Christine Cartwright

The purpose of this probe study was to re-analyse a sample from a 1998 NEMP writing task that examined students’ ability to plan, compose and edit their writing. The data available offered the opportunity to consider students ability to understand and implement specific writing skills, such as spelling, punctuation, sentence structure and overall sense in proofing and editing their work. The difference in results between year 4 students and year 8 students, and gender and ability groupings at each level were considered.

The task required the students to produce a piece of personal writing. They were asked to plan and write a true story about a place that was special to them. Following the planning time on Day One and the spontaneous writing session on Day Two, the children were asked to check and correct their work on Day 3. It was at this stage that an understanding of the conventions of writing, such as spelling, punctuation, sentence structure and overall sense, would be used to proof and edit their work. It is their use of writing conventions that is the focus of this study.
171 scripts (92 year 4 and 79 year 8 students), representing a randomly selected 25% sample of the original NEMP sample, were analysed. A framework for coding each script recorded the type of planning strategy used; the linkage between planning and writing; any evidence and accuracy of editing and proof reading, particularly for spelling, punctuation, grammar and making sense; and the completion of the task in the time available.

The analysis revealed that almost all students used some form of planning strategy Lists, followed by brainstorming, were the strategies most commonly used. Girls used planning strategies more consistently than the boys did. A general lack of self-correction during the Day Two writing process was evident with 43% at year 4 and 24% at year 8 students making no effort to proof and edit their work. The number of spelling errors were similar in the writing samples of year 4 and year 8 students.

The year 4 students’, particularly those in the low ability group, showed greater attention in their use of basic punctuation, than the year 8 students, indicating perhaps a greater focus by these students on surface features of writing. High ability students, on the other hand demonstrated good use of a range of planning strategies, and a higher competence in sentence structure. The author of this report believes that there was considerable scope for improvement in planning composing and editing at both levels.

The importance of the planning phase, teaching a variety of planning methods and ensuring adequate background knowledge need to be focused on to support the writing process.

There is little evidence that students are learning ‘sound’ sentence construction which implies there is a need for it to be modelled, taught and understood at all levels. It would help to build students’ knowledge of writing conventions and formats if a broad range of writing experiences are offered to them and the benefits of shared and guided writing are recognised.

  The principles of proofreading and editing need to be encouraged and understood. Self-correction during the writing process to ensure meaning should become a matter of routine.

Schools need to further develop teaching practices on such matters as error identification and self-correction, development of a spelling conscience from an early age, elementary punctuation, and engaging in shared writing to provide good models, particularly in sentence structure.

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The full report of this probe study will be available on this website by September 2011 or can be obtained from USEE.