Learning the Lifespan

Apryl Poch, Ph.D. - Research Associate, University of Missouri

For me, the concept of a lifespan serves as a measurement tool – in terms of keeping time (a circuitous timeline of sorts) – and serves as a foundation to much of the writing research that we complete.  However, I’m not sure I’ve always thought of my interest in writing (focused on high school aged students with learning disabilities) as being grounded in the concept of lifespan development, nor, for that matter, that I knew much about this work.  There are often, unfortunately, very large theoretical differences across fields, which often precludes what can become such fruitful and necessary collaborations.  But as I have studied writing, I am always struck by the lack of writing research on secondary aged students – there always seems to be this gap from developmental writing (elementary level) to adult writing that is not always clearly explained.  Embedded within here too is the notion that development to some extent is only associated with younger writers.  However, adolescents are part of the larger lifespan and the more I read about writing across the lifespan, I see great hope for building a more nuanced picture.  Indeed, it is the complexity of the lifespan that brings noise and color to our work; it’s that piece that we seek to control and explain, yet simultaneously need.  My research is embedded within the school context, particularly at the high school level, and has taken two different but interconnected lines.  First, is the work I am interested in in better understanding the structural relations of the components of adolescent writing as viewed through the Simple View of Writing (e.g., can we structurally model the Simple View of Writing in high school, is there a better fitting model, is there model invariance between students with and without disabilities, which variables might act as mediators).  Second, is a line of work focused on understanding pre-service and in-service special educators’ theoretical orientations concerning their own sense of writing and teaching writing to students with disabilities (e.g., self-efficacy, beliefs about writing).  While the former is informed by the lifespan’s complexity and influenced by what students may have experienced when they were younger, the latter requires that the teacher not only consider his/her own writing lifespan, but what we know about lifespan trajectories of adolescents and then of adolescents with and without disabilities. 

Though I see the eight principles of the lifespan description informing my research as a type of theoretical frame, a few principles seem to apply more directly and I outline them below.

  • Principle 2: Writing development is complex because writing is complex – the “‘moving parts’” of writing are exactly what I am interested in when it comes to modeling; it’s using theory to help explain how these parts interact and what they can help us understand about adolescent writing
  • Principle 3: Writing development is variable; there is no single path and no single endpoint – this variability in writing might also be the result of a disability which can compromise an individual’s ability to produce written text
  • Principle 5: The development of writing depends on the development, redirection, and specialized reconfiguring of general functions, processes, and tools – of particular interest to my work is the complexity of the cognitive processes that are a part of writing, and the role of oral language as a measure of text generation has been a core feature of the Simple View of Writing; in terms of motivational dispositions, I feel that this is an element missing within the Simple View, but in terms of teachers’ theoretical orientations, motivational dispositions must be considered not only from the student end but also the teacher end, as teachers require an array of pedagogical and content practices and skills to teach writing effectively

Overall, I believe these eight principles form a solid foundation to our understanding of writing and the ways in which writing develops across the lifespan.  At this time, I do not have any additional principles to add to these eight.  Instead, what fascinates me when I think of lifespan development is the noise and color, the complexity of what’s involved in this continuously evolving act, this “struggle” that we call writing.  The idea of writing as struggle is apropos on so many levels.  As Bazerman and colleagues write, “Because of the complexity of writing and its long learning over many experiences, within the same classroom, students may show varying strengths and weaknesses in different aspects of writing, [. . . and] they may have very different trajectories of development across their life spans.”  This statement captures the seemingly simplistic complexity of the lifespan struggle.  To some extent it may be that we set ourselves up for the impossible because there is no single path and no single endpoint in writing development which extends to work with students with disabilities as disabilities do not impact the writing potential of individuals in any one way.  Yet, the implication that there may be trajectories of development suggests the potential of modeling and might even allow us to think about sub-types of writers.  Writing is indeed complex, and it is just that complexity and unraveling the depths that remain that captivates why I write and why I research writing.