer writers
have found that writing using a pencil-and-paper seems to reduce the quality of their writing. In a study conducted by Wolfe, Bolton, Feltovich, and Niday (1996), students having
high to medium computer experience did not perform differently in either medium of writing, while less experienced users of computers were often adversely affected by the technology. Furthermore, the effect of L2 proficiency has been reported frequently in the
literature. For example, after controlling for ESL proficiency and several demographic
characteristics, Wolfe and Manalo (2004) found that learners with low proficiency performed better on writing assessments using pencil-and-paper approaches, while students of
higher proficiency level performed equally well in both writing media conditions.
Before turning to the literature on impacts of technology on writing in Chinese by foreigners, the unique characteristics of the Chinese writing system should first be explained
briefly, as these characteristics might be the main reasons for a CFL learner to prefer
handwriting or using word-processor. Unlike most languages in the world, the Chinese
writing system is logographic instead of being alphabetic, which means that, in most
cases, knowing the pronunciation alone of a Chinese character would not lead to an idea
of how to produce exactly the written form of the character. A majority of CFL learners
who are native speakers of an alphabetic language grasped relatively quickly the skills in
listening, speaking and even reading Chinese, but became stuck on the writing tasks.
However, this situation improved considerably with increasingly pervasive application of
educational technology in CFL. For instance, with the help of a pinyin input software that
goes with a word-processor, foreign learners of Chinese can type Chinese characters without knowing how to write each of them literally. They can simply type pinyin and choose
the target character from a list of candidate characters of homophones. Because pinyin as

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Y. Zhu et al.

a Romanization system of Chinese characters, is much more amiable to learners with a


background of an alphabetic language and recognition is much easier than production of
Chinese characters (Ke, 1996), a word-processor with pinyin input method seems a salvation for learners of CFL in writing tasks. However, direct research evidence is not yet
available. A thorough literature search of ERIC and ProQuest database revealed only a
very limited number of relevant studies (Allen, 2008; Kubler, 2002; Lim, 1997; Sim,
2005; Tan, Xu, Chang, & Siok, 2013; Wong, Chai, & Gao, 2011; Zhang, 2009).
Among them, the most relevant study to the present one was conducted by Zhang
in 2009. Although the major concern was the impacts of a WebCT discussion board
on essay writing among second-year Chinese language learners in the United States,
Zhang (2009) also briefly depicted a rough picture of these students perceived effectiveness of media of writing. The majority of the subjects agreed or strongly agreed
with the statement of item 24 in his questionnaire, namely Typing Chinese characters
on a computer has made essay writing easier than hand-writing Chinese characters.
The responses of this particular item had a mean score of 4.12 on a 6-point Likert
Scale and 48% of the subjects chose the highest possible indicator as the degree of
their agreement with the statement. Such an observation echoed earlier claims that
handwriting Chinese tended to be the biggest hindrance (Xu & Jen, 2005) or even a
so-called nightmare (Zhu & Hong, 2005) for most CFL beginners. Some scholars
(e.g. Allen, 2008; Kubler, 2002) further advocated that for beginning learners of CFL,
computer-assisted electronic writing should replace handwriting when writing in
Chinese. In Singapore, where Chinese is taught as a second language in elementary
and secondary schools, some researchers also promoted an integration of information
technology and Chinese composition to overcome the challenges faced by Singapore
students when producing Chinese characters with pencil-and-paper (Sim, 2005) and
believed this could enhance students higher order thinking in writing essays in
Chinese (Lim, 1997). However, advocates and beliefs of this kind in CFL were accompanied or followed by very few attempts at empirical study comparing the effects on
essay writing in Chinese with different writing media.
One of such limited efforts based on empirical studies was Wong and his colleagues
(2011). Addressing the issue of effectiveness of computer-based Chinese input methods,
more specifically pinyin-based versus handwriting-pad-based software, they found a mismatch between the perceived benefits of computer-based Chinese input software and their
actual effectiveness. They argued that the purported benefits of those software could be
realized only when a user gets familiar with appropriate knowledge or skill, namely a
mastery of the pinyin system or producing characters on a PC-based writing pad. However, since Wongs study (2011) was based simply on observation and interview and did
not compare electronic writing with handwriting for students who had mastered the pinyin system well, the findings could shed only limited light on the research questions of
the present study.
With a mixed research method, Tan et al. (2013) tested and surveyed native Chinese
primary school students. They concluded that Chinese childrens reading scores were
negatively correlated with their use of the pinyin input method. However, besides a lack
of control for various confounding variables, one problem with this finding is that the use
of the pinyin input method was measured solely by self-reported time of pinyin typing on
e-devices for non-academic leisure purposes (e.g. chatting among friends), which was
arguably not a proper measurement of use of the pinyin input method in an educational
context. Thus the effect of pinyin input method on writing or reading in the long term has
remained unknown, be it for native or CFL learners.

