Language and literacy development & models of writing


Today we worked in pairs and discussed/listed the factors which influence language and literacy development both in children and adults. One of our objectives was to describe how literacy skills are acquired and learnt. We formed the table below.

 Children  Adults
learning difficulties (possibly undiagnosed)
Chomsky’s genetic blueprint/LAD
social/peer/parental influences
background/school they go to
background – abuse etc
religion/other cultural groups and norms within these
approaches taught through – top-down/bottom-up, whether phonics is “in” at the time etc
speech difficulties
technology dependency
access to reading/norm of this at home – how often parents read
parents’ first language
highly prized handwriting culture
how literacy is valued in their multidimensional cultures
skills of the teacher/rapport
literacy levels of parents
gender – boys read fact-based/girls read stories
learning difficulties (possibly undiagnosed)
” especially if bilingual
social/peer/employer/media and wider society influences
background/school they went to
background – abuse etc
political opinions, economic status, identity and perceived identity
religion/other cultural groups and norms within these
approaches might need to be similar, or completely different to school depending on the learner
speech difficulties
technology dependency/lack of skills
access to reading/norm of this at home – how often parents read
parents’ first language
highly prized handwriting culture
how literacy is valued in their multidimensional cultures
skills of the teacher/rapport
literacy levels of parents
skills required at work
gender – stereotyping as adults – e.g. advertising, social norms

Many factors which affect children also affect adults, and sometimes in different ways. Making this list highlights the need to acknowledge the wider issues in literacy teaching which might not be so apparent in other subjects. For example, a learner who had a hard time at school, often with basic skills, comes to a literacy class with many assumptions, where as if they are studying a new subject, they might not have the same reservations. It also highlights that teaching and learning are not stand alone things we do outside of contexts, and it is easy to see why teaching literacy as a social practice can help give it more weight as a subject for both adults and children alike. It also shows the importance of knowing your learners and being able to relate to people in different ways. Sometimes it is necessary to get away from the ‘teacher-like’ behaviour, and sometimes learners like, work well and even expect this. Children often don’t get a chance to negotiate learning so much, but with adults you kind of have to due to the lack of contact time you typically get with them.

Stages of writing development 

We also looked at the stages of writing development from Abbots Langley Primary School. It was interesting to look at the typical patterns of mark making. I did think about how we can relate this to our adult learners who may have missed this step. On average, the adult literacy learners I have encountered have been able to formulate letters, even if they have extremely low reading skills. I have experienced learners who have had unusual letter formation, which includes a guy who was from a travelling family. He does ‘need’ to work on handwriting skills, but I’m not sure how I feel about addressing this yet, and whether it’s something which will help him in the long run. We did start to look at letter formation, however he stopped attending. I’m not sure whether this was due to something that happened with the class, or external factors, but it got me thinking about how to approach handwriting with adult learners. When we were ESOL trainees, we looked at teaching learners cursive script as it built muscle memory and involved taking the pen from paper less times. I have yet to actually complete a handwriting programme with someone. I can totally see how the theory works, but in practice? I’m going to add this to my action plan of things to look at again as I’ve got a million other things to focus on at the moment. Food for thought though.

Writing activity

We then were asked to consider how we would write a letter of complaint, including think about what would we need to do to prepare, to complete the letter and note what skills were involved in this.

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In order to prepare for the task, I drew upon previous knowledge such as accessing my memory of how a letter looks and we started to discuss the task. I noted in my group that I needed to think of the audience, purpose, and draw up a plan in order for me personally to think of how to complete the task. I’m unsure whether this is because this is the way I encourage learners to do it, or whether this is actually my preferred method. In my plan, I noted that I had to decide on the register, greetings and endings, facts and nature of the complaint, answering who/what/when/where/why/how if applicable, state my expected outcome and say that I wanted a reply.

