Connecting the Dots from Oral to Written Language

A new study examines whether telling and retelling stories out loud in a classroom setting helps first-graders’ writing quality.

Authors: Trina D. Spencer and Douglas B. Petersen
(Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, Vol. 49, 569–581, July 2018)

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, a vast majority of elementary students fall below their grade level in writing; this statistic is even more stark among minority students and those with disabilities. However, this should not be surprising given how little time is devoted to true writing instruction, apart from the mechanics of handwriting. It is widely known that oral narration precedes written narration, with a strong connection between the two due to a shared brain process. From the time a child learns to speak to when they learn to write, their sole form of communication is through oral narration. For this reason, “oral language abilities are foundational to writing” (571). Furthermore, it is evident that a young student is unable to write what they cannot say or think. For this research piece conducted by Trina Spencer and Douglas Petersen, the hypothesis being tested is if an improvement in oral narration and language would lead to an improvement of writing skills.

The overall goal of this study was to establish the extent, if any, an increase in oral narrative language contributed to first-graders’ narrative writing quality, and if this was maintained after intervention ended. The intervention was an instructional program called Story Champs, shown to have positive results among young students. Story Champs is a 7-step intervention that involves repetitions of telling and retelling stories out loud in a group classroom setting. Seven first-grade students (3 girls, 4 boys) from the same classroom participated in the study, all English-speaking and varying in abilities. The research design had 3 basic steps: baseline, intervention, and maintenance. At each step, the researchers collected writing samples for all 7 students and used a scoring rubric to evaluate their performance. As part of the scoring rubric, called the Narrative Language Measures (NLM) Flow Chart, story grammar and language complexity were the two variables being evaluated.

Based on this evaluation, the researchers observed significant growth in writing quality in all students, with the exception of one. Most of this improvement was seen in the grammar section of the grading scale, with minor improvements in language complexity. Even after the intervention had ended, students still used what they had learned in their stories, helping to answer the second part of the research question. The results support the claim that progress in writing can be made in the absence of typical transcription instruction. The implications of this research infer the step between story grammar schema from oral narration to the written modality may be smaller than once thought. This could help establish future classroom programs to target writing.

Overall, this research helps to connect the dots from oral to written language. Although this provides only preliminary evidence, these results could lead to further writing instruction strategies that cater to the diverse needs of students. Since it is not necessary for handwriting to be mastered for this program, it allows for intervention to start even earlier—a known key to success. Then, once transcription is mastered, students’ writing quality will incrementally become better because the foundation for grammar has already been established.

The full journal article is available via paid access at ASHAWire.