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Is Spelling So Important?

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Is spelling so important? The results of this study highlight that spelling instruction continues to be important throughout the years of primary schooling. This study below was written by Australians academics and I believe it provides such a great, in-depth reading for all educators!

 

Predictors of writing success: How important are spelling, grammar and punctuation?

Tessa DaffernNoella M MackenzieBrian Hemmings

 

Abstract

Writing provides a means for personal reflection, thinking, creativity, meaning-making and sharing, as well as complementing other modes of communication in a world of multimodal texts. While writing in the digital age has become increasingly fast-paced and exposed to global scrutiny, being able to write efficiently with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation remains a critical part of being a literate writer. This article uses data from 819 Australian primary school students to explore the relationship between three language conventions, namely spelling, grammar and punctuation as measured by the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) Language Conventions Test, and the quality of written composition, as measured by the NAPLAN Writing Test. Results indicate that spelling, grammar and punctuation jointly predict written composition achievement with spelling as the main predictor. Implications for the educational practice of writing in the contemporary context are discussed, emphasising the importance of spelling in relation to writing and how instruction in spelling, during senior primary school, appears to be critical for written composition improvement.

 

Introduction

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. This is, however, precisely how writing is conducted in many classrooms and tested in the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) Writing Test, administered to all Australian students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], 2013b). 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.

When compared to the teaching and learning of reading, little research attention has been applied to the teaching and learning of writing, despite evidence of declining performance relative to standards in writing achievements (ACARA, 2016; Woods, 2015Wyatt-Smith & Hackson, 2016) and recommendations from government educational reviews such as the National Commission on Writing (Cutler & Graham, 2008). Part of the problem may be attributed to the uncertainty and controversy that surrounds writing assessment (see, e.g., McMaster & Espin, 2007). Others have suggested that ‘standardised assessments are more easily applied to reading than to writing, which makes the acquisition of reading skills more amenable to scientific study than the acquisition of writing skills’ (de Lemos, 2002, p. 8). Nevertheless, an understanding of those elements of writing that are central to the development of this skill is essential as they can guide instruction in writing (Mackenzie, Scull, & Bowles, 2015). The research that informs this article investigated some of the factors that have been found to contribute to success with traditional print-based, first-draft compositional writing in the primary school years. It is, however, helpful to first consider writing in the 21st century and the importance of learning to write.

 

Writing in the 21st century

Currently, writing is understood to be a multifaceted process (Fisher, 2012) that may include combinations of linguistic, visual, spatial, audio and gestural modes (Kalantzis & Cope, 2012). While writing can also shape one’s identity (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009), it empowers intellectual curiosity and ignites inquiry (Cutler & Graham, 2008). Kellogg (2008) has argued that learning to write a ‘coherent, effective text is a difficult and protracted achievement of cognitive development that contrasts sharply with acquisition of speech’ (p. 2). Writing also involves planning, problem solving, sequencing, synthesising and categorising (Larkin, 2009). Therefore, becoming a writer is a complex cognitive, physical, social and cultural endeavour (Bromley, 2007Hayes & Berninger, 2014).

Given the ‘multimodal realities of … new media and broader changes in the communications environment’, it is ‘unrealistic’ to narrow meaning-making systems to the exclusive study of traditional print-based written language (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009, p. 179). However, it is important to recognise the continued role of linguistic forms of meaning making in multimodal texts and digital technologies (Mackenzie, Scull, & Munsie, 2013). In the study reported in this article, linguistic factors usually associated with traditional print-based writing are highlighted and examined, with the understanding that these linguistic factors also often underpin the creation of multimodal texts.