Computer Assisted Language Learning

Method
In an attempt to clarify the contradictory and mixed conclusions referred to above about
the effect of the writing medium, especially in field of CFL, the authors administered
writing tasks to university students learning Chinese as a foreign language, to be completed either by hand or by a word-processor. They then followed up the experience with
interviews and questionnaires to collect students impressions and perceptions of the
effects of writing in the two media. The students efforts were carefully marked and the
quality of the essays was scrutinized.

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Participants
All the 60 non-Chinese adults studying elementary Chinese in a university in Southern
China voluntarily participated in the study. They were all taking the 8-credit core course
Reading and Writing in Chinese in the spring of 2011. Unfortunately, based on a postquestionnaire follow-up interview, 27 of the group were not aware that the difficulty levels of the two writing tasks were equivalent, and one of them completed only one of the
two essays. Thus the statistical analyses were derived from only the 32 participants who
were aware that the two tasks were equivalent in terms of difficulty level and who finished
the two writing tasks. Out of the 32 participating students, 5 were male and the rest were
female. Eight were European or American, and the other 24 were from seven South East
Asian countries. At the time of the research, they had been learning Chinese for one to
five years, with a mean of 2.75 years, and had lived in China from 2 months to 6 years,
with a mean of approximately 1.5 years. On average, they said they had been using wordprocessors for about 100 minutes per day in the previous month, and an average of 56
minutes were spent on typing Chinese characters. All said they had experienced and preferred Pinyin input rather than any other Chinese input software. Details on background
information of the participants are summarized in Table 1.
Diagnosed by a placement test at the beginning of the semester when the study was
conducted, Chinese proficiency of the participants was about at the same level, even
though time they had spent in China varied greatly. This judgment was further validated
by data analysis of the present study, which demonstrated that the participants writing
scores for essays written by hand and produced with a word-processor were both independent of the length of their stay in China or the length of their Chinese learning, in terms of
months (see Table 2 for details).

Table 1. Partial background information of the participants.

Statistics

Age

Months
learning
Chinese

n
Min.
Max.
Median
Mean
Std. err.

28
18
69
23
25
1.962

28
12
60
32.5
32.57
2.612

Months
of stay
in China

Minutes
of daily
typing

Minutes
of daily typing
of Chinese

Minutes
of daily
handwriting

Minutes
of daily
handwriting
Chinese

29
2
74
17
19.67
2.715

25
0
480
60
101.80
21.629

23
0
240
60
56.3
11.313

24
30
360
90
115.63
19.057

24
0
330
60
94.17
16.571

Y. Zhu et al.
Table 2. Correlation: Essay scores & time on Chinese / in China.
Scores of essays
Handwritten

PC-processed

Months learning
Chinese

Months stayed
in China

.218a
.266b
28 c
.019a
.922b
28 c

.085 a
.663 b
29 c
.018a
.925 b
29 c

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The value of Pearson correlation coefficient.


Probability value (two-tailed test) of the Pearson correlation coefficient.
Sample size.

b
c

Instruments
Writing assignment
Each participant was asked to write two essays: one an essay entitled My Favourite
Female to be written using a word-processor and the other a hand-written essay with the
title My Favourite Male to be written by hand. They were told that each essay should
be around 300 Chinese characters long and they were asked to write about a person they
knew and explain why they liked that person.
The word-processor used by the participants was Microsoft Word, with spelling and
grammar checking functions disabled. The input method used in the study was Microsoft
Pinyin Input Method.
Questionnaire
The questionnaire (see Appendix 2) was designed to collect participants demographic
information and their perceptions and feelings about writing by hand and using a wordprocessor. The biographic information section, i.e. part 1 of the questionnaire, asked participants to give their name, gender, age, nationality, first language, time spent learning
Chinese, length of stay in China, preferred Chinese input software and time spent typing
and writing Chinese in the previous month.
Part 2 of the questionnaire was based on the student survey form designed by Lee
(2004). Due to the limited number of respondents, the questionnaire remained not validated, as was also the case with Lees original study. The questionnaire included ten 5point-Likert-scale items on experience and perceptions about the two writing media. The
sum score of item 1, 3, and 5 indicated the degree of a participants preference of a wordprocessor to handwriting. The cut-off points for preferring pencil-and-paper, having no
preference, and preferring word-processor, was arbitrary and specified as: no more than
8, above 8 to below 10, and no less than 10 points, respectively.
The higher total score a participant had on items 2, 4, and 9, the higher was his/her
self-efficacy in computer-delivered composition. The cut-off points for low, medium, and
high self-efficacy were the same as those of the preference for a word-processor (see
above). Items 6 and 7 intended to compare participants perceived frequencies of finishing an essay with pencil-and-paper or a word-processor. High and low score cut-off points
for the two items were both 3. A high score on item 6 but a low score on item 7 meant that

