Terry Bowles

Learning to write in Year 1 is vital: new research findings

By the time children are eight they can spend up to half their day at school involved in a range of lessons that require them to write. Consequently, children who struggle with writing can be seriously disadvantaged.

My colleagues and I decided to investigate what was happening with the teaching and learning of writing in the vital second year of schooling, Year 1.

Learning to write is quite different to learning to read

Learning to write is quite complex and it is a skill we develop over a lifetime. Many adults find writing at work quite challenging. From that perspective it is quite different to learning to read. Most people can read quite well by about mid primary school and then difficulty is only determined by the content, context and familiarity with the language being used.

Learning to write however, has been likened by one researcher as similar to learning to play a musical instrument, it takes dedication, good teaching and lots and lots of practice to master. In the USA, research that explored adults’ ability to write suggests that poorly written job applications are a problem for many aspiring job seekers and many salaried employees in large companies require intensive writing instruction so they can write at the necessary standard for their jobs.

So what makes writing so complex you might ask? Firstly it is physical (handwriting or typing) but secondly it requires thinking and planning at lots of different levels simultaneously.

Authorial and secretarial writing

Specifically, writing involves two different groups of skills: authorial and secretarial.

The authorial writing skills are those involving understanding how to create a particular kind of written text (e.g. a business letter or a report), how to construct sentences in an appropriate way for the particular text and how to choose the best words to make your intended message clear to the reader. The secretarial writing dimensions or skills are focussed on spelling, punctuation and either handwriting or keyboarding.

We use quite different writing styles when we write for different purposes and audiences. For example, I write a lot in my role as a university academic but this is my first blog posting. I have had to think about how to write this blog posting quite differently to the way I think when I write a research article for a research journal. Children often start their formal writing with recounts but they then learn how to write narratives, letters, reports, persuasive texts and more.

Bringing the authorial and secretarial skills together is quite demanding for writers.

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.

What our study involved

In our study we were interested in how children in year 1 were managing the authorial and secretarial writing skills. We gathered samples from schools in NSW and Victoria at the middle and end of year 1. We analysed the samples using a tool which we designed for this purpose. (For details on the tool we used and to see some of the samples we collected please go to the Writing Analysis Tool HERE.)

Our findings

Our study provides interesting reading. Some of the findings were:

  • Children made improvement in all writing dimensions from the middle to end of Year 1, suggesting this is an important period of learning for them.
  • Across the samples the growth in sentence structure (an authorial skill) spelling, handwriting and punctuation (secretarial skills) were smaller than the growth in text structure, vocabulary use (both authorial skills). Sentence structure and punctuation showed the smallest amount of change from the middle to the end of the year.
  • Children were allowed to choose what they wrote about and most chose to write recounts (e.g. On the weekend I went to the football . . .)
  • Samples were examined in relation to each participating school’s Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) score as an indicator of Socio-Economic Status (SES). We found that in the middle of year 1, samples from schools with low ICSEA scores were not as strong as those schools with average or high ICSEA scores on all of the authorial and secretarial dimensions. However, by the end of the year, samples from children attending schools with low ICSEA scores had improved and had actually caught up with the children from schools with high ICSEA scores in terms of sentence structure.
  • Girls in the study performed marginally but consistently higher than boys on all dimensions at both data collection times. It is important to note however, that many boys achieved the mean scores for the girls.
  • We had a small number (40) of students in the study for whom English was an additional language. On average these children demonstrated scores on all dimensions at both data collection times that were marginally lower than the children for whom English was their first language. It is important to note however, that the EAL children’s gains between data collection points were greater than the non EAL children in 4/6 dimensions (text structure, sentence structure, vocabulary and handwriting). While they hadn’t yet caught up with their non EAL peers, they were making good strides towards doing just that.
  • In the second round of data collection, there was an interesting relationship between spelling and text structure.

Where to from here

Success with the authorial dimensions of writing means a child can organise their writing using a format which is appropriate for the intended purpose (e.g. a report or letter), write in grammatically correct sentences and carefully choose words so that readers can easily understand their intended message. Success with secretarial dimensions means a child can use tools like spelling, punctuation and handwriting (or keyboarding), to be able to write easily and efficiently and make their writing easy to read.

Our research can help teachers pinpoint children’s writing strengths and needs and track their progress. Teaching can become more focused in this way. We believe teachers of writing in the early years of schooling will find our research useful in their everyday classroom practices.



MackenzieDr Noella Mackenzie is a Senior Lecturer in literacy studies at Charles Sturt University, Albury. She provides CSU students with current, authentic learning opportunities and assessment tasks which link contemporary literacy and relevant technologies with teaching and learning theories, practices and pedagogies. Noella is a member of the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education (RIPPLE). For the past 8 years, Noella has focused on the teaching and learning of writing. The program of research has included (1) the examination of the relationship between drawing and learning to write, (2) the transition experiences of early writers and (3) writing development in the early years. Her research informs, and is informed by, her ongoing professional work with teachers in schools and her university teaching. Noella has been recognised for teaching excellence through awards at the state and national levels.