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The importance of learning to write

Bromley (2007) has suggested that in the American context students from the age of eight, spend up to half of their school day in lessons that involve some form of writing. While we have no Australian figures to confirm that this is the case in Australia, it seems likely that the situation is similar. Yet, according to Fisher (2012, ‘primary school students’ progress in writing lags behind that of reading and many children fail to achieve standards of writing to support their personal and academic needs at secondary school and beyond’ (p. 299). Students who experience difficulty with writing may be disadvantaged as they are less likely to use writing to support and extend their learning across several disciplines (Cutler & Graham, 2008) and ‘are at risk for grade retention and may not graduate’ because they are unable to successfully participate in written assignments and complete formal testing (Abbott, Berninger, & Fayol, 2010, p. 281).

Writing, as a key element of literacy, is also regarded as a gateway for employment and higher education in adult life (National Commission on Writing, 2004). In Australia, clear and effective writing was judged by graduates, employers and university teaching course teams as one of the key indicators for employment success (Oliver, 2010). Research in the United States indicates that poorly written job application materials are often not considered, while businesses in the United States reportedly need to allocate substantial funds, annually, for adult writing remediation, as approximately two-thirds of salaried employees in large companies are required to write official documents effectively (National Commission on Writing, 2004).

Poor writing can therefore be a problem for children and adults alike. Spelling, grammar and punctuation usage are visible indicators of written text quality. Even primary school children have been shown to regard written texts that are abundant in spelling errors as ‘less well constructed, less comprehensible, less interesting, and less memorable’ (Varnhagen, 2000, p. 122) than texts containing accurately spelled words.

 

Predictors of success in writing

The home environment is sometimes recognised as the context for important early literacy learning experiences which pave the way for success with writing in school. Dunsmuir and Blatchford (2004), for example, found that children’s (n = 60) home writing experiences before the commencement of formal schooling accounted for 49% of the variance in attainment in writing at school entry and that the significant relationship to writing was maintained when children were seven years of age. They further established that 14.5% of the variation in writing attainment at school entry was explained by maternal educational qualifications and family size (Dunsmuir & Blatchford, 2004). More recently, however, data analysed from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) indicated that while early writing skills at age four substantially predicted literacy at age 10, neither maternal education nor income were predictive factors (Zubrick, Taylor, & Christensen, 2015).

Several factors, when measured at the commencement of formal schooling, are known to predict success with writing within the first few years of schooling. For example, oral vocabulary, pre-reading skills – such as knowing fundamental concepts of print and being able to identify alphabetic letters – handwriting and proficiency in writing own name have been found to significantly relate to writing at five and six years of age (Copping, Crammen, Gray & Tymms, 2016Puranik & Lonigan, 2014). Consistent with these findings, Mackenzie and Hemmings (2014) demonstrated that oral language and phonemic awareness predict writing vocabulary in the first year of school and while the age of children varied considerably within the first year of school (up to 10 months), it was not related to performance in children’s ability to hear and record sounds in words or writing development after a year of school. Other research has shown that children’s (n = 382) phonological awareness (based on phoneme and syllable manipulation tasks such as blending and elision), when measured at age five, predicts writing competence at age 11 (Savage, Carless, & Ferraro, 2007).

Transcription skills, namely spelling and the ability to record written messages in an automatic and legible form (handwriting), at the beginning of formal schooling have also been found to predict competence in writing in the early childhood years (Connelly, Dockrell, Walter, & Critten, 2012). Similarly, Puranik and Al Otaiba (2012) found that handwriting and spelling contributed to written expression in kindergarten (n = 242), after controlling for oral language, reading skills, student backgrounds including socio-economic status (SES) and verbal and nonverbal IQ. In another study, Kim, Al Otaiba, and Wanzek (2015) found that oral language, word reading and spelling in kindergarten (n = 157) independently predicted narrative writing in year 3, while word reading and spelling in kindergarten uniquely predicted year 3 expository writing.

