Analysing writing: The development of a tool for use in the early years of schooling
Noella Maree Mackenzie
Charles Sturt University
The University of Melbourne
NSW Department of Education and Communities
Writing is a complex process, and this complexity poses particular challenges when researchers and teachers approach the task of analysing young students' writing samples. This paper outlines a program of research undertaken to develop a writing analysis tool. The tool is designed to map shifts over time in the range of skills and competencies young writers use to communicate intended meanings and messages using standard writing conventions. Writing samples (N=3193) were collected from 1799 students, in the two most populous states of Australia in 2010. The close analysis of 210 samples by four members of the research team supported the development of the tool. The tool and its application revealed key areas of learning and the current range of Year One students' writing in these areas. Presented in detail are two dimensions of children's writing as illustrative of the relevance and functionality of the tool to practice. This tool provides a research-based approach to the interpretation of students' learning about writing. While designed for the purpose of research, the tool also has the potential to help classroom teachers capture shifts in students' writing, assist teachers to provide feedback to students, and support teaching decisions.
Graham and Perin (2007) argue for the centrality of writing suggesting that "young people who do not have the ability to transform thoughts, experiences, and ideas into written words are in danger of losing touch with the joy of inquiry, the sense of intellectual curiosity, and the inestimable satisfaction of acquiring wisdom that are the touchstones of humanity" (p.1). Broad definitions of literacy also note the key role of writing to literacy learning (see for example, Wing Jan, 2009, p. 3). The challenges for children are many, as they learn the skills necessary for success with writing. However, "the challenges for teachers are equally daunting as they grapple with trying to meet the diverse needs of students, curriculum requirements and the expectations of employers and the community" (Mackenzie, 2009, p.60).
Over the past decade, concerns regarding students' writing achievements have been identified in the United States (Persky, Daane & Jin, 2003), the United Kingdom (Department for Education and Skills (DfES), 2002), New Zealand, (New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2006) and Australia (Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA), 2008). According to Persky and colleagues (2003), by grade four, two thirds of children in the United States do not write well enough to keep up with classroom demands. While reading and mathematics have been prioritised in programs designed to lift standards, writing has been neglected and remains a lower priority than reading in the popular press and in the professional research literature (Bradley, 2001; Calfee & Miller, 2007; Cutler & Graham, 2008; Huot & Perry, 2009; Juzwik, et al., 2005; Troia, 2007).
In 2007, Troia identified a need for the development and validation of "integrated writing assessment systems that provide immediate instructionally relevant multi-vector data to teachers so that they are better equipped for pinpointing writing problems and responding accordingly" (p.147). When writing "becomes a commonplace of daily life in the classroom, the teacher confronts interesting contrasts" (Calfee & Miller, 2007, p. 271) which involve content and process of students' written texts. Assessment systems should consider content and process, as well as being embedded, and therefore commonplace, in the daily writing program.
Effective assessment of writing involves the examination of skills across a range of criteria (Huot & Perry, 2009, Calfee & Miller, 2007, Espin, Weissenburger & Benson, 2004). Furthermore, the purpose for the assessment determines the data gathered and analysis processes applied. Writing assessment procedures should also be situated within the context of purposeful, meaningful writing tasks. This acknowledged; the assessment or examination of texts using analytical scales permits raters to make judgments about writing quality based on a number of dimensions (Espin et al., 2004). Therefore the analysis of writing should consider: learning across a continuum or related set of skills that acknowledges both formative and summative aspects of writing (Huot & Perry, 2009), writing as process and product (Graves, 1983; 1994), both the authorial and secretarial roles of the writer (Peters & Smith, 1993) and the types and forms of texts (Wing Jan, 2009) produced, rather than a reliance on dichotomous constructs that divide and segment attention. Each of these elements is now discussed.