Computer Assisted Language Learning

a participants frequently used medium of writing was a word-processor. Low scores on


both of the items meant that he/she used pencil frequently when writing. Low score on
item 6 but high score on item 7 showed that the respondent used both media frequently.
A participants responses would be considered invalid if he/she scored high on both items,
reflecting unserious response to at least one of these two items. Items 8 and 10 respectively explored a participants perceptions of processes and qualities of writing with different tools, with a score below 3 meaning no difference perceived, above 3 indicating
difference perceived, and 3 showing that the participant had no opinion on this item.

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Interviews
All 32 subjects were interviewed and the responses were recorded by digital voice recorders with each interviewees consent. The goal of the interview was to ascertain each participants feelings about their writing when using the two different response media. In
addition, participants were asked whether or not they considered the topics of the two
essays to be equivalent in difficulty; which medium afforded more time for reflection
about ideas; which writing medium gave more time for producing characters; which writing medium led them to spend more time correcting spellings and checking grammar;
which medium offered more time for polishing up the composition; and the participants
confidence about producing essays in the two media.
Setting and investigators
The first author of the paper directed the data collection process in two multimedia laboratories. Five graduate students majoring in educational psychology were carefully
trained to supervise the essay writing, to administer the writing assessments and interview
the participants.
Procedure
Before the writing assessment started, the researchers reassured the participants of the
confidentiality of the responses, explained the terms used in the instructions and the data
collection procedures, and answered any questions. The participants were randomly
divided into two groups in each of the two laboratories. The experiment applied an ABBA design: while participants in one group handwrote the assigned essay for 35 minutes,
the other group typed their essays on desktop computers. A five-minute break was
arranged immediately after completion of the first essay, when the students rested in
silence. Then the two groups switched medium of writing and finished their assigned
topic in the second 35 minutes period. After writing assessment, participants were asked
to respond to the questionnaire and given a short interview.
Considerations governing the conduct of the inquiry
Since the researchers did not convert the computer-typed essays to handwritten equivalents and vice-versa, the effect of marker and medium are confounded to some extent in
this study. The reasons for not performing the conversions were that previous studies
(Lee, 2004; Powers et al., 1994) observed that such conversions were not always able to
represent exactly the quality of the original essay. Powers et al. (1994) reported that conversion from handwritten to word-processed versions and vice versa were not always

Y. Zhu et al.

Table 3. Correlation: essay scores and learners typing/handwriting behaviours.


Scores of
essays
Handwritten

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PC-processed

Minutes of
daily typing

Minutes of daily
typing of Chinese

.326 a
.111 b
25 c
.462a
.020 b
25 c

.042a
.851b
23 c
.192a
.381b
23 c

Minutes of daily
handwriting
.134 a
.531 b
24 c
.177 a
.408 b
24 c

Minutes of daily
handwriting
of Chinese
.331 a
.114 b
24 c
.034 a
.876 b
24 c

Note: aThe value of Pearson correlation coefficient.


b
Probability value (two-tailed test) of the Pearson correlation coefficient.
c
Sample size.

P < .05.

able to mirror one another precisely, and that converting essays might also inadvertently
produce lower or higher quality essays in one medium rather than in the other. In addition,
while it is not easy to convert essays in English and maintain the quality of the original, it
is even harder to convert Chinese essays produced in one medium into the other, because
illegible Chinese characters which are frequently produced by non-native learners of
Chinese in the handwritten mode are almost impossible to reproduce, even with up-todate word-processors. For example, if one or more stroke(s) of a Hanzi (Chinese character) are missing, misplaced or produced distortedly, the character becomes illegible. Such
illegible handwritten characters cannot be duplicated into a word-processor with currently
available software. At the same time, converting word-processed essays to handwritten
ones would inevitably involve factors such as the penmanship of the transcribers. It was
not feasible to recruit professional transcribers able to convert a subjects keyboard typed
essay to a handwritten version and to maintain the precise quality of the original.
Data analyses and results
Pre-checking of data
It can be seen from Tables 2 4 that the individual differences among participants would
not affect the results, because the result variables of this research were independent of the
background information of the participants, except that time spent on typing per day was
found to be positively related with scores for essays processed with PC.
Moreover, the strategy for data analysis, i.e. a paired-sample T-test, allowed ignorance
of any between-subject differences because what mattered with such an analysis was the
within-subject difference in terms of writing scores with the two different media.
The following data analysis involved determining a score for each essay, calculating
inter-marker reliability and comparing the mean scores for essays completed via the two
different writing media.
The scoring of essays
Adapting analytic scoring criteria described in Nie (2009), the study focused on three
aspects of each essay, namely (1) ideas and content, (2) linguistic expression, and (3)
cohesion and coherence. Each aspect was evaluated for qualitative and quantitative

Computer Assisted Language Learning

Table 4. Correlation: PC preference/efficacy and time on Chinese/in


China.