We then split the activities/skills we noted into:

Composition, which The National Literacy Strategy (2001) (available on Sassoon Fonts website), describes as:

● Planning: What am I writing about and who is it for? i.e. content, purpose and audience
● Composing: How do I say it in writing? i.e. word
choice, sentence grammar and text organisation

Frank Smith (1994) Ch.3. Writing and The Writer. Routledge:London, describes composition as ‘getting ideas, selecting words, grammar’.

In the above task, we noted that choosing the following were examples of composition:

  • deciding who the audience was
  • what the purpose was
  • what the context of the letter was e.g. a serious complaint, or a more trivial one
  • thinking about content e.g. setting ourselves who/what/when/where/why/how questions in order to help us plan
  • deciding on the register, and therefore word choice such as greetings and endings conforming to genre-based expectations of how the letter should be written
  • deciding that there needed to be an opening and an ending saying what we expected from the complaint, and saying that we wanted a reply at the end of the letter
  • research to inform what address etc I write (transcription)
  • choosing the vocabulary to ‘fit’ with the tone, context, audience and purpose, or to choose to not ‘fit’ by using sarcasm etc.

Transcription, which The National Literacy Strategy (2001) shows transcription as:

● How do I write it down? i.e. spelling and handwriting
Frank Smith (1994) Ch.3. Writing and The Writer. Routledge:London, describes transcription as ‘physical effort of writing, spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, paragraphs, legibility’.

In the task above, there were some examples of transcription such as:

  • knowing how to complete a mind map
  • using some punctuation e.g. forward slash to separate ideas, additional information in brackets, however as these notes were just for myself in the session, I used no capital letters or full stops. I did use a few question marks though and some commas and dashes too as bullet points, and to separate ideas.
  • I used very rough handwriting, and as it was only for myself, it wasn’t very legible. Sometimes I have a problem with this. I tend to take notes, take them home and wonder what the hell I wrote. I also have a habit of randomly abbreviating things too!

If we actually wrote the letter, these are the transcription skills that would be involved:

  • layout of a formal letter (genre)
  • choosing the mode (writing on paper possibly first, then on a computer as it is the norm to write letters via word processing now)
  • organising it into paragraphs – choosing that the greeting goes first, then an opening sentence, main body, expectations, end, signature, researching and writing the address on the envelope
  • proof-reading skills – spelling, punctuation, grammar

Evidence of composition and transcription in CC

Learners are expected to be able to plan, an example of composition. They are then expected to draft, re-draft, proof-read for grammar, spelling and punctuation which are examples of transcription.

We then discussed how to support compositon with our learners. We decided that the following would help:

  • brainstorming ideas in pairs or groups
  • mind mapping/spider diagrams (lone-working)
  • scaffolding – providing starter sentences
  • discussion
  • language experience approach
  • photographs/pictures
  • story boards/vision boards/graphic organisers/collages
  • consequences
  • kernel sentences
  • who, what, when, where, why, how questions
  • decide on purpose and audience.

Frank Smith (1994) Ch.3. Writing and The Writer. Routledge:London, discusses that, ‘compositon and transcription can interfere with each other’, and that ‘the more attention you give to one, the more likely the other will suffer’. He discussed that both ideas compete against each other for attention and that writing is the most tiring and effort-heavy skill of them all. He suggests that being able to use word processors may help as ‘anything that can reduce the effort of writing is likely to improve its quality’. He also notes that writing has the slowest number of words per minute compared to speaking, listening and reading, increasing the likelihood of people forgetting what they’re writing because there is so much going on. He suggests that if we try to concentrate on legibility, thoughts slow down, but if we concentrate on thoughts, then accuracy in spelling and handwriting is diminished.

Smith suggests only one answer, that the ‘two aspects of writing have to be separated. Thus rewriting and editing can be as important as writing’ and that transcription must come last. On the face of it, I must say I agree with him. I have often thought that the skills I needed to cover in order for a piece to be successful were too much. I felt a pressure to ensure that I covered everything in the CC and panicked when I was nowhere near. Over the past year, I have relaxed so much in my expectations of learners. I don’t mean that to sound negative! I mean that it’s apparent that I didn’t quite understand what constituted progress before.

