EXP: To Enact, To Tell, To Write: A Bridge to Expressive Writing through Digital Enactment

9/01/2017-8/31/2020

PI: Sharon Lynn Chu, Francis Quek, Beverly Irby
Texas A&M University Main Campus
Award Details

This cyberlearning project explores a novel approach, called Digitally-Augmented Enactment (DAE), to support learning expressive writing by children at the critical grade 4-5 developmental period, with a focus on English Language Learners (ELLs). Expressive writing is core to the learning of all school subjects. An alarmingly high percentage of students enter middle school with low proficiency in writing, which hinders further learning in high school and college. Children from these underserved populations are particularly at risk of withdrawing from writing during the grade 4-5 stage in school when it matters most. The key reason for children’s difficulties is that writing requires not only mastery of writing mechanics (e.g., grammar, sentence structure), but also the possession of ideas to convey, and a mastery of the process of translating ideas into expression. Accordingly, the DAE approach bifurcates the writing process by harnessing the power of pretend play to bring forth children’s imagination, enabling them to focus on ideas, without at the same time having to be concerned with the technical details of writing. DAE combines low-cost motion-tracking technologies, such as Kinects, with animation technologies. This technological environment allows children to enact with props and produces animated cartoons as the ‘outline’ for their essays which serves as a scaffold for their writing. The new technological approach to expressive writing is explored in a charter school and a public elementary school, both of which serve a high percentage of ELLs, and the majority of the students are on reduced lunch programs. The project will help children from diverse backgrounds to become literate individuals in a modern society. The project also provides unique cross-disciplinary educational and learning opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to serve predominantly underserved communities.

With the intensification of self-evaluation and the gradual engagement in symbolic thinking during this critical developmental period, children are at risk of developing negative perceptions of writing if no support is provided. The DAE approach intends to help children to move from ideas to written expression through a process of enacted imagination. The idea is for children to materialize their imagination through embodied enactment, and to transform this into an animated cartoon. The child is able to view and interact with this congealed imagination to engage their technical writing skills. This gives children license to engage their capacity for vivid pretend play to give ideas form and fuel the writing process. Hence, DAE facilitates a “minds-on” bridge between ideas and the formal writing activity through enactment and feedback. The DAE approach is embodied in a representative system that combines motion-tracking, sketch-recognition and animation technologies. The system will scaffold children’s externalization, organization and conversion of ideas into writing-ready imagination. An iterative development, test, and evaluation strategy through lab studies will be used to ensure usability in Years 1 and 2, and classroom studies will be conducted in Year 3 to test for effectiveness and potential of the new technological genre. One grade 4 or 5 class from each of two schools (a charter school and a public elementary school) will engage in two writing assignments using the DAE approach, and two comparable assignments with conventional methods (e.g., graphic organizers). Both schools serve a high percentage of ELLs, who will participate in the studies. Video-based psycholinguistics and gesture analysis, interviews, questionnaires, and writing assessments will be used to understand how DAE may bridge the children’s ideas to formal writing. This project will expand core understanding of how embodied processes participate in structuring and articulating ideas and imagination for writing.

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