PC preference

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PC efficacy

Months learning Chinese

Months stayed in China

.203
.300 b
28 c
.177 a
.368 b
28 c

.148 a
.444 b
29 c
.056 a
.771 b
29 c

Note: aThe value of Pearson correlation coefficient.


b
Probability value (two-tailed test) of the Pearson correlation coefficient.
c
Sample size.

characteristics. The final scoring table contained six sub-scores. Each sub-score ranged
from one to five points (see Appendix 1). In other words, the raw total score for each
essay ranged from 6 to 30 points. Three experienced professors with the experience of
teaching CFL for over five years served as markers. Independently, they examined the
essays and assigned a score for each essay. An average of the two scores with the minimum difference was assigned as the final score for each essay.
As for inter-marker reliability, intra-class correlation coefficients are nearly the same,
i.e. .82 for the ratings of handwritten essays and .81 for the keyboard typed ones. However, a closer examination for inter-marker reliability coefficients by any two of the three
markers reveals the differences in details. As summarized in Tables 5 and 6, the reliability
coefficients for ratings of keyboard typed essays are more homogeneous than those for the
ratings of handwritten compositions (see Appendix 3 for detailed information about the
ratings). Table 7 shows that the standard deviation for the scores of the keyboard typing
essays was smaller than that of the handwriting ones. Such a pattern is consistent with the
results of previous studies (e.g. Lee, 2004) and implies that essays produced using a
word-processor are more homogeneous in nature.

Table 5. Inter-marker reliability for ratings of handwritten essays.


Marker
A
B
C

1
.810
.776

1
.631

Table 6. Inter-marker reliability for ratings of typed essays.


Marker
A
B
C

1
.731
.723

1
.772

10

Y. Zhu et al.

Table 7. Scores for handwritten and keyboard-typed essays.


Scores of essays

Min.

Max.

Mean

S.D.

Handwritten
Keyboard

32
32

11
10

28
28.5

20.13
22.42

4.37
3.88

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Analysis of questionnaire responses


Students responses about the use of the instruments for writing revealed that about half
of them frequently used both media, and that about one in three usually used a computer
when writing a composition. The number of students who said they used pencil-and-paper
more frequently and those who reported with invalid responses both accounted for only
8% of the sample.
Results for the items regarding the experience of the writing process and quality were
as follows:
(1) 59% of the participants considered writing in the two media to be two quite different experiences, and only 3% thought the experiences were the same no matter
which medium was used to write a composition (see Table 8);
(2) 47% of the participants thought the quality of essays was different when they
were produced using the two different writing media, and those who saw no difference in the quality of essays produced using the two writing media amounted
to 16% of the participants (see Table 8);
(3) In terms of strong preference of writing medium, 66% of the participants preferred a word-processor and 19% preferred pencil-and-paper writing (see
Figure 1).
In terms of the students perception of their efficiency when writing with word-processor software, 59% of the participants thought they were more efficient when writing
using a computer and 3% considered themselves not to be proficient with that medium
(see Figure 2).

Comparison of the essay scores


The null hypothesis of the study had been that the mean score for the word-processed
essays would be no different from that for the pencil-and-paper delivered test. A paired
sample t-test of the scores showed highly significant differences (see Table 9), and the

Table 8. Perceived writing experience and quality of essays completed


in the two media.

Different
Unsure
Same
Missing

Experience

Quality

59%
22%
3%
16%

47%
28%
16%
9%

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Computer Assisted Language Learning 11

Figure 1 . Preference of writing medium.

null hypothesis was rejected. The results in Table 9 indicate that the final mean score of
computer-delivered essays was higher than that for the handwritten essays. The test of
mean difference reached a highly significant level, and the effect size was at a medium
level (t D 3.02, df D 31, p < .005, Cohens d D 0.534).

Figure 2 . Self-efficacy in writing with a word-processor.

12

Y. Zhu et al.

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Table 9. Paired-sample T-test comparison.


Comparison

Mean

S.D.

df

Sig.