If one of my learners manages to compose a text and make an attempt at transcription, I’m happy. I could ask for no better starting point. The rest is negotiated from there.

How we achieve competence in writing

  • Need to understand that we write for different purposes, audiences, contexts
  • Usually need a situation
  • composition – what?
  • transcription – how?
  • draft/re-draft – different stages of the process
  • Writing as a product
  • Writing as a process – your first thought isn’t always your best thought
  • research – staged writing – where you work through a text together as a class (Genre theory)
  • differentiated – already have writing and match heading (consequences, name of the game) a
    • by outcome
    • writing frame/sentence starters
    • depersonalising/personalising
    • fairytales – each think of a fairytale and then pass round etc, get teaching for progression: writing?




Frank Smith (1994) Ch.3. Writing and The Writer. Routledge:London

What did you learn?

The theory of composition v transcription really resonated with me when I thought of my learners. It immediately jumped out as I have often thought about whether I was trying to do too much in the way that I was staging activities in the past. I agree from practice that learners spend most of their time in composition skills, especially in lower levels and it can be useful to separate these. I think in terms of genre theory, I usually try to give learners and example of what they’re heading towards at the start, but with an emphasis on content. I then focus on facilitating composition skills and lastly in the editing phase, transcription skills.

Thinking about how I usually write something, I usually start thinking about transcription and if I need to write.type anything at the top first, before moving on to content. I tend to edit as I’m going and compose thinking about transcription. However, as stated, I think this is too much for learners when starting off, so maybe staging it as originally discussed above, and explaining how competent writers think would be more useful for them.

How will you apply it? Practical implications? Resources made/changed? For assignment? Meet with? Find out more about? By ___ in my teaching.

As above. I introduced a stages of writing sheet to help learners see the process which we usually go through.

I tried this on:

I try this virtually every lesson, but feel a bit more confident about when to bring transcription in and why.

What went well?

For competent writers, it helps me assess them in terms of what I naturally do to gauge where they’re up to in their competence levels, whilst for beginners, it helps me judge on a long-term basis – as they plan more and more and are visibly more comfortable with planning, more effort goes into draft and so on.

What would I change?

Nothing at the moment. For me, this helps.

How will I make changes?

Child Language Acquisition


This post looks mainly at research methods within the field of Child Language Acquisition, and how they have developed in their ability to combine data collection. This essay analyses the competence of these studies and comments on positive and negative aspects of each study.

Diary Studies are more commonly known as ‘baby biographies’, where direct focus was placed upon the development of a single child. The child, also referred to as the subject, was studied form birth upwards as there was a new interest in the development of child language and was ‘led in many respects by the work of  G. Stanley Hall in North America and William Preyer in Europe.’ (Ingram, 1989, P.7.)  The psychologist, linguist or parent would keep a diary of the child’s progress, which ‘could be specifically on language, but often they were more generally on everything from motor development to musical awareness.’ (Ingram, 1989, P.7.)

In Diary Studies, the parent is generally the researcher. However, ‘this feature has been considered as both a strength and a weakness’, (Ingram, 1989, P.8) as they hold a unique connection with the child where they can differentiate behaviours and eccentricity of behaviours of which the child endures, yet this can be biased. The parent will be able to detect subtle changes in their child’s behavioural patterns and therefore the study is more detailed than if a stranger were to study the child’s behaviour. If an independent controller was to analyse the child, it can be argued that it may cause stress to the child, or change the child’s natural development. It would also breech ethical issues if this were to take place as the child can not consent to being researched.

The extent of detail within and surrounding a diary study is virtually impeccable due to the close nature of the study. The gathered data is easily accessible and can be condensed in order to make future developments from the study. A popular study to look at is that of Leopold (1939-49) of his daughter Hildegard, which analyses the development of her speech patterns as well as ‘babbling’ meaning and investigation. This study was started at birth and ended at the age of 2. (Ingram, 1989, P.10, Aitchison, 1992, P. 76-7)

Diary Studies were ‘concerned with plotting the facts of language acquisition, with little concern for theory’, (Ingram, 1989, P.9) however, Diary Studies were the pioneering research method into Child Language, therefore there was not enough data in order to make assumptions and create theories.