The full study by Noella Mackenzie, Janet Scull and Terry Bowles is available HERE

There is a better way to select prospective teachers than just by grade scores and interviews

 Teacher selection and teacher education are back in the spotlight. Media and political attention is particularly focused on the current practices and processes of selecting students for teacher education courses in universities. As we see it, few of these courses have rigorous testing procedures and there has been an over-reliance on grade scores and interview for selection.

More than 30 % of Australian teacher education students do not complete their course, and a further 30% do not remain in the teaching profession after 3–5 years. There can be high personal and institutional financial costs associated with the poor selection of teaching candidates. Significantly, schools and school students can be affected when someone ill suited to the teaching profession is put in front of a classroom. We believe improvement in teacher education student selection is possible.

We propose a new model of selection that encompasses the most common methods of selection currently being used and is evidence based. Our model comprises of previous achievements, tests of ability and reasoning, a measure of a prospective teacher’s capacity to interact socially as well as measures of  ‘self’, including personality factors, self regulation and resilience. Improving the selection of student teacher candidates will maximize the chances of a graduating teacher candidate who is more effective in the classroom and who is more likely to want to stay in the profession.

Our proposed model is a complex, multiphase approach. This is an important issue because previous selection procedures have not kept pace with procedures and practices in other industry sectors. Just as there are and should be multiple pathways to teaching correspondingly there should be multiple methods for selection and an evidence base for their use. We acknowledge that the processes we advocate are contentious and form a small part of a much larger national and international debate about the role of testing and teacher quality.

We suggest that Deans of Education and institutions need to define the types and characteristics of students required for the program(s) they offer and develop standards for selection, not unlike the process recommended for setting standards in teaching Next, the factors on which students should be selected, in line with the course and its aims, should be identified. Development of consistent and valid methods for measuring the factors follows. Next, the standards required to be achieved on each factor need to be identified. Indicating which factors of selection relate to student behaviour in the teacher education program, and which factors relate directly to professional teaching needs to be identified.

Our model of teacher selection is comprised of three phases:

(1) the application phase,

(2) the assessment phase, and

(3) the structured behavioural interview.

Completing the three phases allows students to reflect as they engage, cognitively and affectively, to consider the factors salient for student teaching and teaching as a future profession. Following is a discussion and justification for these dimensions of the selection process.

Application phase

In the application phase, students are asked to provide information about their past and present aspirations associated with the application. Specifically they are asked to reflect on and answer questions related to previous experience relevant for preservice teaching, a justification for applying, their educational experience and achievements, and prior work experience. There is no requirement to provide personal or professional references, as these have not been shown to be useful.

The written responses are coded for quality on three dimensions. First, the quality of the responses are assessed in terms of content—information about the candidate as a teaching student and teaching graduate and their knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about quality teaching. Second, the answers provide insights against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Third, the test can be analysed for literacy quality on a range of dimensions and provide information about the candidate’s literacy competence.

Assessment phase

A number of personal attributes and capabilities are assessed during the Assessment Phase. This phase provides most of the information associated with Ability, the Self and Social Interaction.


To complement and validate academic performance, a measure of general cognitive ability including numerical, verbal and spatial reasoning tasks is included. General cognitive ability has been shown to be a good predictor of occupational attainment performance.


The measures of self include: personality, self-regulation and resilience.

The most well supported model of personality is the big five factor (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and neuroticism) model. It has been accepted as a valid means of informing decisions about career selection, student/program fit and future success in a teaching career.

Extraversion is the tendency to be social, warm and energetic; Agreeableness is the tendency to show empathy, encourage cooperation, avoid conflict and easily work with others; Conscientiousness is defined as the disposition to be organized, committed and hard-working; Openness reflects the individuals’ tendencies for creativity, free thinking and broad mindedness; and Neuroticism is defined as the individuals’ tendencies for emotional insecurity and sensitivity.

In addition to personality, other measures of the self, such as self-regulation are relevant to teaching. Self-regulation is important in occupations in which strain and stress is likely.

Resilience is the third ‘Self’ construct included in the battery as it has also been suggested that resilience is necessary for success in teacher education courses and also in teaching. Teachers face a number of stressors including behaviour management, time pressures, workload and unsupportive leadership. High levels of attrition and burnout, particularly in early career teachers, are a testament to this.

Social interaction

Social Interaction factors are essential to teachers and relevant to most work places, so we defined it as including: communication, fairness and norms, cultural sensitivity and self-awareness.

Fairness and norms measure the values of the individual when making and evaluating ethical decisions and actions. In the classroom, the teacher often balances the needs of the individual with those of the group. Moreover, the teacher maintains relationships with students, while following school policies and the teacher’s own expectations of student behaviour. Acting in a democratic and fair manner is important for student teacher and teacher success and is assumed to be an essential and fundamental aspect of teaching.