Difference between scores by keyboard


essays and handwriting essays

2.29

4.29

3.02

31

.005

Post-hoc analyses for the essay scores


Dividing the participants into lower and higher achieving groups based on their scores on
the handwritten essays, Wilcoxon Signed Ranks tests for each group were applied. The
analyses showed that use of the two media resulted in a statistically significant difference
in terms of essay scores and length for the lower achievement group (see Table 10,
Cohens d D 1.252 for the first test, and Cohens d D .628 for the second one), but the
differences for the high achievement group were not statistically significant.
Table 11 shows that for those who had a high efficacy in or a preference for writing
with a word-processor, or who perceived writing with the two media as being different
processes resulting in different qualities, the difference between the scores of the essays
delivered with the two media reached a statistically significant level.
Cohens d as shown in Table 11 indicates that all the effects are at medium to high levels
with a minimum of .49 and a maximum of .97, indicating that 33% 53% of the participants scores and length of essays produced with the two media were very different. Testing
of the difference in scores for the keyboard-typed and hand-written essays was not found to
be statistically significant for participants who: (1) had a medium level of efficacy in typing
essays; (2) preferred writing with pencil-and-paper; (3) had no preference of writing
medium; (4) were unsure whether or not the processes of writing via the two media were the
same; (5) were unsure whether or not the quality of writing via each of the two media was
the same; (6) felt the qualities of writing via the two media were the same. There were insufficient data to perform robust statistical tests for participants with low efficacy in computerdelivered essays or for those who felt the processes of writing with the two media were
equivalent.
Analysis of the interview data
Interviews were recorded using digital voice recorders for each interviewee and then transcribed later to be ready for analysis. The interview responses, regardless of medium preference, indicated that almost all of the participants thought that the speed of essay writing with
a word-processor was faster, and that its spelling accuracy was higher. Some interviewees
mentioned that pinyin input software allowed them to produce correctly some characters for
which they did not have a clear memory or had even forgotten. For detailed transcriptions,
Table 10. Wilcoxon signed ranks tests for the group with lower scores in handwritten essays.
Null hypothesis
No difference in scores of keyboard-typed
and hand-written essays for this particular group.
No difference in lengths of keyboard-typed
and hand-written essays for this particular group.
Note. aBased on negative ranks.

za

Sig.

3.082

16

.002

2.379

16

.017

Computer Assisted Language Learning 13


Table 11. Paired samples T-tests at significant levels (grouping based on questionnaires
responses).

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Null hypothesis
Scores of handwritten essays were not lower
than those of keyboard-typed ones for those
who have a higher self-efficacy in a wordprocessor.
Lengths of handwritten essays were not
shorter than those of keyboard-typed ones
for those who have a higher self-efficacy in
a word-processor.
Scores of handwritten essays were not lower
than those of keyboard-typed ones for those
who prefer writing with a word-processor.
Lengths of handwritten essays were not
shorter than those of keyboard-typed ones
for those who prefer writing with a wordprocessor.
There is no difference in scores of keyboardtyped and hand-written essays for those
who perceive writing with the two media as
different processes.
There is no difference in scores of keyboardtyped and hand-written essays for those
who believed that writing with the two
media resulted in different qualities.
There is no difference in lengths of keyboardtyped and hand-written essays for those
who believed that writing with the two
media resulted in different qualities.

df

Sig.

Cohens d

1.986

18

.026

.53

2.095

18

.031

.49

2.584

20

.009

.64

2.435

20

.012

.57

4.606

18

.000

.85

3.311

14

.005

.97

3.069

14

.008

.55

please contact the authors. Because of the limited space, only citations reflecting the major
opinions of the interviewees are summarized as follows:
(1) Handwriting a Chinese character depends fully on your memory. You have to
have an accurate memory for the strokes and their formation of each character to
produce it correctly.
(2) While typing Chinese characters, you simply rely on your memory of pinyin, a
Romanization of a character. It does not matter too much if you forget any part of
a character as long as you still know it in pinyin and have a vague memory of the
character.
(3) Once the pinyin is typed, the character and all its homophones will show up on
your screen. Then all you need to do is to make a selection based on your blurred
memory, which is not that hard at all.

Discussion
The interview data support the evidence from the questionnaires and the writing
tests showing that the majority of the studys participants had a preference for using a

