The Research Files Episode 92: Helping students become hybrid writers

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Hello and thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher – I’m Jo Earp. We’re increasingly using digital devices for our written communications, but researchers from Edith Cowan University here in Australia have recently highlighted the ongoing importance of explicitly teaching both handwriting and keyboarding skills to students, starting in the primary years. Lead researcher Dr Anabela Malpique joins me for today’s episode of The Research Files. She’s a Senior Lecturer in Literacy at the School of Education at ECU, and we’ll be chatting about the findings of a meta-analysis comparing the effects of writing by hand or keyboarding on primary students’ writing performance, and a follow-up study with grade 2 students in Western Australia. She’ll also be sharing some tips for how teachers in the classroom, and in collaboration with families, can help students become hybrid writers. I hope you enjoy the episode.

Jo Earp: Hi Anabela, thanks very much for joining us at Teacher today. Now, you've recently completed a meta-analysis in this area, so I thought before we dig into the findings then, can you just give listeners a bit of an overview about the aims of the research and exactly what you did?

Anabela Malpique: Beautiful, thank you for having me, Jo. So, I am leading a large group of researchers from Australian universities and overseas. We are the ‘Writing for all’ team and for nearly 10 years now we’ve been focused on looking at student and contextual level factors pretty much explaining writing development in primary education.

So, this meta-analysis is part of one project that we've developed under that scope, placing a close attention to comparing children's writing in a digital age. So, looking at how children write using paper and pencil versus using keyboarding devices. So, for that we did this meta-analysis of studies that you were referring to, looking at published studies between 2000 and 2022, comparing writing modalities per se, and how those were affecting students’ writing performance in the primary grades. And then, after that, we conducted a large-scale study here in WA [Western Australia] to learn more about it in a specific Australian context looking at 17 schools, 47 primary teachers and more than 500 kids (year 2s).

So, in that study we [pretty] much aligned with that meta-analysis. We looked at children's performance in writing texts using paper and pencil, and writing texts using computer laptops. And we also looked at many, many other things that I'm happy to share with you related to kids attitudes towards writing, their automaticity, the level of which they were actually able to write the letters of the alphabet and type the letters of the alphabet on the computer, how they were in terms of that. Also, the spelling skills, their reading skills; so happy to dig into those findings later if you want to.

JE: That sounds great. So, yeah, so the meta-analysis then that's interesting, that then informed the research later on. I'm interested, is this a popular area of research? I'm wondering if it’s become sort of less common over the years as we've had more digital technology in schools.

AM: Look, unfortunately, research in this field is scarce, especially in the primary years of school. Recently, in the last few years, actually, researchers from across the globe have started to highlight the importance of learning more about this – because, as you were saying, we are in the digital age, and we need to learn more about this to inform teaching and practices in the digital age as well. Because the big question is ‘when should we introduce handwriting?’ right, ‘when should we introduce keyboarding?’ – there are so, so many questions without an answer at this stage because, again, there is no (yet), no longitudinal study to actually inform and provide information on comparisons and implications for teaching and learning, you know, and for writing development.

JE: Yeah, again, it's interesting, isn't it, how certain areas of research get a lot of attention and others there's not a lot out there, like you say. The other thing I was interested in was, your analysis, you mentioned, looked specifically at primary students, and you've done that follow-up with grade 2, I think you said. Is that where most of the research (what is happening) is actually happening in primary? Or is it just that it's more important for us to figure out what's happening at an earlier age so we can kind of take any actions earlier on, and have more of an impact?

AM: That's right. So, the second one, yeah, that's correct. So, the more we learn about in the first years of schooling, obviously, how kids actually manage the development of both handwriting and keyboarding – in tandem or not – there is where we can actually see and learn more about the earlier we can identify any issues. And also, the earlier we know about teaching practices that are effective for the development of those skills, the more we are able to actually understand when to teach and what to teach and the implications for kids’ writing development across modalities.

JE: Yeah. So, I do want to dig into the findings. As you say, you’ve got a lot to share.
I'm sort of going to ask you a terrible question, which is, can you kind of cut it down a bit into what, what do you consider to be the biggest takeaways, then?

AM: So first looking at the meta-analysis – from the 20 studies we located involving more than 6,000 kids – these were from pre-primary to year 6 – we found that a big takeaway was that kids wrote higher quality text using paper and pencil, okay. We also found that the little ones from pre-primary ‘til year 3, they wrote longer texts, when compared to kids from year 4 to year 6.