Research into predictors of compositional writing success in the middle and upper primary school years is relatively sparse. Yet, this particular period of schooling is critical for academic success at school and learning in general (Farmer-Dougan & Alferink, 2013Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011). Although a large portion of cognitive, language and emotional development is known to occur in the early childhood years, particularly between birth and three years of age, ‘the brain undergoes additional critical development during the middle and adolescent years’ (Farmer-Dougan & Alferink, 2013, p. 60). Importantly, working memory plays a crucial role in learning to write (Berninger et al., 2010) as working memory is the workspace for ‘storing and processing information in the course of ongoing cognitive activities’ (Gathercole, 2007, p. 234). An important relationship between word-level working memory and writing-related skills, including spelling, has been found in the context of early childhood, while working memory at the sentence-level (as opposed to the word-level) has been found to correlate with writing-related skills in the upper primary years (Berninger et al., 2010). Building on these findings, Adams, Simmons, and Willis (2015) examined relationships between working memory and writing in children (n = 81) aged between five and eight years and found that visuo-spatial short-term memory consistently predicted writing quality, as measured by five criteria from the Big Writing Criterion Scale (Wilson, 2012).

In terms of the variables known to predict success in writing, considerably less is known about the joint and independent contributions of traditional language convention skills, namely spelling, grammar and punctuation, on compositional writing. However, a longitudinal study, conducted in the United States, showed that in Years 3–6, spelling and writing were related reciprocally (Abbott et al., 2010). This study also demonstrated that individual differences in spelling across Years 1–7 consistently explained unique variance in ‘word-level spelling’ and ‘text-level composition’ (Abbott et al., 2010, p. 294).

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Gender differences in writing achievements

Gender differences in literacy achievements have been extensively reported, both in Australia (ACARA, 2012; Limbrick, Wheldall, & Madelaine, 2010) and internationally (Berninger, Nielsen, Abbott, Wijsman, & Raskind, 2008Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Crucker, 2012). It has been argued, however, that although learning to write may be problematic for some boys (Limbrick et al., 2010Mackenzie et al., 2015), particular factors may underpin the gender divide (Adams et al., 2015Hattie, 2009). For example, behavioural aspects such as motivation (Troia, Harbaugh, Shankland, Wolbers, & Lawrence, 2013), self-efficacy (Klassen, 2002) and teacher–child relationship (White, 2013) have been attributed to gender differences in writing achievements.

Other studies do not align with the view that gender disparities in writing achievements are concerning (see, e.g., Hattie, 2009). While Mackenzie et al. (2015) identified a small but significant difference between the writing of the girls and boys in their study of six year old students (n = 250) in Australia, they reported that the mean score for girls was also achieved by many boys in the study. In contrast, Dunsmuir and Blatchford (2004) provided evidence from an earlier study which suggested that gender was not significantly related to writing attainment at seven years of age. However, other scholarly publications have reported that girls tend to write more than boys (Puranik & Al Otaiba, 2012Williams & Larkin, 2013), indicating that the mechanics of handwriting may be particularly problematic for some boys. Indeed, Adams et al. (2015) caution that gender differences found in handwriting fluency are more robust than they are in writing quality. Even though Berninger et al. (2008) agree that boys ‘may be losing relative ground in writing proficiency’ (p. 168), they contend that consistently poorer orthographic skills in boys ‘may be the sources of gender differences in writing’ (p. 151). Their view parallels an earlier study which found that girls had better orthographic fluency than boys (Berninger & Fuller, 1992). These varied findings suggest the need for further systematic investigations of potential factors underpinning differences in the writing achievements between students and groups of students such as boys and girls, particularly during primary school (aged 8–12 years).

 

Purpose of the study

The study reported in this article seeks to explore the joint and independent contributions of spelling, grammar and punctuation on written compositions created by primary school–aged students. More specifically, it seeks to compare these contributions in four cohorts of primary students, at Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 while also examining how these contributions might differ for male and female students.

 

Method

Participants

The research described in this article forms part of a larger mixed methods study. The larger study involved students in Years 3–6 (n = 1198) from 13 primary schools (five public and eight Catholic schools) in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). As children start school between 4½ and 6 years of age in the ACT, students in the larger study were between 7½ and 9 years of age in Year 3 and 10½ and 12 years of age in Year 6. The focus of the larger study was predominantly on Standard English spelling acquisition in Years 3–6.