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14

Y. Zhu et al.

word-processor as the writing medium for producing Chinese character essays. The interviewees also thought they were more efficient essay writers when word-processing and
that the output appeared to be more professional. Although essay scores produced with
the two media were not found to be significantly different for participants who scored
highly in the handwritten essays, for those who scored more lowly the quality and length
of essays they produced improved very significantly when keyboard typing was used to
write the Chinese essay. In general, the CFL students produced far better essays when
using a word-processor than when handwriting their work. In general, the findings of this
study verified all the benefits that a natural computer-based writing approach under
favourable conditions may bring, which are as follows: writing easier, more, differently,
and better (Pennington, 1996a) when writing in Chinese using word-processor by foreign
learners of Chinese language at a beginning level.
The results seem to an extent to be at odds with some of the research findings in previous studies (Breland et al., 2005; Powers et al., 1994; Roblyer, 1997; Sweedler-Brown,
1991; Wolf & Manalo, 2004). However, the reader needs to bear in mind that the evidence reported in the present study refers to the writing of Chinese, not English. While in
alphabetic languages the writer types in letters that match the letters appearing on the
screen, when word processing in Chinese, the system in popular use today involves inputting alphabetic pinyin into the computer. Pinyin input software then transform such alphabetic input into Chinese characters in a speedy and legible manner. Using a wordprocessor to write text in Chinese produces characters on the screen that are perfect in
form and spelling. This is a very welcome bonus, especially for learners at lower proficiency levels.
The questionnaire and interview responses revealed that almost all of the CFL learners were quite familiar with writing using word-processors. Many of them like using a
computer to write their work and fewer prefer to handwrite their work. Many considered
the processes of handwriting and typing an essay to be very different, and they felt that
computer-produced written work was more professional in appearance. The tests used in
the present study revealed that students who preferred keyboard typing or who thought
they were more proficient in using computers gained significantly higher scores when typing than when handwriting essays. Hass (1989) reported that using a word-processor as
the writing medium involves less planning in general, less planning prior to the start of
writing, less conceptual or high-level planning but more local or sequential planning.
However, the writers would warn against blindly transferring first language evidence to
second language situations. Nor should it be assumed that findings from research over
20 years ago are still valid today, especially with the rapid prevalence of word-processing
technology in past decades.
The reasons for the CFL learners preference for using word-processors as the writing
medium are easy to understand. The work is produced more quickly and professionally
and it is very convenient for the writer, who only needs to type pinyin and then make a
selection from a list of homophones, all perfectly written. Compared to Chinese characters, pinyin, or what is called a romanization of characters, is much easier to grasp for
learners with an alphabetic language background. Furthermore, to select the correct character from a list of homophones involves character recognition instead of character production, which is also relatively a simpler task. This has been proved by Ke (1996). In his
study examining the relationship between character recognition and production by beginning American college learners of Chinese, Ke found that their performance in character
production was significantly worse than their performance in character recognition. He

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Computer Assisted Language Learning 15


interpreted this finding as caused by the fact that partial information of a Chinese character can lead to a correct recognition, but only a complete knowledge of a Chinese character can result in an accurate production of the character. Moreover, he also found that
correct recognition of a character was also not affected by its number of strokes when
reaction time was not a factor under consideration.
This is important for overseas learners of Chinese who have difficulty in memorizing
characters and in hand writing them legibly. The interview transcripts showed that participants who preferred handwriting a composition generally acknowledged the convenience
brought and time saved by word-processor software. Some even admitted that their compositions completed with a computer would more likely attract higher scores than those
that had been handwritten. Nevertheless, some students said that handwriting offered
them a feeling of freedom and satisfactions and they thought that handwritten Chinese characters are more beautiful and aesthetic. Typing on a computer concealed the
latter but several students pointed out that it all depends on the purpose of the writing.
For artistic productions handwritten characters are preferable, but for everyday communications computer-produced text is convenient, standardized and preferable.
It is interesting to consider the experience of many literate Chinese persons that the
frequent handwriting of Chinese characters helps reinforce ones memory of characters;
whereas pinyin typed characters may soon be forgotten. Some students referred to the personal touch when communications are handwritten and how well-written communications
in Chinese give a good impression, an impression that is hard to achieve when emails
are the source of communication. But, the focus of any writing task is what has been written, not the issue of memorization or the personal touch per se. Correct and legible characters are important features of scoring rubrics but sophisticated markers pay much more
attention to the ideas and logical development in written responses. Nevertheless, many
regular markers will admit that they welcome and have an instinctive sympathy for writers who write legibly and tastefully. This is very true in Chinese circles and CFL written
work, especially when the learners are not from a Sino sphere and they struggle to produce legible characters. Using a word-processor could most likely reduce the time taken
for the student to produce work and allow them to spend more time on meaningful ideas
development, text content and organization. Having presented messily produced and hard
to recognize characters, a large number of CFL learners lose marks in examinations, and
it might be argued that more major course examinations in the future should be computer-written, not handwritten.
Conclusions and future study
In summary, based on findings of the present study, the authors recommend a wordprocessor with various pinyin input methods as the medium for essay writing in Chinese,
especially for beginners, who felt handwriting characters to be an impediment to expressing their ideas; but at the same time, handwriting should be kept as an irreplaceable means
of practice for learning Chinese characters. Though it has not yet been definitively
proven, it is well believed by CFL teachers and learners that handwriting Chinese characters, especially in a proper manner in terms of correctly produced strokes and stroke
order, will enhance memory of the orthography/shape of Chinese characters and facilitate
reading in Chinese.
Future studies should try to establish clearly that the tasks in any work production are
closer in terms of overall demand and difficulty; and a larger sample would enable more

