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Building strong writers: creating a balance between the authorial and secretarial elements of writing.


To be literate in contemporary times requires the ability to create and interpret 'oral, visual, audio, gestural, tactile and spatial patterns of meaning' (Kalantzis & Cope, 2012, p. 2). Writing is central to literacy, providing a means for intellectual inquiry and creative expression (Graham & Perin, 2007). It is a complex phenomenon, facilitated by the co-ordination of cognitive, linguistic and motor functions. Students who find the writing process difficult are disadvantaged (Cutler & Graham, 2008), as many of the tasks associated with learning across all subjects require writing. Indeed, students can spend up to 50% of their school day engaged in some form of writing from age eight (Bromley, 2007).

Building strong writing is essential for success in school and adult life; yet teachers of writing are faced with the dilemma of selecting an appropriate instructional approach in a climate of heightened educational accountability, rapid technological change and rich cultural diversity. Many teachers lack confidence in the teaching of writing and, as a consequence, writing sometimes drops off the busy classroom schedule in a way that reading instruction does not. Considering the numerous instructional approaches claimed to improve the quality of writing, with varying degrees of effect (Graham & Perin, 2007), we support a view of writing that acknowledges the writer's journey as unique, recursive and evolving.

Writing as process and product

The concept of 'process writing' was introduced in the 1980s and was predominantly influenced by the seminal work of Donald Graves (1983). Central to process writing is 'ownership' and 'voice' of the writer as connections are made and meaning is constructed through the crafting of text (Graves, 1994). The writing process is recursive rather than constrained and sequential. Teaching is designed around a cyclic process based on the experiences and approaches of competent writers. Teaching focuses on students' activity--prewriting, during writing and after writing--rather than the final product. When a process writing approach is adopted, the purpose and relevance of writing is foreground, while instruction and assessment include planning, composing, recording, revising and publishing written texts (Graham & Sandmel, 2011).

One or more components of the writing process may require instructional attention in order to improve the quality of students' written products. It is critical that writing instruction is informed by assessment systems that consider not just the product of writing, but also the process of writing. Consequently, assessment procedures should be situated within the context of purposeful and meaningful writing tasks. Graves (1994) emphasised that aspects of the writing process should not be taught as prescriptive stages, because writers apply different aspects of the writing process in unique ways. Further, as students move through a trajectory towards increased control over the writing process, their needs change across different elements of writing (Mackenzie, Scull, & Munsie, 2013).

Specific writing elements, including text structure, sentence and grammatical structure, vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, and handwriting or word processing, require systematic consideration in the teaching and learning of writing. Each of these elements has been conceptualised as either 'authorial' or 'secretarial' in previous research regarding writing assessment (Mackenzie et al., 2013). Identifying particular elements of writing that require instructional attention is critical in scaffolding the development of writing. In doing so, teachers need to create a balance between the authorial and secretarial elements in the writing classroom. It has been argued that some teachers focus their attention on the secretarial aspects of writing and neglect the authorial role. In order to make judgments about writing quality and to make decisions about intended future learning for developing writers, consideration of each element is needed.

Authorial elements of writing

The authorial element of writing relates to the organisation of ideas and information to communicate to a particular audience. When writers take on an authorial role, they refine their craft through elements such as text structure, sentence and grammatical structure and vocabulary. Table 1 offers examples of authorial elements of writing.

Secretarial elements of writing

The secretarial role of the writer focuses on specific mechanical skills of writing, such as spelling, punctuation and handwriting. Table 2 provides examples of secretarial elements of writing.

Rather than discuss each element in depth, this paper highlights one authorial element (vocabulary) and one secretarial element (spelling) in order to demonstrate the importance of creating a balanced approach to writing instruction and assessment.

Authorial element: Vocabulary

Learning is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge. Learners need access to the meanings of words that are used by adults (particularly teachers) and other students, as well as those used in books and multimedia, if they are to participate in their community contexts and learn effectively. The importance of vocabulary knowledge to school success in general and reading comprehension in particular, is well documented. Biemiller (2006) argues however, that the importance of vocabulary knowledge to reading comprehension has been underestimated, because it is not a prerequisite for many of the reading texts used in early years classrooms. It does become significant when the texts offered in Year 3 and beyond present children with more demanding and topic specific vocabulary. At this point, those students with rich vocabularies are greatly advantaged as vocabulary is the key to text participation.