Creating a balance between the authorial and secretarial aspects of writing requires teachers to develop a deeply informed understanding of purposes and intended audiences and how these impact text structure and form. Therefore assessment and analysis processes need to take account of how effectively the writer conveys their message and anticipates the needs of the reader, ordering their thoughts and ideas and choosing carefully words and sentences that best convey meaning (Christie, 2005; Wing Jan, 2009). The analysis of texts should also consider the development of skills and competencies that allow students to document their ideas and messages. Students need to demonstrate an awareness that correct spelling assists the reader to interpret the text, that punctuation allows the reader to make sense of the writing, and that legible handwriting or other forms of publishing assists the reader to quickly access the message (Crvola & Hill, 2005).
Despite recent attention to multimodal texts, and the impact of digital technologies on writing processes, the primacy of linguistic forms of communication remain central to many forms of meaning making. Print continues to be significant within multimodal texts, as it interfaces with a range of design elements (visual, spatial, gestural, audio) (New London Group, 2000). It is argued by proponents of digital literacies that central to the increasing range of skills required to interact with and produce new text forms, is the need for students to be competent users of language, with foundational skills in writing central to literacy learning (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003; McNaughton, 2002; Unsworth, 2002). The critical view here is that fundamental writing skills are taught and monitored as they contribute to the writing practices that technology demands.
The discussion above highlights the need for tools that go beyond measurement, with well-informed classroom based assessment and analysis frames essential for effective teaching and learning. Currently teachers have access to a number of writing measures (see for example, Clay, 2002; Green, 1990; Fox, 2000; Gentry, 2005; Graves, Juel, Graves & Dewitz, 2011; Gibbons, 2002; Hill, 2012; Wing Jan, 2009). In their various forms, these examine particular aspects of writing, stages of development, processes and products, and consider authentic contexts for learning, often based on multiple examples of a student's performance. In addition teachers often create their own tools and rubrics explicit to their students' needs and specific to learning tasks. Notwithstanding, systematic approaches that outline a clear developmental sequence, balancing secretarial and compositional features, support teachers' intuitive assessments of students' writing (Fox, 2000).
In contributing to this field of research this study aimed to identify young writers' attainment levels and performance trajectories in learning to write in current times. Of particular interest was the design of a valid procedure for analysing early writing, sensitive to the changes over time evident in young students' texts (Coker & Ritchey, 2010) that might also have a positive impact and consequences for the teaching and learning of writing (Huot, 1996).
The study was performed with approval from the University's Human Research Ethics Committee and relevant school systems. According to the information requirement, all teachers and parents were informed of the study's purpose and design and gave their consent to participate in writing. Confidentiality obligations have been respected, and children identities remain undisclosed.
The research to develop the tool for the analysis of students' writing drew on the principles and practices of grounded theory (Glasser & Strauss, 1967; Charmaz, 2006). Wasserman, Clair and Wilson (2009) describe "the general epistemic orientation of grounded theory as emerging wherever data are allowed to directly generate knowledge, rather than used to verify a hypothesis" (p. 358). Commencing with the data, categories and codes were developed to describe key components of the texts and to scope a developmental sequence of increased sophistication across these components.
The researchers brought extensive experience and understandings of early literacy acquisition to the data interpretation processes. Working from this informed position, the research team engaged in a process of comparison of the texts, to consider specific features and broader concepts of writing development. Discrepancies between new data and previous concepts were modified through a process of synthesis rather than dismissing or explaining away non-fitting data or forcing that data to fit (Glasser, 1992 cited in Wasserman et al., 2009, p. 359). Careful and close analysis of the texts resulted in developing categories and codes that emerged from the data. Therefore, it is anticipated that the understandings gained are of a substantive nature, with the tool having a specificity and usefulness to practice (Merriam, 1998, p. 17), providing a tentative interpretation of young students' writing development.