Importantly, a big takeaway from the meta-analysis was that we were only able to locate 20 published studies on this, in 22 years. It's not a lot, is it? So, in terms of wanting to learn more about this, we make that case, obviously in the meta-analysis; we need to learn more about that, and that is one of the reasons we did the large-scale study that I can share with you more findings about. Regarding with the large-scale study with those 544 year 2 kids here in WA – a very, very similar story. Again, kids were writing, and composing longer and higher quality stories using paper and pencil compared to typed texts.

Now, we also found something, some main takeaways from our study – and obviously as I told you we assessed many different things around children's handwriting and writing per se, and reading – but we found that children's handwriting and keyboarding automaticity, their attitude to writing, their spelling, their reading skills, these things were all linked, related to children's writing performance across modalities. The big message is that these variables, these capacities, these skills are linked in the primary years of schooling [and] that we need to learn more about these links – how they are affecting each other, and so on.

Something that we also noticed – girls outperforming boys in all measures, and across modalities; and these were year 2 kids. So, girls wrote higher quality texts, longer texts, they showed higher scores in terms of automaticity – in writing letters on a computer and using paper and pencil – their attitudes were higher, their reading skills were higher. So, we need to learn more about this to understand how to actually respond to this as well in terms of teaching.

Now the big, big message that we saw is that it has to do with the importance of automaticity of transcription skills. These are little ones, so we saw that the handwriting automaticity and keyboarding automaticity, and also spelling, but especially automaticity of keyboarding and of handwriting they played the strongest contribution to explaining kids’ performance across modalities. What does that mean? So, this is very well aligned with national and international research, and with previous research that we did with kindergarten kids and year 1s here in WA. So, we need to focus on trying really to help students (and children) into reaching a level of automaticity that allows them to actually focus on what they want to say. If kids are stuck and they cannot really write a letter, trace a letter, write a word, or if they are stuck into trying to find the keys on the computer, they cannot focus on what they want to say. So, we need to reinforce the teaching of these skills in the early years, so that they can move on into composing text on a computer and in paper and pencil.

[For] the measure of automaticity, we use the ABC task, which is a highly used measure for research, and even for teachers, to use it to assess children's automaticity of handwriting or typing. We give kids a paper and pencil and we ask them to write the letters of the alphabet as quickly and as correctly as possible to assess not only the speed, but also the legibility of the letters. And then after 15 seconds we see how many letters they wrote, or in the case of a computer, how many letters they typed. And that is a measure of automaticity, per se. So, it was the same used for handwriting and typing.

I can share with you that, for example, kids typed faster in terms of the letters of the alphabet. It makes sense though, because writing a letter by hand takes much more effort and time than typing. So, although they write, they potentially write faster using a keyboard, it goes to an extent to which they are still not automatised enough to actually focus on what they want to say, on writing a story on a computer. And in terms of writing – for the extended writing piece, we ask kids to write stories and we give them 10 minutes for both handwritten texts and typed text.

JE: What does all this mean for teachers and schools, then? What are the implications actually for practice?

AM: So, obviously the big message here that we want to pass on to teachers and schools is that we need to explicitly teach handwriting and keyboarding in schools, in our schools. And this needs to be done in the first years of schooling so that kids can actually develop their handwriting skills, their keyboarding skills, to a point where they reach a level of automaticity, to focus on what they want to say. That is the big, big message in the digital world, we need to take that on board and to reinforce the importance of doing that explicit teaching.

After the break, Dr Anabela Malpique will be sharing some tips for how teachers in the classroom, and in collaboration with families, can help students develop these skills. First, a quick message from our sponsor.

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JE: Now, you have given some tips for teachers on what they can do, obviously in collaboration with families as well, because it's always really important to take that into consideration – we’re not just talking about skills learned inside the classroom now. And those tips are really useful, so I thought it would be good to finish by running through those. First off, then: wow, this is a big one because this is the real problem – dedicate time for practise.

AM: Yep, Look, I'll start just highlighting again – writing is a very, very complex skill. It needs to be explicitly taught and it needs to be practised. So, without teaching and practise it doesn't work really. And there is research actually comparing now (recent research) comparing if you do it explicitly or if you don't do it and it pretty much says, no, you need to explicitly teach writing, otherwise kids will not really develop their fluent written work etcetera. So, ideally this teaching and practise [should] happen at school and at home as well – with collaboration from families, teachers can potentially maximise opportunities for practise. That is a highlight that we wanted to obviously make on that, for both handwriting and written work and for typing.

