A first-of-its-kind study from the University of Kansas (KU), examining three key cognitive functions and their role in learning to write, suggests that insufficient focus on bilingual education has hindered the progress of Hispanic English learners (ELs).
The KU study showed specifically how important word retrieval skills, verbal language skills, and ability to store information in memory are to writing ability. “We found all three variables had a significant predicting effect on students’ English writing ability,” said co-author Anqi Peng, a doctoral student in educational psychology. “In the English model, phonological awareness had a moderate effect, while oral language development and working memory had larger effects. In the Spanish model, oral language development had a negative effect.”
In other words, phonological ability, or word retrieval skills in both languages, positively predicted English writing performance. English oral language development, or verbal language skills (e.g., vocabulary) was also a positive predictor, but those who were proficient Spanish speakers were less likely to be proficient English writers. Working memory of both languages positively affected English writing. Taken together, the researchers said the findings show that only instructing EL students in English presents difficulties to learning to write in the language.
“You’re asking these kids to write academically in a second language, but they’re not getting any academic instruction in their native language. We’re seeing students struggling in writing, largely because we’re not emphasizing it enough early,” observed co-author Michael Orosco, KU associate professor in educational psychology, noting the skill is more difficult to teach and assess than the more popular measures of reading and math. “It is difficult assessing writing. Students need to write to a comprehensive test of written expression designed to measure a broad range of skills such as spelling, grammatical conventions, vocabulary and development of characters. A basic standardized test can’t assess these skill sets. Also, grading a comprehensive writing test is labor-intensive. This is the largest writing study ever taken on this population.”
The authors argue that, in addition to showing which cognitive functions are key in teaching writing to early adolescent ELs, U.S. education needs to focus more on teaching writing. In classroom observations, Orosco said he commonly notes teachers focusing heavily on teaching mechanical and technical writing skills in English without academic writing skills and concepts instruction at the elementary level. In addition, a bigger emphasis is put on reading development than writing during literacy time.
The results also support better understanding of brain function and how children learn. The effects of phonological awareness and oral language development (e.g., vocabulary) on writing proficiency suggest more attention should be paid to brain sciences when preparing future generations of teachers. With that in mind, Orosco has launched the Mind, Brain and Education graduate certificate in KU’s School of Education & Human Sciences, designed to incorporate neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science to boost research in those fields for new approaches in teaching.
“This study has the potential to change the practice of teaching writing across the US and impact future research in this area,” explained Rick Ginsberg, dean of KU’s School of Education & Human Sciences. “Documenting the importance of instruction in both Spanish and English through such a carefully designed study should sound an alarm for schools not taking a bilingual education approach in teaching writing with the growing population of Hispanic students in this country.”
The authors concluded that more research is necessary to better understand how students learn and how teachers can better instruct writing, since very little evidence is available on writing development of ELs at any level, and better understanding of cognitive processes will only help ensure better education of this important academic skill.
The research, co-written by Anqi Peng, doctoral student in educational psychology at KU; Michael Orosco, associate professor in educational psychology at KU; Hui Wang, doctoral student in educational psychology at KU; H. Lee Swanson of the University of New Mexico; and Deborah Reed of the University of Iowa, was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.
Anqi Peng et al, Cognition and writing development in early adolescent English learners., Journal of Educational Psychology (2021). DOI: 10.1037/edu0000695