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16

Y. Zhu et al.

incisive statistical analyses. The possible effects of the two different media on CFL
learners writing behaviours and peer feedbacks also deserve further investigation.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that the pinyin input method is only one of the Chinese
character input methods tied to a word-processor. Since over 70% of internet users in
mainland China were below 30 years old (CNNIC, 2006), and had been taught explicitly
the pinyin system at primary school, it was natural to find the vast majority of them preferred to use pinyin input methods (Lou, 2007). However, the authors would like to add
that having learned pinyin in early age is only one reason most native Chinese nowadays
choose to use phonetic input methods. The other reason has to be due to the fact that no
stroke input method developed in mainland China so far can compete with pinyin input
methods in terms of their efficiency and/or accessibility.
Although pinyin input method with a word-processor has been found to be a helpful
practice in strengthening American beginning CFL learners mastery of pinyin and
enhanced their competence in recognizing characters (Zhang, 2007), it can be reasonably
assumed that stroke input methods might also help CFL learners in their own ways. Especially when stroke input methods become more popular in use in the future, it would be
very interesting to compare the two different kinds of software with a more rigorous
research design so as to test the findings reported by Wong et al. (2011). Also, future communication technology is likely to result in pervasive use of writing in Chinese based on
voice generation, a possibility that merits thorough examination.

Acknowledgements
The authors are very grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on an earlier
version of this paper. The remaining errors are solely our responsibility. We also thank Professor
Wei Hong from Purdue University for her constructive advice and suggestions on the final version
of this paper.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors
Dr. Yu Zhu received his PhD in foreign language education from Purdue University. He is
now an associate professor at the Overseas Education College of Xiamen University in China.
He also serves as the executive editor of the Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies (ISSN
2224-2716), an international academic journal indexed by ProQuest. His research interests
include computer assisted teaching and learning of Chinese as a second language and assessment of Chinese proficiency for foreign and native language learners.
Dr Shiu-Kee Shum received his PhD from The University of Melbourne. He is now an associate professor of Chinese language education at The University of Hong Kong. He has over 80 publications,
including books, book chapters, and research papers. He serves as the head of the division of Chinese
language and literature of the faculty of education, as well as the deputy director of the Centre for
the Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research of The University of Hong Kong.
His areas of expertise are: Chinese language education; Systemic Functional Linguistics and its application to teaching, text analysis, teaching of Chinese writing, and assessment of composition.
Professor Tse Shek Kam is the director of the Centre for the Advancement of Chinese Language
Education and Research of The University of Hong Kong. He has been providing consultancy service to a number of organizations, including Chinese Education Centre of the Netherlands Government, Ministry of Education, Singapore, Education Bureau of the Hong Kong Government and the
Education and Youth Affairs Bureau of Macao Government. He is a national research coordinator

Computer Assisted Language Learning 17


of the Hong Kong element of progress in international reading literacy study (PIRLS). His research
interests include the teaching and learning of reading and spoken literacy, the learning and teaching
of Chinese as first and second language, early childhood Chinese language education, bi-lingual
reading, computer assisted language learning and ways of assessing and monitoring language learning. He has published more than 30 books, 90 book chapters, and 90 research articles.

Downloaded by [Kyungpook National University] at 15:27 16 March 2015

Dr Jinghui Liu earned his PhD in foreign language education from Purdue University. He teaches
courses on mandarin language, international business, and cultural studies. He also directs the summer
language intensive program (SLIP), a California state university consortium program (Summer 2012
Present). Dr Liu received the Wang faculty fellow award ($10,000) for conducting business language
research at Shanghai JiaoTong University from 2010 2011. He received numerous awards from
CSUF including outstanding faculty award in scholarly creativity, and outstanding faculty award in
collaborative teaching and outstanding service-learning instructor award. He also served as a reviewer
for international conferences and academic publishers such as Yale University Press.

