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Teaching writing at primary school

In a webinar with The Education Hub, Dr Helen Walls explores the research on how to effectively teach writing at primary school. Helen, a classroom practitioner and researcher, presents the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of writing instruction, including the re-evaluation of some widely-accepted practices. Helen interweaves research evidence with highly practical approaches and strategies that teachers can apply in their classrooms. Helen has also written two research reviews for The Education Hub, one on writing in the early years, and another on writing in Years 3-8.

Some context for the poor state of writing achievement in New Zealand

Writing instruction in New Zealand is based on a constructivist ideology that is not grounded in empirical research. Constructivism downplays the importance of technical skills, particularly handwriting and spelling, and emphasises meaning above all other aspects of writing. The data on writing that is collected in New Zealand is limited and does not provide specific information on the aspects of writing where students are weakest or most challenged, but, in her work in schools, Helen sees many students in middle and upper primary who struggle with technical skills such as handwriting, spelling, and sentence construction. A lack of knowledge and skill in these technical areas leads to students’ working memory being overloaded. This prevents them from attending to the higher order aspects of writing and limits their ability to progress, which then has a negative knock-on effect on motivation.

As a constructivist approach places utmost importance on meaning, teachers and students are encouraged to focus on meaning over technical skills, even in the junior years. This means that students are being asked to write original compositions before they have mastered fundamental skills such as sound-letter correspondences or letter formation. Handwriting skill is the biggest predictor at Year 1 of the speed and quality a student’s writing in later years of schooling, and its importance cannot be overstated. Constructivist approaches also downplay the importance of holding high standards in relation to technical accuracy. While technical accuracy should not dominate writing instruction, we do students a disservice when we lower our expectations in regard to their ability to write with high levels of accuracy.

What the research tells us about how we learn to write

The Simple View of Writing (sometimes called the Not-so-simple View of Writing) is a very useful model for teachers which is based on the vast body of empirical research into the teaching and learning of writing. It identifies three key skill sets that students need to develop in order to reach their potential as writers:

  1. Transcription skills: these are handwriting, spelling and, later on, typing, all of which need to be developed to automaticity to allow the student to focus on other aspects of writing
  2. Executive function or self-regulation skills: these allow a student to be self-aware and purposeful writers by managing all the complexities of the writing process, including both the technical components and the content of the writing
  3. Translation or text generation: this is the ability to turn non-verbal thoughts into meaningful words and grammatical sentences, and includes vocabulary knowledge and sentence construction

Central to the pyramid is working memory, and it is extremely important for teachers to know about and understand the constraints of working memory. For example, a student who is focused on the technical processes of letter formation will not have sufficient working memory capacity to also attend to the ideas they want to express. It is important to remember that writing is a highly complex act, and unlike reading, only parts of the writing process ever become fully automatised.

The essential components of teaching a student to write

When it comes to applying the Simple View of Writing model to the teaching of writing, it is important to dedicate time on a daily basis to teaching the technical components of writing. Handwriting and spelling should be practised little and often, because repetition serves to secure the knowledge in long-term memory. Handwriting also helps to consolidate spelling knowledge (and is superior to typing in this respect). Explicit instruction of handwriting and spelling is essential in the early years of primary school, but may also be relevant and necessary for many students in upper primary school and even into secondary. In particular, Helen recommends that spelling is taught daily until Year 8. In addition to the benefits for developing writing skills, explicit instruction and practice in handwriting and spelling have been shown to support students’ decoding skills as they learn to read.

As part of a writing programme, self-regulation skills and translation skills such as vocabulary and sentence construction also need to be explicitly taught. Explicit instruction in these areas helps students to develop the internal voice that will help them to compose, edit, and evaluate their writing. One way to do this is to ensure that students are aware of their writing goals and to provide feedback that supports them to monitor their progress towards those goals. Feedback is also essential to effective approaches to writing instruction. Feedback should be specific to the student’s objectives, and drive motivation by showing progress. Self- and peer assessment are also valuable forms of feedback which help the student to view and approach writing as a process in which they are fully in control. Finally, regular practice is essential to developing students’ writing skills.

Teaching spelling effectively across the year levels

It is important to start with sounds. It is logical to group words by sounds when learning graphemes, so that the sounds in a word become a trigger for recalling the grapheme from memory. It is also important to teach students that there is diversity in the alphabetic code, or the ways that we record sounds, rather than suggesting that a particular letter makes a particular sound. For example, if you are teaching the long ‘i’ sound, you would start by making a list of all the different ways to spell the sound, and then move on to spelling lists that group words together by common spellings (words using ‘igh’, words using ‘ie’, and so on). Finally, it is important to talk about meaning, which might include morphology and etymology as the students progress.

What the research says about teaching grammar as part of writing instruction

There is quite a bit of evidence that too much explicit instruction of grammar can be demotivating for students and ultimately have a negative effect on students’ writing. The one area of grammar instruction for which there are positive outcomes is Bruce Saddler’s sentence combining approach.

Teaching writing across the curriculum

Helen recommends that dedicated writing programmes bring in content knowledge from across a range of curriculum areas: a writing lesson could begin with a short session that builds content knowledge in a particular curriculum area that then provides a foundation for the writing that follows. It is also important that students write about what they are learning in other curriculum areas, which helps to promote students’ recall but also supports their thinking about the new knowledge. Research recognises the importance of writing for thinking and comprehension, and for developing both reasoning and creativity, so it is a valuable tool to be used in all curriculum areas.

Suggested further reading

This link provides a list of several of the resources that were recommended by Helen and viewers of her webinar.

This article by Karin James and Virginia Berninger provides a good introduction to the research on the importance of handwriting.

This link to a folder of research on handwriting was generously shared by a viewer.

Hochman, J., & Wexler, N. (2017). The Writing Revolution. Jossey-Bass.

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