In Australia, children are expected to develop computer-based writing skills as soon as they start schooling yet the writing performance of students is plateauing or even declining.
The role of research in understanding writing development
Given global concerns about the decline in writing performance among school-aged children, it becomes fundamental to understand how student-level factors (i.e. students’ literacy skills, attitudes, and gender) as well as classroom-level factors (i.e., time dedicated to different instructional practices, teachers’ experience, training and efficacy) contribute to the development of students’ computer-based writing.
Early performance in writing is associated with later performance. We argue it is essential to understand these factors in early primary education first.
Since 2015, our team has developed the Writing for All research initiative to investigate the diverse factors that shape writing acquisition and development in primary education. The paper discussed here investigated both student and classroom-level factors impacting on children’s computer-based writing performance.
How was this study conducted?
Our study involved 544 Year 2 students enrolled in 47 classrooms from 17 primary schools in Western Australia. Students were assessed on a range of literacy skills including word reading, reading comprehension, spelling, keyboarding automaticity (i.e., how many letters of the alphabet students could accurately type in 15 seconds), computer-based text production (i.e., total number of words typed when writing a narrative) and computer-based text quality (i.e., a combined score of 10 criteria of compositional quality aligned with curricular expectations for Year 2 students).
In addition, students reported on their attitude towards writing in computers using an emoji-based scale that ranged from awful to fantastic. The teachers of these students completed a survey, reporting on classroom-based factors including teacher experience, education, and preparation to teach writing; time for writing practice and teaching writing; writing activities completed during the school year; and instructional practices supporting writing development.
The focus of our analysis was to examine which student and classroom level factors were the strongest predictors of computer-based text production and quality. In conducting this analysis, we accounted for potential variations explained by the students’ membership to different classrooms.
What we found
Two key findings emerged from our research. The first one refers to the importance of keyboarding automaticity in predicting how much students could write using computers as well as the quality of what they produced.
What is automaticity? Being able to type quickly and accurately.
While connections between automaticity, production and quality have been well established in handwriting research, our study is one of the first few to demonstrate the importance of keyboarding automaticity in the generation of computer-based texts.
Developing keyboarding automaticity is said to free our limited working memory capacity towards more complex writing processes, such as developing a compelling and well-structured narrative. Simply put, if we must direct our efforts to finding where the letters in the keyboard are, it is going to be challenging to formulate and retain the sentences we want to write, let alone thinking how those sentences may fit as part of a paragraph structure or as part of the broader story line.
Given literature suggesting male advantage in performance and attitudes towards technology, we were surprised to see that female students wrote longer and higher quality computer-based texts. In fact, female students showed higher levels of typing automaticity and more positive attitudes towards writing when compared to their male counterparts.
Female students also performed better in reading comprehension tasks. Gender differences in favour of female students have been previously reported by research examining paper-based text composing, including in Australia. Our study extends these findings to computer-generated texts. While there are different mechanisms theorised to give rise to these differences (developmental vs. cultural), longitudinal studies are greatly needed to further examine when and how gender-based differences in writing emerge and become a pattern.
What are the implications of our research?
Overall, our findings reinforce the need to create classroom environments that explicitly support children to compose high quality computer-based texts, aiming to foster effective writing development in the digital age. We argue the explicit teaching of keyboarding, in addition to regular opportunities for practice in the context of meaningful writing tasks, is critical to support keyboarding automaticity.
It’s also vital to support students’ engagement in the more complex aspects of computer-based text composition, including developing the ideas to be communicated, how to structure them, and how to present them in ways that capture the intended audience’s attention.
With gender directly impacting children’ computer-based writing performance, it seems critical to develop differentiated keyboarding instruction and practice in the early years to address a potential gender gap in subsequent years of schooling. However, there is much to learn about what writing instruction currently looks like in Australian classrooms, including practices for differentiation.
Our previous studies examining teachers’ reported practices suggest that there are important variations in terms of how much time teachers invest in explicitly teaching handwriting and how much time children spend practising handwriting. In addition, teachers differ on the emphasis they place on aspects of writing such spelling, grammar, punctuation, planning for writing and revising written texts.
While some insights have been gathered locally and internationally on paper and pencil writing instruction, the picture is blurrier when it comes to keyboarding instruction. This study can be considered an initial step towards disentangling a rather complicated but critical puzzle in the education of proficient writers across paper and digital domains.
Dr Anabela Malpique is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. Her research interests focus on literacy development, particularly in writing development and instruction. She is leading the Writing for All initiative aiming to expand knowledge on individual and contextual- level factors explaining writing development from early-childhood till late adulthood. Her research involves typically developing writers in primary and secondary schools. Email: email@example.com
Dr Deborah Pino-Pasternak is an Associate Professor at University of Canberra. Her research interests concern young children’s development of self-regulatory skills and how those are fostered or hindered by home and school environments, with an emphasis on the quality of parent-child and teacher-student interactions. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Anabela and Deborah investigate how cognitive skills and instructional environments contribute to the early development of writers. The project, Writing for all: Studying the development of handwriting and keyboarding skills in the Early Years, with Professor Susan Ledger (University of Newcastle) is funded by The Ian Potter Foundation.