Three researchers and a research assistant developed the analysis tool over a period of two years. This time frame is best described in three phrases.
|Text structure (authorial)||How information/ideas are organised in the text. May include features of text types.|
|Sentence structure and grammatical features (authorial)||How sentences or sentence parts are constructed. e.g simple, compound and complex sentence usage.|
|Vocabulary (authorial)||Range and precision of word choices. e.g. everyday language, topic specific language, descriptive language.|
|Spelling (secretarial)||Accuracy, complexity of words attempted, attempts (pre-phonetic or phonetic), use of orthographic patterns and spelling rules.|
|Punctuation (secretarial)||Use of conventional and appropriate punctuation to indicate the structure and organisation of the text to aid the reader.|
|Handwriting/legibility (secretarial)||Letter formation, size, spacing, position and placement; ease of reading; apparent fluency.|
The structure of students' texts was an area of differentiation, as the complexity of meaning moved from no clear message, to ideas that were not related, to ideas that were clearly related, to sequenced ideas, and to texts that had the shape and form of conventional text types (Wing Jan, 2009). A small proportion of the texts examined demonstrated sophisticated control of the selected genre, with a clear sense of the intended purpose and audience.
Closely linked to students' control over text structure was their developing command over sentence grammar. Evident in the sample set was students' developing control over the parts of speech, as they relate to written language. The students' ability to clearly communicate their intended message moved from the use of isolated words, to an ability to connect participants to events, to the use of simple sentences often linking ideas with connectives such as 'and'. Students also demonstrated an ability to incorporate a range of sentence types including compound and complex sentences to express related ideas, with pronoun reference use apparent, alongside a variety of sentence themes and a consistent use of tense.
Shifts in students' use of vocabulary were also apparent. While there were texts that were limited to the use of a small number of words, others included names of family and friends and personally significant events, while still other texts demonstrated use of familiar, everyday vocabulary (Lo Bianco, Scull & Ives, 2008). Lexical items related to home and school activities were common. However, included in the sample set were texts that moved beyond the use of everyday language to include vocabulary particular to the topic under discussion. Still others demonstrated an awareness of the need for specific vocabulary items to describe events and express opinions and feelings.
Clearly evident in the sample texts analysed were students' varying levels of control over spelling. This ranged from an apparent use of random letters, to the representation of dominant consonant and vowel sounds, to phonetic spelling as students made plausible attempts at words with most phonemes represented. Students also demonstrated an awareness of orthographic patterns in words, with correct spelling of irregular words and a good application of spelling rules. A small proportion of the texts provided evidence of Year One students' ability to record multisyllabic words and to make reasoned attempts at unusual and uniquely spelled words.
A further area of differentiation was students' use of punctuation. While this was in the main limited to students' use of capital letters and full stops, to indicate the start and finish of the text, or to indicate sentence structure, other texts demonstrated the students' willingness to experiment with a range of punctuation forms. Most notable within the sample texts was students' use of question marks, quotation marks and exclamation marks. Students' control over a range of punctuation was also evident in the texts analysed, as a variety of punctuation, correctly applied, enhanced the meaning of texts.
Students' control over handwriting and legibility differed over the sample texts. This ranged from the use of letter like forms and some recognisable letters, to a mix of upper and lower case letters, with reversals and distortions common, to the use of correct letter formations albeit with an inconsistency of spacing and line positioning. Other texts revealed students' ability to control for size, shape, position and spacing of letters and others demonstrated fluent, well-controlled handwriting styles.
A more detailed exploration of the role within the writing process of two of the tools dimensions, text structure and handwriting/legibility follow. Text structure provides an example of an authorial dimension and handwriting/legibility is an example of a secretarial dimension.
Writing or text generation involves turning "ideas into words, sentences, and larger units of discourse within working memory" (McCutchen, 2006, p.121). Writing also involves the application of a set of cultural practices undertaken within a particular context (Harris, Fitzsimmons & McKenzie, 2004) for a particular purpose (Badger & White, 2000; Graves, 1975). Knowledge of text structures, and ways to organise information for particular purposes, assists both the writer and the reader. Text structure is therefore, an authorial dimension of writing, inseparable from the purpose of the text. A young writer's knowledge of text structures is as important as their control of conventions such as spelling and punctuation (Kress, 1994).