Due to the natural bond between parent and child, the study is not accurate due to the parent being biased towards the child’s behaviour. Parents would only adopt positive behaviours of importance and would not consider the negative results from their child’s development. Ingram, 1989, P.9 suggests that there were little theoretical discoveries and much need for improvement as there was a large amount of data that needed to be applied. Although this research method holds a vast amount of data to work with, it also lacks empirical evidence as although numerous child language studies had taken place, comparisons could not stand alone without theoretical or empirical evidence to prove or to disprove the results of Diary Studies.

From Diary Studies, developments and gaps were recognised and there was a need for a new form of research where a different approach was taken in order to gain a broader sense of understanding and knowledge of child development and a narrower sense of biased interpretations from the parents, of the data. Diary Studies were ‘unsystematic’ (Ingram, 1989, P,13), in their observations of the children as one child was studied for an undistinguished amount of time or intensity.

Large Sample Studies, which were popular between1926 and 1957 (Ingram, 1989, P.7), were introduced mainly due to the influence of Watson post WWI. The Behaviourist approach introduced some new theories into society as a whole such as how environmental stressors, and more relevant to the time, ‘shell shock’ could effect and challenge the traditional idea of strong, grown ‘men’, made the overlapping of theory into Child Language Acquisition in more accessible and made society take a serious view point on highly influential child development.

‘Behaviourism differed from the previous observations…the role of the child in the learning of the language, and the measurement of observable behaviour.’(Ingram, 1989, P.12). Behaviourism was applied to Child Language Acquisition as an attempt to understand how we develop, or how we can also under-develop, introducing the idea that interaction with your child promotes quicker language acquisition and can have positive behavioural effects, as the idea of children being ‘seen and not heard’ was still common ideology in society, it is only recently that these issues have been addressed. ‘ Behaviourists wanted to develop a theory of learning where the child’s changes in behaviour were traced back to, or explained by, observable conditions of the child’s environment. (Ingram, 1989, P.12)

Large Sample Studies addressed that there are a large amount of children to be studied and also that the ‘children came from similar socio-economic classes, and there were equal numbers of boys and girls’, (Ingram, 1989, P.13). The Large Sample Study took into consideration the fundamental aspects such as equality of sampling through age and gender. There was little point in comparing a four year old boy with a two year old girl.

Large Sample Studies developed a ‘systematic observation of behaviour’ (Ingram, 1989, P.13), where ‘rules’ were enforced where the children were studied for the same amount of time and were analysed on exactly the same types of behaviours which were asked by exactly the same experimenter in order to reduce limitations and present the results in a much more empirical way, (Ingram, 1989). For example, Templin, (1957) tested 430 children between 3 and 8 years of age and tested purely upon sentence length and general aspects of sentence development. (Ingram 1989, P. 14.)

Behaviourists believed that there was not an innate function in our brain which allows us to learn language, but our behaviour is shaped and moulded by external influences.

Skinner (1957) suggested that conditioning is an essential part of language acquisition. Skinners initial theory on classical conditioning was that he could teach a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell, thus constructing a learned behaviour through reinforcement. Psychology ref. This theory was then applied to Child Language Acquisition. It is suggested that syntactical standards are achieved by turning words into conditioned responses where the child receives reward for using language in the ‘correct’ way. The child then learns through association of positive and negative reinforced response. A child will remember when they have ‘been good’ and will use this syntactical formation in future in order to please and receive favour.

Although Large Sample Studies did briefly encounter how language is learned, focus was more commonly applied to ‘what’ language consisted of at the different stages of development. However, this does not hold much significance to understanding Child Language Acquisition if it does not encounter the ‘how’ language is learned.

