Predictors of Writing Success

Writing Conventions:  Putting the Puzzle Together

Title: Predictors of writing success: How important are spelling, grammar and punctuation?
Author(s): Daffern, T; Mackenzie, N.M; Hemmings, B
Source: Australian Journal of Education 2017, Vol. 61(1) 75–87

Abstract: This study explored the relationship between three microstructure writing skills, i.e. the writing conventions of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and the quality of essays written. It examined the three components and their relationship to writing using the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy Language Conventions Test (NAPLAN), and it tested the quality of written composition using the NAPLAN Writing Test. The findings revealed that spelling, grammar, and punctuation do predict written composition skill, with spelling being the main predictor.

Participants/Studies Included: This article uses data from 819 primary school students from eight different catholic schools in Australia. The students were from grades 3-6 and were split into four different cohorts by grade level (Year 3, Year 4, Year 5, and Year 6).

Research Design: Mixed-methods study, subsample from a larger study

Methods: The NAPLAN Language Conventions Test required the students to identify and revise spelling errors in one-syllable and two-syllable words, presented either isolated or in a short sentence. It also required the identification and labeling of common grammatical and punctuation components, such as the correct use of pronouns, conjunctions and verb forms. The NAPLAN Writing Test consisted of a response to a selected topic by writing a persuasive composition; it weighed students’ ability to combine and apply linguistic devices in order to construct a persuasive argument. Measured, for example, were use of: appropriate vocabulary; persuasive devices; elaboration of ideas; and text cohesion. Test graders were required to undergo training prior to grading the tests.

Analysis: A multiple regression analysis was used to determine the individual and joint effect of the three writing conventions on the writing quality of essays written by primary age students.


Data revealed that spelling was the main predictor of essay variance across all age and grade levels, although all three conventions (spelling, grammar, and punctuation) jointly and significantly predicted essay skill variance also. They were less influential, however, in grade 6. Overall, as much as 43% of the variance in essay writing skills was explained by the three language convention measures.

Implications: The results suggest that microscopic features (most notably spelling) do influence the quality of students’ essay writing. The authors cite research suggesting that difficulty with spelling may cause students to focus on spelling words correctly and be thus less able to perform other cognitive tasks needed to produce organized and cohesive essay content. As noted, “difficulty with writing conventions may [thus] influence an individual’s motivation and confidence to write” (Daffern, et. Al, p. 83). Suggested is that primary school teachers should incorporate instruction in spelling, grammar, and punctuation when teaching composition.

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