Predictors of success with writing in the first year of school
Noella Mackenzie and Brian Hemmings
Charles Sturt University
Language and literacy skills are instrumental to success at school and early success with writing is a key factor in literacy development. By eight years of age, children spend up to half of their school day engaged in writing tasks suggesting that those who find learning to write difficult may be disadvantaged. The ability to hear and record sounds in sequence and writing vocabulary are two ingredients necessary for early writing success. In this study we examine the relationship between language skills at school entry and two outcome measures related to phonemic awareness and writing vocabulary at June and December for children (n=60) in the first year of school. We analysed data collected using standardised instruments and investigated both bivariate and multivariate relationships. The findings suggest that oral language development is a strong predictor of children's ability to hear and record sounds in the first six months of school and writing vocabulary development in the first year. Although oral language development and phonemic awareness have been linked before in previous studies, we establish a clear relationship between these two areas with respect to early writing development. We conclude the paper by considering the study's implications for teachers, parents and researchers.
Bromley (2007) describes writing as a means of expressing or communicating in print, which involves the interaction of cognitive and physical factors, while Love, Burns & Buell (2007) argue that writing promotes social, emotional and cognitive development. Writing may be understood in terms of authorial and secretarial roles (Peters & Smith, 1993). The authorial role relates to the organisation of ideas and information to communicate with an audience and is influenced by oral language and vocabulary knowledge. It is this relationship among oral language, vocabulary development and the authorial roles of writing that is of interest to the study reported here. The secretarial role of writing focuses on the surface features of written text, with close attention to spelling, handwriting and punctuation. There are two aspects of the secretarial role of interest to this study: the first is children's ability to hear and record sounds in words, which is closely linked to phonemic awareness and invented spelling behaviours; and the second is children's ability to spell the words that make up their writing vocabulary. It is therefore the contribution of writing to literacy more broadly and the predictive role of oral language in children's ability to hear and record sounds and writing vocabulary development that are the focus of this study.
Clay (2013, p. 116) measured the ability of children to hear and record the sounds in words using a simple dictation task which is "scored by counting the child's representation of the sounds (phonemes) by letters (graphemes)". According to Clay (2013), New Zealand children in the 5-5.50 year age range scored a mean of 15.6/37 graphemes (SD=11.6), in the 5.51-6.0 year age range they scored a mean of 23.6/37 (SD=10.5) and in the 6.01-6.50 year age range they scored a mean of 30.7/37 graphemes (SD=8.4). This demonstrates the growth in children's ability to hear and record the phonemes with appropriate graphemes.
It needs to be emphasised that a writing vocabulary is different from an oral vocabulary. Developing a writing vocabulary requires a child to transfer words which exist in the head as un-verbalised formulations into a set of marks on paper; a transfer from a medium which is primarily aural to a medium which is primarily visual (Bromley, 2007). While growth in writing vocabulary has been connected with the classroom program (Clay, 2002) in the study discussed here we make a case for a link between oral language control at the start of school and children's writing vocabulary at the end of the first year of school.
Children's writing vocabulary is understood to be those words they know and can spell correctly. In the inventory process developed by Clay (2013), it is restricted to those words children can write correctly (spell) in a ten minute period. According to Clay's study reported in the 2013 revised version of An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement on the Writing Vocabulary 10 minute task, New Zealand children in the 5-5.50 year age range scored a mean of 12.68 words (SD=10.08), in the 5.51-6.0 year age range scored a mean of 22.22 words (SD=14.70) and in the 6.01-6.50 year age range they scored a mean of 29.97 words (SD=15.06). This demonstrates the growth in children's ability to spell words that form what is referred to here as a child's writing vocabulary (Clay, 2013).
|Pre testing (January)||Term 1 weeks 1-2||PPVT-III|
|Post testing (June)||Term 2 week 10||PostHRSW|
|Term 4 weeks 8-9||FUHRSW [alternate form]|
As might be expected the respective June and December measures were highly correlated, being .88 for the writing measures and .67 for the phonemic ones. These high correlations, particularly in the case of writing, testify to the reliability of the instruments used. As will be explained later, the somewhat lower value for the phonemic measures reflected the ceiling effects in the December administration. Moreover, the relationship between the phonemic and writing measures, at June and December, were shown to be quite high (r=.87 and r=.66). These results provide evidence of a developing ability to correctly spell words from a personal writing vocabulary and attempt to spell unknown words using graphemes to represent appropriate phonemes in sequence.
In order to exert some control over developmental differences, age was entered first in all of the regression models and then ROL, WAI, and PPVT were entered using the Stepwise method to allow these measures to be compared for their predictive capacity with respect to the various writing dependent measures. Although this strategy produced a slightly lower subjects-to-variable ratio below the optimal figure (see, for example, Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001), it was felt that because of the young ages of the participants this form of control was prudent.
For the writing dependent measures (viz., PostWtgV and FUWtgV), the post (i.e. June) and follow-up (i.e., December) regression results were remarkably similar. In the case of the post measure, age was significant and accounted for 8.4% of the variance, ROL accounted for 24.6% and finally WAI entered and accounted for a further 8%. This gave an adjusted R2 for the model of .377. The PPVT, which was moderately correlated with the dependent variable, failed to enter into the model. Its relationship was depleted when the ROL entered.
Using the follow-up writing measure as the dependent variable, age was no longer significant even though entered first. But, the pattern for the other independent variables remained very much as before. ROL accounted for 32.4% of the variance and WAI accounted for 4.8%, giving a total adjusted R2 for the model of .383. And again, the PPVT failed to enter even though its initial partial correlation with the dependent measure, after controlling for age, was .35.
