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Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center


Child Reading

Writing in the Early Years

By: Mia Daucourt

Writing is one of our primary forms of communication in school and the workplace. As phone calls are replaced by emails and Skype chats, personal blogging continues to offer new avenues for making money, and remote workplaces that rely on written communication continue to grow, writing is becoming an increasingly important skill for success in many new realms. Based on the results of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, however, only 30% of 8 th and 12 th graders are proficient writers. That’s less than one third of our middle and high schoolers! How are we going to tackle this staggering problem and make sure our kids can write? Like most academic difficulties, the best way to address writing deficiencies is through early identification and intervention but targeting children’s writing as a whole is too broad. Instead, we need to pinpoint and target student’s precise areas of weakness in writing. In addition, we need to figure out which skills are most important to target at which points in time. That way, we can tailor our instructional practices to be age-appropriate for each grade. Promisingly, Kim and colleagues (2017) conducted a study to figure out how writing and the individual skills that go into writing develop over time in order to help address these needs.

Based on the simple view of writing, writing is the product of two skills: transcription and text generation. Transcription is a basic skill that captures children’s ability to translate sounds into print. It’s how we take what is spoken and put it into written form, and it is often measured through spelling and handwriting. Text generation is a more complex skill that measures children’s ability to translate their ideas into language. It’s how we translate our intentions and ideas into the “right” words to get our point across. Building on the simple view of writing, Kim and colleagues (2017) also included the skill of writing fluency, which they defined as how accurately, quickly, and automatically writing occurs. Basically, it’s the level of unconscious efficiency in our writing. The study looked at all three writing components— transcription, text generation, and writing fluency—over two academic years to see how the interplay between these skills would change over time as children’s writing abilities developed.

To fully capture children’s writing abilities, Kim and colleagues (2017) gave a number of tests that measured skills that support writing, like listening comprehension, and vocabulary and three writing prompts to a group of ethnically- diverse second and third grade students (234 second graders and 260 third graders) from low socioeconomic status backgrounds. Specifically, children were asked to respond to writing prompts that asked them to describe something exciting that happened one day when they got home from school, to choose their favorite game and give three reasons why, and to write a letter to their parents about an animal they would like to have as a pet and justify their choice. The quality of the children’s responses, which captured their translation ability, was evaluated based on organization, proper use of transition words, and the uniqueness of the children’s ideas. The children’s writing fluency was also measured by comparing their writing productivity, which was their total number of words written, to ratios of correct to incorrect uses of grammar and spelling.

Overall, the study results showed that many distinct skills contribute to writing, and the relationships between, and importance of, these skills changes over time. Interestingly, the results supported the addition of writing fluency to the Simple View of Writing and the idea that what matters for writing changes over time. For second graders, transcription and oral language abilities were the most vital skills for writing achievement. Given that both of these are foundational skills, it makes sense that they would have a more pronounced role in early elementary grades when they are still being sharpened and mastered. On the other hand, third graders showed a less pronounced reliance on basic skills, and instead, relied more on their writing fluency ability. This means that throughout their second grade, year children are most likely building up their basic writing skills, and those skills are explaining how children are doing in their writing. They still have to think about how to make sounds into letters and translate their ideas into words. Once these basic skills are well-formed by the end of third grade, their more advanced skills, like the ease with which they are able to write (aka, their writing fluency) become more important for their writing. Moving forward, teachers can use this information to tailor their writing instruction in order to improve children’s long-term writing outcomes by focusing on the right skills at the right time. For example, second grade teachers should focus on systematic and explicit instruction in transcription skills and oral language skills to ensure mastery by the end of the year.

Kim, Y.G., Gatlin, B., Al Otaiba, S., & Wanzek, J. (2017). Theorization and an empirical investigation of component-based and developmental text writing fluency construct. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1-16. doi: 10.1177/002221941771216