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excellent cohesion;

strong logic,
excellent
coherence;

Cohesion

Logics &
coherence

rich expressions;

Diversity

Discourse
coherence

perfectly accurate;

Accuracy

Language &
expression

Perfect fit;
complete
organization,
rich content;

Fitness
Richness

4-point

Theme & content

5-point

logical, fairly good


coherence;

fairly good
cohesion;

fairly rich
expressions;

Fit;
complete
organization,
fairly rich
content;
occasional some
word level
misuse;

3-point

Appendix 1. Scoring criteria (translated from the original Chinese version)

occasional
unclearly
developed ideas;

occasional intersentence
mistakes in
cohesion;

more word level


misuse, and
occasional
grammar
mistakes;
occasional
repetitive
expressions;

Fairly fit;
fairly complete
organization,
unrich content;

2-point

1-point

more frequent
unclearly
developed
paragraphs;

more fragmented
sentences;

many repetitive
expressions;

Roughly fit;
incomplete
organization,
insufficient
content;
more grammar
mistakes, and
some sentence
level mistakes;

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poor vocabulary,
many repetitive
sentence
structures;
more frequent
mistakes in
cohesion,
isolated
paragraphs;
illogical, confusing,
and poorly
developed texts;

frequent word and


sentence level
mistakes;

Unfit;
fragmented
organization,
poor content;

20
Y. Zhu et al.

Computer Assisted Language Learning 21


Appendix 2. The questionnaire (translated from the original Chinese version)

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Note: Thank you very much for taking the two writing tests. Now please fill in the following short
questionnaire about your writing habits. It will take you approximately five minutes. Your information will be used for research purposes only. If it is published, it will be anonymous. We greatly
appreciate your cooperation. Should there be any question about the questionnaire, please feel free
to ask. Our contact information is as follows.
Cell: xxxxxx Email: xxxxxx
Part 1. Writing behaviour
Name (optional):______ Gender:______ Age:______ Nationality:______
Ive been learning Chinese for______ years and ______ months.
My total days of stay in China so far are ______ years and ______ months.
My first language is ______.
My favourite Chinese input method is ______.
In the latest month the mean time I spend on typing per day is_____ hour(s)_____ minute(s).
In the latest month the mean time I spend on typing Chinese per day is _____ hour(s)_____
minute(s).
In the latest month the mean time I spend on writing with pencil-and-paper per day is _____
hour(s)_____ minute(s).
In the latest month the mean time I spend on writing Chinese with pencil-and-paper per day
is _____ hour(s)_____ minute(s).
Part 2. Choose your attitude towards each item (5-point Likert Scale with strongly disagree
scored as 1 and strongly agree as 5).
Note: all the ten items in part 2 of the questionnaire as well as corresponding descriptive
statistics were included in the follow table
.
No.

Questionnaire items of part 2 of the


questionnaire

2.01 Compared to writing with pencil-and-paper,


I prefer writing using a word-processor.
2.02 Compared to essays done with pencil-andpaper, I usually do better with a wordprocessor.
2.03 Compared to writing with pencil-and-paper,
I usually feel more comfortable when
writing with a word-processor.
2.04 Compared to writing with pencil-and-paper,
its easier for me to write with a wordprocessor.
2.05 I get more used to writing with a wordprocessor.
2.06 Most of the time I use a word-processor to
deal with a writing task.
2.07 I frequently use pencil-and-paper as well as
a word-processor as medium of writing.
2.08 The experience of writing with pencil-andpaper is different from that of writing
with a word-processor.
2.09 Im better at writing with a word-processor.
2.10 The quality of an essay handwritten by me is
no different from that of an essay written
by me with a word-processor.

Min. Max. Median Mean Std. err.

30

3.73

.203

28

3.79

.173

29

3.90

.174

30

3.93

.185

29

3.45

.225

28

3.21

.208

30

3.67

.205

27

3.85

.148

28
29

2
1

5
5

4
2

3.57
2.62

.166
.195

22

Y. Zhu et al.

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Appendix 3. Ratings for the handwritten and keyboard typed essays

Rater
Student

Ratings for handwritten essays

Ratings for keyboard typed essays

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32

9
12
15
15
16
15
15
19
19
11
18
19
19
20
19
15
19
19
20
20
20
23
16
23
21
28
22
27
27
27
29
29

13
12
11.5
18
24
23
17
24
18
20
25
18
19
19
16.5
19
20
21
24
22
21
22
22
23
24
25
25
25
25
27
25
24

19
11
23
13
16
18
19
17
17
16
19
21
20
19
20
20
20
27
20
21
21
20
23
20
23
24
24
20
22
29
27
27

10
15
11
20
24
20
17
21
20
22
29
15
8
20
22
18
25
18
19
19
19
17
15
27
21
19
16
11
27
26
29
28

12
17.5
20.5
23
24
24
22
21
24
22
26
26.5
15
20
30
23
24
24
21
24
23
24
20
24
23
20
20
20
26
23
24
23

10
20
22
24
21
22
23
23
22
24
28
26
15
22
21
23
23
27
24
22
24
28
23
28
22
26
25
21
23
28
26
28