We also did a national survey here in Australia, looking at and asking teachers on the time that they allocated to teach writing in primary schools, and it was not much. So, we have a problem obviously in terms of reinforcing here the importance of teaching and dedicating more time to teaching writing. [And the] collaborations to extend practise at home can happen, like sending many tasks for kids to complete at home, like 10 minutes of writing at home. Little things like writing a shopping list or finishing a story, or having parents helping out in terms of spotting spelling mistakes. So, developing that routine at home and school, reinforcing communication between parents and [schools] and teachers, it’s really important to optimise practise, more obviously than explicit teaching, because that is the work of teachers.

JE: Yeah, I mean, it's like the numeracy side of things, isn't it? Where you'll sort of slip in that practise as you go. You'll count up the stairs as you go to bed. Or, you know, you'll do the change on your shopping, or whatever. So, we're talking about a similar thing to that. Second tip is become a fellow writer by modelling.

AM: That is a big one because there is a wealth of studies, and intervention studies, showing the benefits of teachers modelling writing in text composing. What does that mean exactly? So, modelling everything from the actual formation of letters, from the position of the hands on the keyboard. And very, very, very important, modelling how to plan and revise texts.

So, we often assume that if we ask kids to ‘okay, so let's write – start planning your texts’ that they will do it. They don't. The vast majority of times either they write something very short, or a full draft of it, without really taking time to plan and to think about what they are going to be writing about. So, having the teacher deconstructing the text for and with children, that is very, very important.

So, there is also research highlighting the benefits of doing that using ‘think alouds’ – so sharing with kids ‘What shall I do here? So, I have this topic that I want to write about. Hmm, I do not know if I know much about this. What shall I do?’ So here, sharing with kids also, how we go about as adults in terms of facing the challenges and solving the challenges we face when we are writing: ‘Which kind of strategies do we use? Do we go to the computer and try to find ideas for that? Do we go to a book?’ You know, those strategies that we use, these are self-regulated strategies that we use for writing that we need also to teach kids to do and to think about planning a text, and to verbalise with them how we do it, how we plan, to illustrate our writing for kids. Children must see writing in action, you know, so that they can actually understand how it works and the challenges of it and how we can, as adults, sort it out so that they can see it in action.

JE: Just linked to what you were saying at the end of that as well: talk about your own mistakes and finding ways of correcting your writing. That's always a good one for teachers, isn't it? To actually talk through their own mistakes and make corrections.

AM: Absolutely, again that has again to do with the modelling. So, modelling not only the planning but also the revision, the editing, all of that. That can happen obviously from teachers – and that happens with constructive and individual feedback – but also having kids reading each other's work and sharing their own opinions as readers, and those connections between reading and writing happening there.

And what I want really to emphasise here in terms of modelling is writing is thinking, isn't it? So, the wonderful thing about explicitly teaching writing is that we can teach children how to self-regulate their actions and their emotions as well. If we model and if we tell children ‘okay, you need to stop and think before you start writing’, this is something that they can actually transfer later to other subject areas, to other things that they do in life. If we say ‘okay, so now you have written this wonderful piece of writing, but there are some issues that you might want to have a look. Let's see…’ If we verbalise that, these are things that can be transferred again to different areas of our lives even, because writing is critical and it's a life skill, per se, if we see it like this and we’re even emphasising here the importance of the contribution that writing and learning how to write can make to children's learning and development.

JE: You talked about sharing there in terms of sharing each other's work, sharing your own work as well as a teacher and some of that maybe plays into the next thing about reading what you've written. I mean reading what you've written in the sense of doing that sharing, but is there another aspect to that in terms of, you know, actually reading through what you've written to check for understanding?

AM: If a child is able to actually read it, read their work out loud, they will more than often notice issues that they need to revise, for example. And they can actually have also the comfort of [having] their parents listening to them. And this can happen as well in the classroom. And it is important, obviously, to emphasise here the connections between reading and writing. Our findings were very, very much well aligned with that. So, indeed, we need to obviously reinforce the teaching of reading, but also reinforce the teaching of writing, because they help each other in terms of development, and sometimes we don't really take that on board.