The research reported in this article uses only a subsample, namely data from Year 3 and Year 5 NAPLAN (see Table 1) and only for the eight Catholic schools. The latter was necessary as according to ACT public school sector policy, it was not permissible to access individual student NAPLAN data for the purposes of research.

table1

For the subsample, students were selected within stratified bands to ensure the schools were broadly representative of the Catholic ACT school sector. Specifically, all schools were stratified according to bands (low, middle and high) based on the Index of Community Socio-educational Advantage (ICSEA) (ACARA, 2013a). It is important to acknowledge that the ACT had the highest average ICSEA value (1087) compared with all states and territories in Australia (ACARA, 2013a) as the strong association between socio-economic status and student outcomes meant that students performed at a higher level in the ACT than in other jurisdictions. This stratified probability sampling approach was feasible, minimised sampling error and reduced the threat to external validity (Bryman, 2008Macmillan & Schumacher, 2006).

Ethical approval for the study was obtained from the authors’ university and the relevant school system authority. In addition, active informed consent from both parents and students was obtained. Permission to access NAPLAN data was also provided by all eight Catholic schools in this study.

 

NAPLAN

The NAPLAN test development is managed by ACARA (2013b) in consultation with teachers and education authorities in all Australian states and territories, across government and non-government school sectors. Every year, potential test questions are trialled on representative samples of students from each state and territory. NAPLAN data have been used extensively as a means of offering feedback to a range of stakeholders, including school administrators, teachers and parents. The NAPLAN Language Conventions Test and the Writing Test are both 40 minutes in duration and students are tested under the same conditions, as stipulated by ACARA. In its My School Fact Sheet,ACARA (2015, p. 2) claims that the ‘reliability of NAPLAN tests is high and that the tests can be used with confidence and are fit for purpose’. The rigorous processes that are carried out during the development of NAPLAN each year include well-established equating methods, scaling processes and reliability testing to ensure that the results are reliable and comparable between years (ACARA, 2015). A detailed technical report on the test development of the NAPLAN has been published by ACARA (2014).

Parents and caregivers are provided test feedback in the format of an Additional Student Report NAPLAN and this contains student results for the series of tests. This feedback report provided data pertinent to the study.

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The NAPLAN language conventions test

The Language Conventions Test assessed student achievement in spelling, grammar and punctuation. This measure required students to complete visually oriented, decontextualised tasks. Specifically, the test involved identification and editing of spelling errors in one-syllable and two-syllable words that were presented either in isolation or within a short phrase, as well as identification and labelling of some common grammatical and punctuation conventions such as the correct use of pronouns, conjunctions and verb forms. As proofreading and editing processes were inherent in the tasks (as opposed to dictation), it is important to recognise that the NAPLAN Language Conventions Test may be limited in its capacity to encapsulate and measure fully the complex processes and skills associated with these three language conventions, and in particular spelling (Willett & Gardiner, 2009). Indeed, in critiquing the spelling construct within the NAPLAN Language Conventions TestWillett and Gardiner (2009) assert that ‘research into the relationship between proofreading and the other dimensions of spelling’ (p. 17), such as dictation, is needed.

 

The NAPLAN Writing Test

For the NAPLAN Writing Test, students were required to respond to a specified topic by writing a persuasive composition. In 2012, the stimulus topic was, All children should be able to cook, and in 2013, Hero award. The Writing Test measured students’ capacity to combine and apply specific linguistic devices in order to craft a persuasive argument. These included, for example, the range and precision of contextually appropriate vocabulary; persuasive devices; elaboration of ideas; and text cohesion. Handwriting fluency was not included as a construct in this measure. All markers of the Writing Test were required to undertake training prior to marking. The writing scripts were scored and cross-checked by supervisors in order to maximise marking consistency. The accumulated raw score for the Writing Test was obtained from the feedback report provided to parents by ACARA.