A teacher’s general sensitivity to culture is important, and training to understand hidden biases or false expectations and misperceptions towards their students should happen in pre service teacher education.


The final questionnaire associated specifically with the self and is related procedure to determine if respondents are overstating the positive in responses. It is a validity check similar to a standard lie scale and assesses whether candidates are providing overly positive responses. Self-awareness is defined as the candidate responding in a desirable manner rather than providing an accurate reflection of their own qualities.

Structured behavioural interviewing stage

Behavioural structured interviewing is a type of interview that uses past behaviour to understand likely future performance. Candidates are asked to describe their experiences and relate them to how they will perform in social contexts similar to teaching. This form of questioning is known to assess occupational knowledge, experience and judgement and is effective at predicting job performance.

Behavioural structured interviewing is a disciplined approach designed to guard against the tendency to select in a biased manner when interviewing.

Final rank and offer stage

The selection and weighting of components of entry tests can be varied. Some institutions may wish to privilege aspects of achievement over self and ability. Others may wish to rely on a combination of grades, for example, grades from the last full year of study and ability scores.

Making the equation and weighting coefficients in the equation to calculate scores and criteria for entry is also informed by the philosophy of the faculty or school making the selection. Successful candidates would be provided with their own profile. Such data could be used to assist the student to set individual goals that may have an impact on their scholarly work, their placements and their general preparation for teaching practice.

The model described here is not prescriptive or finite. Our major long term interest is to develop evidence-informed best practice thus we started with a wide base that will most probably shrink as evidence grows. We hope that the various justifications and reasons for selecting students will be accompanied, in future, with strong arguments justifying more than simply selection on the basis of a single, simple criterion. Further, that correspondingly each selection method will complement the course and the course can be adjusted to meet the needs of each cohort and their designed destination. It is also anticipated that as research grows in this area theories explaining the link from entry to education to career will grow.


TerryBowles2Terry Bowles is a Senior Lecturer in educational and Developmental Psychology at the University of Melbourne. Previously he has taught in primary and secondary schools as a teacher and psychologist. He currently works in the postgraduate Educational and Developmental Psychology program at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education preparing psychology graduates and supervising PhD projects. He lectures in psychological testing, research and practice issues. He has written and presented widely on psychological factors associated with motivation, achievement, change, personality and social and emotional learning. He is responsible for the TeacherSelector research project and test development.

This blog post is based on the paper Proposing a comprehensive model for identifying teaching candidates by Terry Bowles, John Hattie, Stephen Dinham, Janet Scull and Janet Clinton.

John Hattie is Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne. His areas of interest are models of measurement and their applications in educational settings, and related to learning, teaching and leadership. His previous appointments range from Auckland, North Carolina, Western Australia, to New England. He was chief moderator of the NZ Performance Based Research Fund, President of the International Test Commission, Associate Editor of the British Journal of Educational Psychology. He has published and presented over 550 papers, and supervised 180 theses students.

Stephen Dinham is Chair of Teacher Education and Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Melbourne. He is a former secondary teacher and since entering universities has conducted a wide range of research projects in the areas of educational leadership and change, effective pedagogy/quality teaching, student achievement, postgraduate supervision, professional teaching standards, teachers’ professional development, middle-level leaders in schools, and teacher satisfaction, motivation and health. He has a publication record (more than 300 publications) of books, book chapters, refereed journal articles, and articles in professional journals. He is a frequent presenter at international, national and state conferences (over 470 presentations) and has conducted consultancies with a wide range of educational bodies nationally and internationally. He is national president of the Australian College of Educators and a member of the Council of the Victorian Institute of Teaching.

Janet Scull is an Associate Professor, Language acquisition and literacy, at Monash University. She is an experienced language and literacy educator and, as a key author of the Victorian Early Years Literary Program, has contributed to the design of systemic approaches to literacy teaching and learning. Janet’s research to date has explored language and literacy acquisition processes alongside literacy assessment and teaching in the early years. She is particularly interested in exploring relationships between language, literacy and learning. Janet is currently working on a number of research projects that include a focus on writing in the early years, bilingualism and biliteracy, teaching to support Indigenous students’ literacy learning and teacher selection.

Janet Clinton is the Director of the Centre for Program Evaluation at the University of Melbourne. She is a psychologist and educator with an extensive publication record and is currently the co-editor of the Evaluation Journal of Australasia. Her evaluation experience extends across national and international contexts includes over 150 different evaluation projects. Associate Professor Clinton currently teaches several postgraduate papers in evaluation, and supervises a number of PhD students, Her primary areas of interest and expertise in the area of evaluation include the use of standard setting as a methodological tool, subsequently; developing useable standards for a variety of sectors has been a focus of much of her research. She also has considerable experience in evaluation capacity building.