A considerable chunk of lessons in the primary and secondary years involve some form of writing. It's a key component of literacy development and a crucial skill for life beyond the classroom. Developing students' writing skills is therefore a focus for many schools.
Academics from two Australian universities have explored the importance of three language conventions – spelling, grammar and punctuation – in relation to primary students' achievement in writing composition.
Tessa Daffern, from the University of Canberra, and Charles Sturt University's Noella Mackenzie and Brian Hemmings, discuss the findings of their study in the Australian Journal of Education.
The journal paper (Predictors of writing success: How important are spelling, grammar and punctuation?) points out that, compared to the teaching and learning of reading, there's been little research related to the teaching and learning of writing.
Their research focused on first-draft compositional writing in the primary school years. ‘Single draft, single authored compositions created at school desks with pen and paper, under restricted time and in response to imposed topics and text types are quite different from writing for authentic purposes,' the authors write, but add that's exactly what happens in a lot of classrooms and how it is tested in Australia's NAPLAN Writing Test at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. ‘While there are considerable limitations to first draft compositions created in this way, important insights regarding children's writing skills can be gleaned from such data.'
Daffern and colleagues say spelling, grammar and use of punctuation are visible indicators of written text quality. They analysed written compositions from 819 primary school students, using 2013 data from the NAPLAN Writing Test and Language Conventions Test.
‘Across the four cohorts [Years 3, 4, 5 and 6], spelling, grammar and punctuation were found to jointly influence written composition,' the academics report. ‘Overall, results from the analyses indicate that between approximately 24 per cent and 43 per cent of the variance in written composition was explained by the three language convention measures and that spelling was the main predictor of written composition for each cohort. … Across the four cohorts, spelling was a significant contributor of written composition for both males and females, with the exception of the Year 6 males.'
Breaking down the results by year level cohort, they found that about 35 per cent of the variance in written composition was accounted for by spelling, grammar and punctuation in Year 3. The figure was 42 per cent in Year 4, 39 per cent in Year 5, and 27 per cent in Year 6.
Implications for educators
In the NAPLAN test, students need to identify and edit spelling errors and identify and label grammatical and punctuation conventions. The researchers say although these tasks are limited, the study results are revealing. ‘Students who were able to accurately identify and edit spelling errors were also more likely to craft a quality persuasive written text, as measured using the NAPLAN Writing Test criteria.'
They add that while punctuation is important, for some students spelling may be a more important skill to learn. ‘The results of this study highlight that spelling instruction continues to be important throughout the years of primary schooling.'
However, they caution that teachers need to find a balance between instruction in spelling, grammar and punctuation and other aspects of writing composition – such as text structure, vocabulary and handwriting.
Daffern and colleagues say the relationships reported in their study don't provide causal evidence. The participants were all from ACT Catholic schools and they recommend further research is carried out using student data from other jurisdictions and across sectors. Extending the age range to Year 7 and Year 9 would also offer insights into the influence of spelling, grammar and punctuation in high school.
In their study, up to 43 per cent of the variance in written composition was explained by the three language conventions – leaving a large percentage unexplained. They suggest other contributing factors may include ‘vocabulary knowledge, handwriting fluency, prior general knowledge and memory functioning, along with possible behavioural factors such as motivation and self-efficacy with writing,' and say further research is needed.
Daffern, T., Mackenzie, N. M., & Hemmings, B. (2017). Predictors of writing success: How important are spelling, grammar and punctuation? Australian Journal of Education, 0004944116685319
The researchers say that teachers need to find a balance between instruction in spelling, grammar and punctuation and other aspects of writing composition. How do you find that balance in your own classroom?
When teaching writing skills, how much emphasis do you place on spelling, grammar and punctuation?