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

By Noella Mackenzie

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

6 thoughts on “Learning to write in Year 1 is vital: new research findings

  1. Thanks Noella,

    I found your article very interesting. I am wondering about the impact of the relative vocabulary size and oral language skills (most evident for school beginners) between those children from disadvantaged and EAL families then compared with their advantaged peers.. In that regard, I am astonished to read that by the end of year one, some of students in low ICSEA had matched outcomes achieved by students in high ICSEA schools. I am wondering whether home environment is the factor that allows this to happen.

  2. Thanks for your comment Irene. The children from schools with low ICSEA scores caught up in their use of the authorial dimension of ‘sentence structure’. That is the only dimension that they had been able to catch up – but they had made positive growth in all dimensions.

    Vocabulary and oral language play a big role in children’s writing development and children from schools with high ICSEA scores often come to school with strong vocabularies and good oral language skills. The home environment is of course a huge factor here.

    However, good teaching can go a long way to building a child’s oral language and their vocabulary. Some have even referred to the teaching of vocabulary as an equity issue, deserving of teachers’ time and energy. Children are capable of learning between 5 and 10 new words a day and good teaching can capitalise on that. Reading well chosen books is a fabulous way to build vocabulary. Children’s vocabulary is important to their writing but also their reading, and their ability to express themselves orally.

    I hope that helps

  3. Thanks for your reply ( and so prompt, too), Noella, Apart from good teaching, those disadvantaged students are really crying out for lots of experiences in language-rich environments – the talking (and the drawing) and the writing go hand in hand. I guess good communication (and writing is communicating) is all about self expression in one way or another. Sometimes I wonder if with the all emphasis on the ‘science’ of explicit teaching, we are pinning our teachers and their students onto grids, continuums and rubrics that box them in, if you know what I mean. Anyway, that’s another matter.

    Irene 🙂

  4. Hello again Irene,
    You have absolutely connected with some of my passions – language experience is a must and sadly I think we may have lost some of the spontaneity that allowed teachers to follow children’s interests. Teachers are under a great deal of pressure to focus on measurable outcomes. To me the best teachers are those who can ‘build on what children know and can do’. Have you read my papers on drawing and writing? Check out my webpage – – publications – the article written in 2011 may be of particular interest. If you cannot locate the article email me. I advocate a process of ‘draw – talk – write’ particularly in the first year of school. Self expression is absolutely the key!

  5. I think we are like-minded on this broad topic, Noella, because you are articulating what I learnt over three decades in the classroom. I love language and writing, and generally incorporated creating images (sometimes sculpting with clay) as part of the writing process. I am retired now and I write (and draw) nearly every day. I would be very interested to read that article, Noella, and would appreciate a direct link as I cannot locate it via your website.

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