This is supported by a number of behaviourists in the field of educational research where it is suggested that learning is addressed in order of accessibility and importance. Language was suggested to have a universal structure and innateness. Chomsky argued that due to the complexity of grammar, imitation is not enough for a child to base grammatical conclusions upon. (Aitchison, 1995, P. 26-7)

However, Behaviourists did not support Chomsky’s theory of the Language Acquisition Device. This primarily introduces the concept that there is a genetic ‘blueprint’ or ‘Universal Grammar’ in our brain which, when we are born, naturally develops and gives us the mechanics to learn language. (Aitchison, 1995, P.26-7, Aitchison, 1992, P. 92)

Lewis, 1957, P.91, reports that ‘many children become fountains of imitation, mimicking almost every word they hear; and this imitation widens its scope to include not only those words that have meaning …but often words that are still meaningless’. This supports behaviourist theory that children learn to speak through practice and reinforcement.

Three main weaknesses were found with Large Sample studies. ‘ One is their lack of linguistic sophistication…language…is a system of rules, and insights into the acquisition of these rules is at the core of the study.’ (Ingram, 1989, P. 16)

The second is the idea that language works by a system of rules which must interact with each other in order to work, much the same as the mechanics of a clock must work together. ( Ingram, 1989, P16), and the third is that data was collected by hand, i.e. someone hand wrote and recorded the data as it was happening. An incredible amount of data has been misinterpreted and for this reason is unreliable. (Ingram, 1989, P.16-7)

Negative aspects of both Diary Studies and Large Sample Studies, were considered and Longitudinal Language Sampling (Ingram, 1989, P.20) emerged. The length of the study enables a better sense of development to the theory as full development from birth to adult can be seen. Longitudinal studies usually analyse a random, unrelated child in order to determine an un-biased collection of data. This also has negative aspects as the unrelated controller may be too independent in the way that they may not account for minor details in change in behaviour of which a parent may do.

It is worth taking into account that there are predetermined characteristics of a longitudinal study. Researchers decide in advance the questions which they will ask, the time of research, the place and the people present. This is a limitation as external factors and ethical issues all determine the outcome of the study. However, this type of study combines the pros of the Diary Study and pros of the Large Sample too combining the knowledge and understanding of pathological features as well as the development of early language and grammar.

The longitudinal method studies more than one child at a time, over a period of time, therefore, unlike previous studies, can establish features of acquisition, ‘if one is chosen, we do not know if the child is typical or not’ (Ingram, 1989, P.21). There are four studies which the longitudinal research method is centralised around, (Ingram, 1989, P.22). Miller & Ervin (1964), sampled five children, initially for 45 minutes per week, however, sampling was inconsistent. Brown (1973) studied three children and assessed their development every two weeks. This consistency showed a significant change over a time scale but also the subtle changes in the children’s early language development. (Ingram, 1989, table 2.5, P.22). Bloom (1970) studied three children for eight hours over three days every month or so. This consistency again resulted in significant change being processed and also a mark in subtle language changes. However, it was Braine (1963) who produced a study which considered these problems. Braine used parental diaries of all multi-word utterances, which took the intricate language acquisitions that a Diary Study highlights and also studied the same three children over a period of time. (Ingram, 1989, P.14, Aitchison, 1992, P. 114)

In conclusion, if I were to conduct an experiment, I would use Braine’s (1963) research method as it combines the bulk data which can be recorded from a Diary Study, and yet time to observe, which allows a much more rounded and educated  theory of Child Language Acquisition.


Aitchison, J. (1995) Linguistics Hodder & Stoughton Educational: London

Aitchison, J. (1972) Linguistics: An Introduction Hodder and Staughton: London

Bowerman, M. Levinson, S.C. (2001) Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Crystal, D. (1986) Listen To Your Child Penguin Group: London


Ingram, D. (1989) First Language Acquisition CUP: Cambridge

Lewis, D. (1978) The Secret Language of Your Child- How Children Talk Before They Can Speak Souvenir Press: London

Lewis, M. (1957) How Children Learn To Speak George G. Harrapp & Co. Ltd.: London

Oates, J. (1994) The Foundations of Child Development Blackwell: Oxford.

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