The importance of knowing starting skills for teaching writing

What do we think when someone asks us how we write? Probably, if our handwriting is legible or if we follow the spelling rules… but writing goes much further.

Writing is representing thought through graphic symbols in a coherent, orderly and meaningful way, following a common thread and using language appropriate to the reader. Thus, the difficult transition from the oral language, of natural and unconscious acquisition, to the written language requires an explicit, regulated and effective teaching.

This teaching, which is usually done as soon as we start going to school, does not start from scratch. Around six years of age, when the formal teaching of writing begins in most countries, boys and girls begin to receive instruction on how to transform their ideas into written words. But they do not come to school with the same degree of knowledge or with the same skills.

Advantages that we can bring from home

Since the 1990s, various investigations have endeavored to identify predictors of textual quality at an early age. Some of these predictors, as might be expected, are directly related to writing, such as spelling skills or legible and fluent handwriting.

However, the quality of the texts written by the student also seems to depend on vocabulary, reading comprehension and fluency, and the ability to correctly read real words and pseudowords.

Finally, skills such as attention or nonverbal reasoning also predict the quality of the written text.

An analysis over time

Our research has analyzed the predictor variables of textual quality taking into account the learning progress, that is, the changes over time in said textual quality.

The analysis of the data derived from continuous assessment showed a clear trend: during the first weeks of the course, the improvement in textual quality is very pronounced, but it tends to stabilize as students become familiar with writing texts (although maintaining an increasing trend). However, differences are detected in this evolution according to the skills that the students brought from home.

Students who start the course with less reading fluency (for example, with slower reading) experience a very rapid improvement in textual quality during the first weeks, perhaps due to the wide learning margin. On the other hand, those who read faster at the beginning of the course obtain higher scores in textual quality, but their improvement in these first weeks is more stable, not as pronounced.

Spelling skills also have a decisive influence on the pace of writing learning. Students with good initial spelling skills significantly improve their writing in the first few weeks, their learning stabilizing later. However, those who start the course with lesser spelling skills maintain a very pronounced improvement throughout the first months of the course.

Writing fluency (that is, how fast you type) seems to follow the same pattern as spelling skills. The students who write faster at the beginning of the course write higher quality texts and improve a lot in the first weeks, although later the quality of their texts remains stable, experiencing little change.

On the other hand, students who write more slowly at the beginning of the course maintain a very significant improvement in textual quality throughout the first months, following a very pronounced growing trend.

Lastly, knowledge of letters does not predict an initial improvement in textual quality, but it does predict a significant improvement after the first month of formal education.

A necessary individualization

These results point to the suitability of individualizing or adapting the methods of teaching writing to the initial abilities of each student.

We tend to think that going “prepared” from home increases the effectiveness of the teaching process. But our results suggest that these previous skills that we bring in our backpack do not define whether we are going to learn better or worse, but they can guide educators on the type of teaching that each student needs. Faced with a homogeneous methodology and content, individualized teaching is preferable, adapted to each student and focused on enhancing their previous skills, whatever they may be.

Thus, students who reach the 1st year of Primary Education without having previously received instruction in calligraphy and spelling will especially benefit from initial writing instruction that emphasizes these two components.

On the other hand, students who start this course with certain reading and writing skills, although not very high, due to having already received prior writing instruction, would especially benefit from combined teaching in simple (spelling and calligraphy) and complex (planning) writing processes. ).

Within our educational system, this would be the case of students who have completed Early Childhood Education but their reading and writing performance at the end of this stage is slightly below that of their reference group.

Lastly, with students with greater reading and writing skills, less emphasis could be placed on spelling and calligraphy, despite the tendency of our educational system to focus exclusively on these aspects in the first levels of Primary Education, and focus teaching on complex skills such as is the planning of the text.

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