The data

NAPLAN data were obtained in September 2013 for 819 students across the eight Catholic schools that participated in the study either from school databases or directly from the parents of the participating students. All data were entered into SPSS (Version 20) for the analyses. Reported in this article are the results of analyses from four student cohorts, namely Year 3, Year 4, Year 5 and Year 6 whereby Year 3 and Year 5 NAPLAN data from 2012 and 2013 were used for each cohort, as indicated in Table 1.

Analysis

A multiple regression analysis (MRA) was performed for each cohort under investigation using the Regression Analysis command in SPSS. Separate analyses for males and females were then carried out to explore the effect of gender. As one of the limitations of the study, it needs to be acknowledged that the analysis did not take into account the nested structure of the data.

 

Results

Across the four cohorts, spelling, grammar and punctuation were found to jointly influence written composition. Overall, results from the analyses indicate that between approximately 24% and 43% 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.

table2

Furthermore, results of separate MRAs for the four cohorts demonstrate that the separate and joint influences of spelling, grammar and punctuation on written composition were not significantly influenced by age. This suggests that a child’s capacity to accurately identify, edit and label features of decontextualised written language conventions can influence the quality of compositional writing, irrespective of their age.

In the Year 3 cohort, about 35% of the variance in written composition was accounted for by the three independent variables (spelling, grammar and punctuation), R2adj = .352, F(3,222) = 41.74, p < .001. For males in the Year 3 cohort, the explained variance was approximately 27%, R2adj = .271, F(3,103) = 14.11, p < .001, and about 43% for females, R2adj = .434, F(3,115) = 31.14, p < .001.

In the Year 4 cohort, about 42% of the variance in written composition was accounted for by spelling, grammar and punctuation, R2adj = .417, F(3,195) = 48.22, p < .001. For the Year 4 males and females, the variance was relatively large, with respective proportions yielding about 46%, R2adj = .434, F(3,71) = 19.90, p < .001, and 40%, R2adj = .386, F(3,120) = 26.80, p < .001.

In the Year 5 cohort, about 39% of the variance in written composition was explained by spelling, grammar and punctuation, R2adj = .387, F(3,110) = 45.88, p < .001. For males in the Year 5 cohort, the variance was relatively large, R2adj = .406, F(3,88) = 21.75, p < .001, and somewhat less for females, R2adj = .361, F(3,118) = 23.82, p < .001.

Spelling, grammar and punctuation were least influential in the Year 6 cohort; however, the contribution is still considered relatively large with about 27% of the variance in written composition predicted by spelling, grammar and punctuation, R2adj = .274, F(3,174) = 23.22, p < .001. In regards to gender, the variance in written composition for males in the Year 6 cohort was about 27%, R2adj = .265, F(3,60) = 8.56, p < .001, and for females, about 24%, R2adj = .242, F(3,110) = 13.00, p < .001.

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. In the Year 3 and Year 6 cohorts, spelling was a somewhat stronger predictor for females than males, while in Year 4 and Year 5 cohorts, spelling had a larger effect for males than for females. In the Year 3 and Year 4 cohorts, grammar was an important predictor of written composition for females but not for males, while punctuation was not predictive of writing achievement for either males or females across any of the four cohorts. However, punctuation was a significant predictor for the Year 3 and Year 6 cohorts. This result is at least partly due to sample size, that is, gender group sizes were smaller than total cohort size.

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Discussion

The results of this research are consistent with earlier findings demonstrating that language convention skills are important in compositional writing, with spelling appearing to be particularly important (see, e.g., Berninger et al., 2002). The study has shown that spelling, grammar and punctuation jointly influenced compositional writing for males and females in Year 3 and Year 5. Notably, spelling was more influential than grammar and punctuation. These results contribute to the literature by focusing on a sample of students in middle to upper primary schools in an Australian context and provide an empirical substantiation of the view that learning to spell is particularly critical to becoming a literate writer (Abbott et al., 2010Puranik & Al Otaiba, 2012).

