How does learning from home affect children's ability to write? The coronavirus pandemic offered researchers a chance to find some answers. Photo: Colourbox

Pupils’ writing skills declined during home schooling

When the corona pandemic closed schools, an unexpected experiment landed in researchers’ laps: How did home schooling affect the writing skills of the youngest pupils?

In the spring of 2019, while we were still unaware of the ravages to come from the coronavirus, NTNU researchers collected writing samples from 6 000 Norwegian first- and second-graders. The writing samples came from 198 classrooms at 58 schools throughout Norway.

These samples were the first data to be collected by the researchers in a large and comprehensive writing research project. The project is examining writing instruction of the youngest pupils and how their writing skills develop in their first years of school.

One year after the project start-up, the second round of data collection was conducted – as it happened, right after Norwegian schools re-opened following the coronavirus closure. Without planning for it, the researchers had information in their hands that could show whether home schooling had affected the writing skills of pupils who were participating in the project.

“In Norway, the schools were closed due to the coronavirus for a month and a half for the youngest pupils. But the analyses of the students’ writing samples show that they had fallen one-and-a-half semesters behind the normally expected development. We had a short shutdown, but with major negative consequences for the students’ writing skills,” says Professor Gustaf Skar from The Writing Center at NTNU.

What actually happened during the home schooling time?

A child writing in a book with a computer in front of him and wearing a headset

The pupils who had just returned to school after a period of home schooling performed far worse than the pupils who took the test the year before. Illustration photo: Shutterstock, NTB

Schools provide intensive writing training

In Norway, pupils’ skills in reading, arithmetic and English are mapped through national tests starting in fifth grade. However, no similar routines are in place to track pupils’ writing skills on a national basis.

“We also know that pupils are motivated to write when they start school, but that their motivation disappears fairly quickly after school starts.”

“Research shows that children don’t do much writing in their first few years at school. We know that boys write more poorly than girls, and that this gender difference is already present on the first day of school. We also know that the children are motivated to write when they start school, but that their motivation disappears fairly quickly after school starts,” Skar says.

Skar heads the Functional Writing in Primary School (FUS) research and development project, which started at NTNU in 2018. This is currently the only large-scale writing research project in Norway. The project aims to increase the quality of early writing education, and to investigate how pupils develop as writers in their first years of schooling.

Gustaf Skar

Gustaf Skar. Photo: Elin Iversen NTNU

Half of the schools in the project have access to skills development packets with teaching resources and training materials that teachers can use in all aspects of their writing instruction. Quite simply, the project is set up to facilitate more intensive writing training. The project also trains teachers how to support pupils in their writing development.

The other half of the schools are the control schools and continue to teach writing as before, without support from the project. In this way, the researchers hope to find out how the extra input impacts the pupils’ writing skills.

Fell a semester behind in writing development

The first round of data collection for this project was carried out in the spring of 2019. The sampling procedure included having 1636 first-graders take a technical writing test. This happened before the schools received their training packets.

Technical writing skills include pupils’ ability to recognize and form letters, their ability to spell and to know which letters represent different sounds. The test also maps the technical flow of the writing. The technical writing skills are crucial for further progress on the more communicative aspects of writing.

In the spring of 2020, 818 first-graders from the control schools completed the same technical writing test that the first-graders had taken the year before. Since these pupils belonged to schools that had not received training packets through the project, they had the same starting point as the pupils who took the test one year earlier.

“The students who had just returned to school after a period of home schooling did far worse than the students who took the test the year before.”

When the researchers compared the writing samples from both years, they found a significant difference between the cohorts – the students who had just returned to school after a period of home schooling did much worse than the students who took the test the year before.

“The technical writing skills had declined more than we expected. Although we took into account pupils’ language background, gender, and what school and class they were in, the differences were really big. The difference corresponded to just over one semester of instructional time,” Skar says.

The screen doesn’t replace the teacher

Anne Holten Kvistad, an assistant professor at the Writing Center, believes the analyses from the project suggest that digital meetings and home schooling cannot replace the writing instruction that takes place in the classroom with professional teachers. She also points out that writing skills don’t develop on their own. Students need consistent practice and close follow-up from trained teachers.

Anne Holten Kvistad

Anne Holten Kvistad. Photo: NTNU

“The students need long-term follow-up, but also follow-up in the moment. The teacher isn’t able to provide this through a screen. For the youngest children, a lot of their writing instruction is with pen and paper, and the children like to use their whole body when they write. They can’t do that through a screen either,” Kvistad says.

The researchers are now looking forward to the spring of 2021, when they will collect another batch of writing samples from pupils. Perhaps these samples will tell us whether the school closure in 2020 has had long-term consequences for children’s writing skills.