When students read words, understand their meaning and can pick up on subtleties in text, they become text participants. Text participation becomes increasingly important as texts become more complex. It involves knowing the meaning of individual words and how their meaning is influenced by the words around them. Homographs (same spelling but different meaning and pronunciation) are a perfect example. Students need to know multiple meanings for words and know which is appropriate within particular contexts. For example the word house has different pronunciation and two different meanings in the following sentence:

We will 'house' the guinea pigs in their new 'house'.

Knowing words is multi-faceted and to really know a word a reader (or listener or viewer) must have 'knowledge of the multiple related meanings and shades of meaning for the word, knowledge of its semantic associations, knowledge of its meanings in different contexts, and knowledge of its different morphological forms (Kieffer & Lesaux, 2012, p. 348). Decoding skills, fluency skill and comprehension skills all draw upon students' known vocabulary. Students' vocabulary also determines the lexical sophistication and density of their writing. Lexical sophistication refers to the difficulty or maturity of words used, while lexical density refers to the balance between content words (e.g., house) and grammatical function words (e.g., the, is) (Hudson, 2009). As with reading, writing becomes more dependent upon vocabulary knowledge as writing becomes more complex and topic specific.

Children begin to understand the words used around them (receptive language) well before they begin to speak. Typically, however, by two years of age they will have a vocabulary of approximately 50 words and by the age of three children demonstrate an ability to comprehend and assimilate a new word after hearing it only once or twice (Hoffnung et al., 2013). This vocabulary grows to approximately 14,000 words that they can use (expressive language) by the age of six (Hoffnung et al., 2013, p. 269). The average school student learns between 5 and 10 words per day, a total of between 2,000 and 4,000 during primary and high school; however, a marked difference between the vocabulary knowledge of children from high and low socioeconomic backgrounds has been well documented (Berne & Blachowicz, 2008). This would suggest that the teaching of vocabulary is an equity issue and deserving of teachers' time and energy.

Building a vocabulary

To learn words means that students need to hear and use words in context on a number of occasions before these words will become resources they can access in their speech, reading and writing. As a consequence, the vocabulary modelled by the teacher will have great impact on students' vocabularies. However, building students' vocabularies requires more than just modelling. A teacher must be interested in words. They must be aware of the words they are using and the words that students are being exposed to through texts and multimedia resources. They must actively seek opportunities to discuss words and encourage students to do the same.

Vocabulary lessons should be planned and spontaneous. For example, a quick spontaneous five minute vocabulary or word cline lesson may encourage children to be more specific with word choices. A word cline is a way to build vocabulary by looking at words that fit into a certain category and organising them in order of how strongly or accurately they represent an idea. An example is shown in Figure 1.

Word consciousness may also be promoted through the use of puns, jokes, crossword puzzles, anagrams and word games. Explicit instruction and modelling will be important as will opportunities for definitional vocabulary work, which will require students to explore different aspects of words. This goes beyond the standard dictionary definitions to include opportunities for students to see how words can change meaning in different contexts (Hirsch, 2003). Contextual vocabulary work involves students in the use of words in context and provides opportunities for them to establish connections and make links with prior knowledge. Concept maps and other similar approaches (e.g., four square) help students learn word meanings conceptually. From a planned lesson perspective, interactive writing--where the teacher and a group of students (whole class or small group) share the pen--provides abundant opportunities for the teacher to think out loud, introduce students to new words and model processes for choosing words that are just right. Not all words are created equal.