While it has been argued that learning to spell can support the development of reading and writing (Ehri, 1985), the present study provides empirical evidence that spelling influences compositional writing, in the middle and upper primary school years. This research extends the work of Abbott et al. (2010) who assert that ‘spelling bridges idea generation and text generation’ (p. 296). If spelling is an arduous task, it is possible that the cognitive demands become greater and the precision of a compositional text may then be compromised. Richards, Berninger, and Fayol (2009) claim that ‘teaching spelling as a skill that draws on multiple language sources’ is important because it ‘may provide the intellectual engagement that students need to become proficient at spelling the words they choose to use’ (p. 346). when expressing their ideas in a written text.

Difficulty with written language conventions can negatively impact on the overall quality of writing (Berninger et al., 2002) and influence an individual’s motivation and confidence to write (Snowling, 2000). A proficient writer is able to efficiently use and manipulate language conventions when composing a written text (Fang & Wang, 2011). Therefore, it is not surprising that, in the study reported here, as much as 43% of the variance in written composition was explained by the three language convention measures. It follows that if a writer displays autonomy and agency with spelling, grammar and punctuation, they may be more motivated and confident to write.

Although the NAPLAN Language Conventions Test is limited to tasks that require students to identify and edit spelling errors in one- and two-syllable words, as well as to identify and label some common grammatical and punctuation conventions, the results found in the present study 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. While the NAPLAN Language Conventions Test is underpinned by a ‘traditional’ measure of grammar, whereby a finite collection of language rules and labels are disassociated with the notion that language can vary as a function of context (Derewianka, 2012), the NAPLAN Writing Test seeks to measure students’ capacity to control and manipulate the multitude of resources needed to craft a meaningful text. With this in mind, the findings of this study suggest that there is a relationship between students’ ability to identify, correct and/or label a set of constrained or disassociated grammatical conventions and their capacity to coordinate the multiple resources needed to compose a well-crafted written text.

Arguably, classroom teachers often devote greater attention to identifying and correcting poor punctuation in students’ written compositions rather than focussing on the assessment and explicit teaching of other writing elements (Mackenzie et al., 2013). While punctuation is an important skill to learn, for some students regardless of their age, spelling may be more important and will require explicit instructional attention. Indeed, even though previous research has highlighted the importance of learning to spell in the first few years of formal schooling (see, e.g, Puranik & Al Otaiba, 2012), the results of this study highlight that spelling instruction continues to be important throughout the years of primary schooling.

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Conclusion

Despite rapid advances in information and communication technologies, written language conventions deserve recognition in pedagogy, educational policy development and research. One of the key challenges is to ensure instruction in spelling, grammar and punctuation are carefully balanced with other important aspects of written text creation, such as text structure, vocabulary usage and handwriting.

As with any research, limitations are inevitable and new questions and possibilities arise. Importantly, it needs to be recognised that the relationships reported in this study do not provide causal evidence. Moreover, despite a gender imbalance in the sample, with fewer male students agreeing to take part in the study, results indicate that spelling, grammar and punctuation jointly influenced compositional writing for both males and females. Replication of the study with student populations from other jurisdictions and sectors is needed to build on the findings of this study. In addition, utilisation of Year 7 and Year 9 NAPLAN data in future research is recommended in order to examine whether spelling remains influential in the high school years, when compared to grammar and punctuation.

While the present study has revealed that language conventions skills are important components of writing, they leave much of the differences in performance unexplained. Hence, a crucial question arising from this research is about the factors that might contribute to explaining the remaining differences in performance. Potential contributors to explaining the remaining variance in written composition may encompass a range of academic and cognitive factors such as vocabulary knowledge, handwriting fluency, prior general knowledge and memory functioning, along with possible behavioural factors such as motivation and self-efficacy with writing. Further research is required to explore these additional factors. Building a comprehensive understanding of the complex web of influential factors associated with compositional writing can inform instructional approaches in writing and can guide educational policy and curriculum development in this important literacy skill. The study described in this article provides another piece in the puzzle as to how children become competent and confident writers in primary school.

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