One aspect of writing comes up repeatedly in my conversations with teachers – and that is how parents perceive how, and what, we mark to measure success.
Most parents are very interested in the writing capabilities of their children. Effective writing is a marker of capability with language, and is the means by which students demonstrate their learning. Effective writing may also be perceived as a measure of intelligence. It’s not, but it is no wonder that parents are interested.
Engaging stories, powerful persuasive texts, elegant descriptions and tight, unambiguous factual prose are all part of the K-6 English curriculum content, and are what teachers are teaching.
Yet the one feature of writing that grabs immediate attention for parents is spelling. Why should this be so when spelling is only one aspect of the development of writing skills addressed in our classrooms? How can we get our parents to see beyond the letters on the page to the meaning and understanding about text that their children demonstrate?
Correct spelling is important, as it is a measure of capability with the language. Efficient readers use prediction of words and their context to read quickly, and they have expectations of what is coming in the text. This fluency is interrupted when there are spelling errors, by slowing down the flow, and taking attention away from the message. It can be interpreted as lack of capability on the part of the author.
However, accurate spelling is not a measure of writing success. This is measured in the features of text.
Features of text
In the functional view of language that informs the Australian Curriculum and NSW syllabus documents, text is considered at the following levels:
- Semantic or meaning: achievement of purpose. Is the text primarily imaginative, persuasive or informative? Does it have the structural features appropriate to the purpose? Is the vocabulary appropriate for the text?
- Grammatical features of the whole text: grammatical choices appropriate to imaginative, persuasive or informative text, including paragraphing; cohesion across the text; tense
- Grammatical features of clauses and sentences: the detail of clause and sentence structure; subject/verb agreement; the punctuation of sentence markers
- Word level: are the words that have been used spelled correctly?
A text has to do what it is meant to do. It has to have the features appropriate to its purpose, and to use clauses and sentences appropriately. The words used need to be spelled correctly. These are not rigid, isolated delineations, and there may be some overlap. But these are the measures of success.
Mackenzie (2015) articulated the different groups of skills involved in writing as authorial and secretarial. The differentiation is significant.
Authorial skills of writing
These are the skills students learn and develop as composers – how to create texts for particular purposes, how to use appropriate grammatical constructions and vocabulary, how to effectively make meaning clear. These skills relate to the first three of the characteristics above.
Secretarial skills of writing
These are the skills associated with spelling, punctuation and either handwriting or using a keyboard. They sit at the ‘word’ level. Spelling is not a measure of the success of the writing. Spelling is a secretarial skill.
If a writer is concentrating on one or more secretarial skills it is harder for them to think about the authorial skills. Think about it as trying to keep lots of balls in the air at the same time.
Building parent understandings about writing – what we know
- We know that our in frequent measures of writing, we endeavour to reflect students’ achievement of syllabus outcomes.
- We know that we need to move parents on from just looking at spelling, that familiar understanding about one component of effective writing, to the more extensive, functional language-based one that we work with in our classrooms.
- We know that elements of effective writing are measured nationally by NAPLAN in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. These criteria reflect the features of text described above. Check those for narrative writing and persuasive writing. These criteria are understandable and accessible, and can provide the basis for educating our parents about writing being more than the organisation of letters in words.
- We know that the purpose for writing needs to be clear for our students in both our planning and our teaching. We also need to make this purpose clear to our parents. It is OK to say that this week in our writing we are focused on developing noun groups, for example, and that spelling will be dealt with in spelling.
- We know we are teaching spelling effectively when students are able to transfer spelling knowledge and understandings to their writing. That is our goal, and we constantly examine our practice to ensure this.
What we need to do – being explicit
- Teach spelling well in spelling
- Teach writing well in writing by demonstrating the value of our students’ writing – reading aloud, displaying, putting writing on show so parents can see and hear what is important
- Make writing tasks relevant to our students’ lives.
ACARA (2017) https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Search/?q=Spelling accessed 04/03/2019
Adoniou, M. (2016) Spelling it Out: How words work and how to teach them (Version 8 January 2019) Cambridge University Press: UK
Mackenzie, N. (2015) Learning to write in Year 1 is vital: new research findings EduResearch Matters, AARE November 23, 2015 https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?tag=noella-mackenzie accessed 04/05/2019