Choosing words to teach

Choosing words to teach will be determined by need. Teachers who know their children well will be able to make decisions on the run, as opportunities arise, as well as plan lessons that will provide vocabulary scaffolds for new topics or concepts. When selecting texts, word conscious teachers will first read a text to themselves with their students in mind. They will make decisions about the appropriateness of the text in terms of the amount of potentially new vocabulary. What the teacher will be looking for is a text that provides some new vocabulary and some recently introduced vocabulary, surrounded by many well-known words. They want a balance of mostly known words with some new. They will then determine which new words are most important to comprehension. We can think about words in a number of ways:

Function words: There are approximately 100 'function words', which account for almost 50% of all words used in the English language. Function words contribute to the syntax of language rather than the meaning. They include articles, prepositions, pronouns, determiners (e.g., the, a, that), conjunctions, auxiliary verbs (e.g., be, have, do) and particles.

Commonly used words: The Oxford wordlist (Oxford University Press, 2008), available online for free, provides a comprehensive list of the words most frequently used by Australian students in the first three years of school. This list provides words in order of frequency and is a useful resource for teachers. However, a reliance on a list of this kind restricts students' comprehension and writing as they move into the middle and upper primary years.

Beck, McKeown and Lucan (2002), have provided a useful way of considering vocabulary instruction using three tiers of words:

Tier 1: These are the high frequency everyday words which are commonly used in spoken language and simple texts (e.g., run, happy, baby, dog). Most children have been exposed to these words before starting school, unless they are English Language Learners (EAL) with a background in a different language.

Tier 2: These words are often referred to as high frequency words for mature language users (e.g., coincidence, introduce). It is knowledge of these Tier 2 words that Beck et al. (2002) have argued have a powerful impact on language functioning and therefore should be the focus of classroom instruction.

Tier 3: These words are low frequency domain specific words (e.g., isotope, herpetology).

If we agree that Tier 2 words offer the best pay-off for students, an easy way to introduce Tier 2 words is through well-chosen texts which may be read by individuals. Texts that are more difficult should be read aloud to the whole class. The sometimes forgotten read aloud strategy requires the teacher to do the 'reading work', which allows the students to enjoy and learn from texts that may be well beyond their current independent reading level, but within their listening comprehension and interest level. These can be used to introduce students to many new Tier 2 words. Opportunities for discussion of these new words can follow and the teacher can then incorporate these words into conversations and class tasks. Students could be encouraged to make lists of the new 'cool words' to which they have been introduced, for reference when they are writing.

Secretarial element: Spelling

Spelling is one of the fundamental secretarial conventions of writing. It is the visible representation of 'word-level language using written symbols in conventional sequences (orthography) that represent speech sounds (phonology) and word parts that signal meaning and grammar (morphology)' (Garcia, Abbott, & Berninger, 2010, p. 63). Research has shown that if secretarial skills such as spelling are efficient, greater capacity in working memory becomes available for important writing processes such as vocabulary selection, planning and revising (Puranik & AlOtaiba, 2012). Indeed, evidence from a longitudinal study suggests that high-achieving spellers are more likely than low-achieving spellers (Years 1 to 7) to effectively 'translate ideas into written words and combine written words to generate written text' (Abbott, Berninger, & Fayol, 2010, p. 294).

Understanding and assessing phonology, orthography and morphology

Metalinguistic knowledge for teachers is crucial. If teachers are equipped with the linguistic language associated with spelling and if they are guided by a systematic linguistic framework, they can gain rich insights into their students' applied spelling. Teachers can achieve this by drawing on the phonological, orthographic and morphological components of spelling to qualitatively analyse the spelling errors observed in students' written draft texts.

Phonological component

Teachers may begin their analysis by determining students' capacity to produce phonologically accurate representations within monosyllabic words and polysyllabic words written in context. Table 3 summarises specific phonological features that can be assessed in students' written compositions.

In relation to one of the features in Table 3--regular consonant blends--it should be noted that the Australian Curriculum: English provides limited examples of blends and should not constitute a finite list. Comprehensive perspectives about blends and blending can be found in the literature (e.g., Cassady & Smith, 2004; Gries, 2004). It is important to acknowledge that phoneme blending typically involves making connections between two consecutive phonemes within one or two syllable words; however, the process of phoneme blending can also include multiple phonemic units across syllable or morphemic junctures in more complex words.