The fact that motivation is a key aspect as well of writing. So if we get kids actually engaged in doing that and motivated to share their writings with their peers with their parents etcetera, that is important as well, very important.

JE: So we’ve got, let’s have a look, 3 three more tips to talk about. The next one is one is give children choice – that’s an important one, isn't it?

AM: It is. So, what does that mean? We like to be in control of the process, because we like to be part of it, [it] reinforces, again, the motivational aspect of it and the enjoyment that we get from it. So, it is important to have children actually choosing the topic to write about whenever possible, especially for longer texts, when it involves composing longer texts, extended pieces of writing that they actually are given the option of choosing.

Also, choosing the audience to whom they want to write; having that choice and giving kids those choices is critical, again linked to motivation. Because sometimes we as teachers tend to focus more on correction of the mechanics of writing; on the spelling, on the legibility, on the grammar, potentially not reinforcing those other aspects that are important for kids in terms of their interest, their self-efficacy for writing. Pretty much giving them a choice for that will boost their motivation as well and self-efficacy.

JE: Next tip is showcase the writing. Again, there’s sort of that, you know, being proud of something, but also writing for purpose. There's so much writing that actually doesn't get seen by anybody, isn't there?

AM: Yeah, correct. So, I'm sure that this is very recurrent [in primary classrooms] – writing, and kids’ writing, is usually all over the room in many classrooms here in Australia. And this is important to make kids’ writing visible. But sometimes what we are missing potentially is a continuum of all of that into homes and making those connections between homes and classrooms. Because parents can also play a very critical role on that, for example celebrating children's writing [on] the fridge. So, having little things like that exposed in the classrooms. Because one thing that we know as well from research and writing research is developing that community of practice; it is highly, highly important so that kids can actually see ‘okay, so writing is important. It is not only important at school that my teacher talks about, but it is also something that I see happening here at home. And I can see that my parents, they value my writing’. And children obviously will get motivated and engaged into wanting to learn more and to develop their writing skills.

JE: I mean a very simple task would be, I'm thinking, so say if you’re writing instructions on something, or a recipe for something, send it home, get the parents to follow it and actually use the writing, I guess. So, the last one, then. The last one is aim for automaticity.

AM: Obviously, as I've highlighted before, a big message from our research and from researchers across the globe at this stage is that we need to help kids into becoming what we are calling hybrid-writers. That is, that they are able to write using paper and pencil at the same level of proficiency than using a keyboard and a computer. And that means for teachers, for example, so I share with you already the ABC task, which is something very simple and can be done very, very fast. So, at the beginning of the school year, for example, we can monitor how children are doing in terms of their automaticity in handwriting and keyboarding. So, assessing, doing that first assessment of children's automaticity at the start of the year in both handwriting and keyboarding – these are activities (timed activities), but they take 2 minutes to complete. So, short activities like the ABC task and there are other activities as well (timed activities) to see the time in which kids write the letters of the alphabet, or compose a sentence for example, for kids from year 4 upwards. These are timed activities that do not take that much time from classroom. That initial assessment can inform practices and will give teachers a more comprehensive understanding of what needs to be done for teaching handwriting and keyboarding in the first years, and subsequently teaching, obviously.

The big message here that we want to make sure that we pass on is that writing is very, very complex, involving the development of different obviously several related skills, even reading skills that we need to take on board and understand more about. Either by hand or using a computer, we need to explicitly teach writing.

JE: So that's the message then – and make sure you do both as well, the writing and the keyboarding, let’s not just do either-or. That's been really fascinating. Now I'm going to, as usual I'll put the links to the research that you've done into the transcript of this podcast, which is at And I’d recommend you go have a read of that, there's plenty more information in there, obviously. But, for now, Dr Anabela Malpique, thanks so much for sharing your expertise with Teacher magazine.

AM: Beautiful Jo, thank you for having me.

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Malpique, A. A., Asil, M., Pino-Pasternak, D., Ledger, S., & Teo, T. (2024). The contributions of transcription skills to paper-based and computer-based text composing in the early years. Reading and Writing, 1-35.

Malpique, A., Valcan, D., Pino-Pasternak, D., Ledger, S., & Merga, M. (2023). Effects of writing modality on K-6 students’ writing and reading performance: A meta-analysis. The Australian Educational Researcher.

Do you dedicate classroom time to explicit teaching of handwriting? What about keyboarding skills? Do you know where your students are at, in terms of automaticity in these 2 areas?