For the change measure concerned with hearing and recording of sounds the two variables age and ROL accounted for approximately 15% of the variance which was shared almost equally between them. However, the beta coefficients for these two predictors were negative. This result is in marked contrast to the significant positive correlations found between the ROL measure and post and follow-up measures of HRSW (see Table 2). Further examination of the data showed substantial ceiling effects occurred on the follow-up HRSW measure. These effects were particularly prominent for children with high ROL scores and as a consequence the change measure had a small negative correlation with ROL scores. These results suggest that, insofar as the measuring instrument allows one to judge, there is a levelling of achievement in this area over this first year of schooling. This may be due to the effects of classroom instruction, as well as to ceiling effects arising from the instrument or from the constrained skill area per se (Paris, 2005).
In the regression analysis with change in writing vocabulary (ChangeWtgV) as the dependent variable, the effects for age were controlled by entering it first, even though it did not prove to be significant, accounting for less than one percent of the adjusted variance. The subsequent stepwise procedure resulted in the entry of the ROL measure and an R2 change of .30, which was significant beyond the .001 level. Thus, this initial measure of oral language proficiency was found to significantly predict writing vocabulary skills at both June and December, as well as the gain achieved in this period.
In order to identify more accurately the contribution of the predictor variables, age was used as a covariate in all the analyses. However, although it proved to be significant in both the post outcome measures taken in June, it was not significantly related to the follow-up measures or to the two gain measures. After controlling for the effects of age the ROL measure generally accounted for about 30% of the variance in the phoneme to grapheme writing dependent variables, including the change in writing scores. The one exception was the somewhat lower but still substantial result for the initial writing measure (PostWtgV). Taken together, these findings add support to previous research findings that highlight a strong relationship between oral language and writing development (see, for example, Shanahan, 2006).
In spite of its relatively simple nature, the WAI measure proved to be a useful supplementary predictor for both the post and follow-up measures. This suggests that it is identifying relevant competencies which are not encompassed in the ROL measure. Given the higher correlations between Age and the WAI measure, as well as the nature of the tasks involved, it is interesting to speculate on this result. Possibly the WAI incorporates memory and cognitive organisational skills, which facilitate phonemic and writing performances.
The results of the multiple regression analyses for FUHRSW and the change measure for HRSW scores emphasised the ceiling effects which occurred in the follow-up data collection. Clearly some of the children had mastered all of the hearing and recording sounds in words skills being tested by the instrument employed.
These results point to the important functions that oral language and certain forms of cognitive processing play in the development of children's ability to hear and record sounds in the words they want to write and writing vocabulary development. These findings clearly have implications for those working with and caring for children. For example, parents/carers and teachers should be talking to their children, reading to them and strongly encouraging them to engage in writing and drawing activities. Such engagement seems to be linked to phonemic skill and writing vocabularies. Even before formal schooling begins children should be experiencing a range of activities, using simple technologies such as pencil and crayon through to sophisticated technologies such as computers, in order to build their phonemic skills and vocabularies. Indeed given the small but persistent influence of the WAI, it may be that such activities encourage the development of cognitive skills, which are separate from the more traditional oral language ones.
It is also interesting to note that the findings indicate that age has a diminishing effect over children's ability to hear and record sounds in words and writing vocabulary development during the first year of formal schooling. That is, although students begin school at various ages, in this case between 4.5 and 5.5, such an age difference is less obvious in the second half of the first year of school. This suggests that, at the first half of the year with a teacher at the helm, younger children, on average, progress reasonably quickly in relation to their older peers.
It is important to recognise the limitations inherent in the study. First, the relatively small sample size brings into question the generalisability of the study's findings. However, the sample was carefully chosen so as to include students across different schools and different classrooms, and therefore has arguably controlled for individual teacher effects. Nevertheless, a larger and more inclusive sample of students, including students from different jurisdictions (other Australian states and territories), would be an appropriate target sample for a follow-up study. Second, because a ceiling effect appeared in the follow-up testing using the HRSW, it might have been more beneficial to have administered this instrument and the other instruments earlier. Conceivably this would have avoided the occurrence of the ceiling effect. Further investigation using the HRSW is needed to explore this or perhaps another measure needs to be sourced.
Control over the grammatical structures of spoken language, phonemic awareness, the ability to hear and record sounds in words and the development of a writing vocabulary are all critical to young children's writing development. The results of this study shed some light on the relationships between these various developmental areas. The study has also provided a solid foundation for further writing-based research in the early years of schooling.
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|Authors: Dr Noella Mackenzie is a Senior Lecturer in literacy studies at Charles Sturt University, Albury. She has focused on the examination of the relationship between drawing and learning to write, the transition experience for early writers and writing development in the early years. She has published in the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, the European Journal of Teacher Education, the Australian Educational Researcher and the Australian Journal of Education.|
Dr Brian Hemmings is Sub-Dean (Graduate Studies) in the Faculty of Education at Charles Sturt University. He is also Associate Director of the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education (RIPPLE). His research focuses on those factors affecting the achievement of children and adolescents. His work has been published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, Professional Development in Education, and the International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship.
Please cite as: Mackenzie, N. & Hemmings, B. (2014). Predictors of success with writing in the first year of school. Issues in Educational Research, 24(1), 41-54. http://www.iier.org.au/iier24/mackenzie.html