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Developing student writing skills

How important is spelling, grammar and punctuation when it comes to primary students’ achievement in writing composition?

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 in the Australian Journal of Education.

Their research focused on first-draft compositional writing in the primary school years. 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 … 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.

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.

In the NAPLAN test, students need to identify and edit spelling errors and identify and label grammatical and punctuation conventions. ‘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 but stress 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, T., Mackenzie, N. M., & Hemmings, B. (2017). Predictors of writing success: How important are spelling, grammar and punctuation? Australian Journal of Education, 61(1), 75-87.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of Australian Council for Educational Research. To read the full article and to read more articles like this visit www.teachermagazine.com.au