In Table 3, multiple phoneme blends is a specific phonological feature for analysis. It considers the cognitive demands associated with combining more than two phonemes (consonant and vowel sounds) and then accurately encoding (spelling) them in the context of polysyllabic words. Students might accurately represent phoneme blends in one or two syllable words, such as /br/ in bright and /lt/ in felt;., however, as students experiment with increasingly complex written vocabulary, a breakdown of phonological processing may occur when they attempt to blend two or more phonemes across syllables or across morphemes in the context of less familiar polysyllabic words, such as precipitation and congratulate.

Also in Table 3, the short vowelgrapheme is a phonological feature that is intended to focus on short vowels that are represented by a single letter only. The examples provided in Table 3 illustrate those lax phonemes that are represented by a single letter. It needs to be noted, however, that short vowels can also be represented as vowel digraphs, such as /ea/ in head. Vowel digraphs are less common, somewhat ambiguous, and require greater orthographic sensitivity than a single vowel grapheme when spelling. Therefore, errors observed with respect to vowel digraphs can be treated as orthographic in nature.

Orthographic component

Specific orthographic features should also be considered when analysing students' contextualised written vocabulary. The orthographic component of analysis aims to explore students' sensitivity to letter sequences. Table 4 presents some examples; however, they should not be regarded as finite. Indeed, additional orthographic features may emerge through the assessment of students' applied spelling.

Morphological component

Additionally, teachers should examine whether their students are applying particular morphological generalisations in their spelling, as opposed to inappropriately relying on phonological spelling. Morphological features encompass the meaning of words and word parts. Etymological aspects (root words) of the English language, as well as homophones, can also be conceptualised in this overarching category. These are shown in Table 5.

Spelling error analysis of student writing

Figure 2 presents a student's initial written response to a persuasive task, requiring the writer to convince a reader which season of the year she believes is best. Students' written texts from the early grades through the middle years to secondary school can be assessed in ways that provide valuable feedback needed to guide the teaching of spelling for students.

An analysis of the student's persuasive text is documented in Table 5. Spelling errors have been identified and classified according to specific linguistic features, revealing particular aspects of spelling that need to be addressed.

Clearly, there is scope for this student to develop specific skills across the three spelling components. For example, when this student attempts to write complex polysyllabic words, such as pollenating and environment, a breakdown in phonological processing is evident. In addition, a range of orthographic errors are prevalent, while several morphological errors are also noted, particularly with respect to suffixes and root words.

Analysing the quality of spelling errors students make in their written texts provides teachers with useful information. In particular, a contextualised and systematic linguistic approach to spelling assessment has the potential to capture the individual complexities of students' spelling, providing rich insights into trends that may emerge. Importantly, such feedback is needed to inform teachers' instructional priorities.


Writing is an essential part of being literate and plays an important role in fostering thinking across many disciplines, as well as promoting social, emotional and cognitive development. Learning to write is a complex process and effective teachers acknowledge that writers' journeys are unique, recursive and evolving. Effective teachers are perceptive and adaptive to their students' writing trajectories, utilising assessment and teaching practices that support all children. They achieve this by identifying particular aspects of writing that require instructional attention, and they maintain a pedagogical balance between the authorial and secretarial writing elements.


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Tessa Daffern and Noella Mackenzie | Charles Sturt University, New South Wales

Tessa Daffern is a PhD candidate and subject coordinator in the Masters of Education at Charles Sturt University. She is an accredited provider of professional learning with the Teacher Quality Institute in the Australian Capital Territory, and regularly works with teachers in schools as a literacy consultant and presenter. Email:

Noella Mackenzie is a Senior Lecturer in literacy studies at Charles Sturt University, Albury. Her literacy research informs, and is informed by, her ongoing professional work with teachers in schools and her university teaching. Noella has been recognised for teaching excellence in both school and tertiary contexts, through faculty, state and national awards. She is published in a variety of journals, including the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood and Issues in Educational Research. Email:

Table 1. Examples of authorial elements of writing
(Adapted from Mackenzie et al., 2013)

Authorial element          Description
of writing

Text structure             How information or ideas are organised in
                           the text. This may include features of text

Sentence and grammatical   How sentences or sentence parts are
structures                 constructed: For example, simple,
                           compound and complex sentences.