Teachers need efficient ways to monitor progress, identify learning needs and guide their teaching decisions. Huot and Perry (2009) suggest that the reason "assessment has not been examined as a viable means for teaching student writers is because it has been linked to grading and testing" (p. 423). The tool discussed in this paper has the potential to support teachers to engage in a process of close data analysis, monitoring students' progress and evaluating programs as they focus on observable aspects of students' learning (City et al., 2009). As students move through a trajectory towards increased control over the writing process, their needs change and the tool allows for identification of specific authorial and secretarial roles that may require attention. The writing analysis tool described here allows for the systematic observation and analysis of writing competence in much the same way as the analysis of Running Records (Clay, 2002) supports teachers' understanding of reading behaviour. Both increase teachers' understanding of literacy acquisition processes, and the learner, and can be used to support appropriate teaching decisions.
Complementary to this is the potential for the tool to inform curriculum design. The six dimensions of the tool concurrently scope learning across a range of inter-related aspects of writing. As Tolchinsky (2006) contends, writing develops at many levels simultaneously. Young writers learn to control a range of multilayered subsystems, related in intricate rule governed ways (Clay, 1975) that integrate secretarial and authorial features and structures (Peters & Smith, 1993). Simultaneously, they learn to balance audience, context and purpose (Raban, 2001).
It is anticipated that the writing analysis tool discussed here might assist teachers to frame teaching and learning experiences based on informed understandings of expected progressions in learning alongside a clear recognition of what young writers are capable of achieving in each dimension. Knowledge of achievement patterns, based on a valid measure of students' writing is critical to the design of programs that lift expectations. Hence, analysis of writing samples, using the tool might support teachers to focus on discrete areas of learning to write to enhance teaching practice and affect pedagogical reform efforts (Coker & Ritchey, 2010; Huot, 1996).
In addition, the analysis tool provides evidence of students' learning considered useful for researchers with an interest in early writing. This sub-set of the research sample documents the scope of students' competencies, both across dimensions, and in the progressions in learning. This has allowed for a fine grained sequence of writing development, beyond gross measures or curriculum milestone statements, to contribute to understandings of students' writing competencies in the early years of schooling. Use of the tool also allows for a detailed analysis and comparisons of student cohorts, based on current, authentic samples of classroom writing.
The data gathered for this study are rich and afford many opportunities for future investigation. Initially, the tool will be applied to a balanced set of 1000 student samples in order to identify the relationships between dimensions and to develop a comprehensive picture of Year One writing in current times. Analysis of the larger data set to scope the learning trajectories of Year One student at two points in time will follow. A microanalysis of teachers' use of the tool as they provide feedback to students about their learning, and information that feeds forward as students work on new texts, is also planned. The proposed study will explore how teachers provide responsive advice, connecting assessment to effective teaching interactions to ascertain how teachers use the tool to interact with students to their assist learning.
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|Authors: Dr Noella Mackenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Charles Sturt University, Albury. She is a researcher in the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education. Her current research projects involve the examination of the relationship between drawing and writing acquisition, writing transitions and year one writing development.|
Dr Janet Scull is a Senior Lecturer at The University of Melbourne, Australia and an experienced literacy educator and researcher. Her teaching and research interests focus on the areas of literacy acquisition, literacy assessment, effective teaching practices in the early years of schooling, exploring the relationships between language, literacy and learning.
Lynne Munsie is a Senior Education Officer with the NSW Department of Education and Training. Lynne has also worked on a number of projects with The University of Western Sydney. Lynne currently provides support for the Reading Recovery program in NSW DEC schools.
Please cite as: Mackenzie, N. M., Scull, J. & Munsie, L. (2013). Analysing writing: The development of a tool for use in the early years of schooling. Issues in Educational Research, 23(3), 375-393. http://www.iier.org.au/iier23/mackenzie.html