Vocabulary                 Range and precision of words.

Table 2. Examples of secretarial elements of writing
(Adapted from Mackenzie et al., 2013)

Secretarial element      Description
of writing

Spelling                 Accuracy of phonological, orthographic
                         and morphological components.

Punctuation              Use of conventional and appropriate
                         punctuation to indicate the structure
                         and organisation of text.

Handwriting/legibility   Letter formation, size, spacing,
                         position and placement.

Table 3. Examples of phonological features

Phonological       Description                    Examples

Initial            A single consonant letter      log (l)
consonants         that is positioned at the      computer (c)
                   beginning of a word to
                   directly represent the first

Final              A single consonant letter      lob (g)
consonants         that is positioned at the      diagnostic (c)
                   end of a word to directly
                   represent the last phoneme.

Common             Two consonant letters that     ship (sh)
consonant          represent one sound.           kick (ck)

Regular            Blends of two consonants       bright (br)
consonant blends   within any part of a one or    felt (lt)
(one and two       two syllable word.             Easter (st)
syllable words)

Multiple           Blends of two or more          precipitation (ipit)
phoneme blends     consonant and/or vowel         congratulate (ngrat)
(polysyllabic      letters across syllable or     pollinating (inat)
words)             morpheme junctures in
                   polysyllabic words.

Short vowel        A single vowel letter that     battle (a)
grapheme           is generally positioned at     end (e)
                   the beginning or in the        missed (i)
                   middle of a word to directly   log (o)
                   represent a lax phoneme        rug / put (u)
                   (Akmajian, Demers, Farmer, &
                   Harnish, 2010).

Table 4. Examples of orthographic features

Orthographic         Description                         Examples

Common long          Common letter patterns that         stripe (i-e)
vowels               represent long vowel sounds.        moat (oa)

Dipthongs            The sound produced when one vowel   shouted (ou)
                     glides into another vowel.          boil (oi)

-r influenced        Words containing vowel phonemes     far (ar)
vowels               that are influenced because of      service (er)
                     the following letter -r.            surprise (ur)

Complex              Consonant letter sequences          stripe (str)
consonant            occurring in any part of a word.    scratch (tch)
clusters             Letter clusters include several     knotted (kn)
                     letters that may represent one or
                     more phonemes, including less
                     common digraphs and trigraphs.

Double letters at    Letters that are doubled at the     bottle
syllable junctures   point where two syllables meet.     ripple

Letter sequences     Unstressed word parts that do not   people
in unaccented        contain phonetic spelling           doctor
final syllables      patterns.

Table 5. Examples of morphological features

Morphological    Description                     Examples

Inflected        A morpheme added to the end     march-ed
suffixes         of a base word that changes     dog-s
                 the verb tense or number

Derivational     A morpheme added to the end     domin-ance
suffixes         of a base word that affects     prepara-tion
                 the meaning and/or part of

Morpheme         The unstressed syllable in      opposition
juncture schwa   morphologically complex words   (base word is oppose)
vowels           contains a reduced vowel
                 sound. These words contain a
                 phonological shift at the
                 morpheme juncture.

Homophones       Words that sound alike but      bear/bare
                 have different spelling and

Root words       A unit of meaning often         aud (as in audible)
                 deriving from Greek or Latin    means hear in Latin

Assimilated      Also known as absorbed          innumerable (nn)
prefixes         prefixes. The sound and
                 spelling of the final
                 consonant is absorbed into
                 the initial consonant of a
                 base word or root to which
                 the prefix is affixed.

Table 5. Spelling error analysis of a student's persuasive text

Phonological errors

Error count: 4

Linguistic feature                  Errors observed

Initial consonants                  Nil

Final consonants                    Nil

Common consonant digraphs           Nil

Regular consonant blends (one       Nil
and two syllable words)

Multiple phoneme blends             infiament (environment)
(polysyllabic words)                perfit (perfect)
                                    pollanting (pollinating)

Short vowel grapheme                mach (much)

Orthographic errors

Error count: 12

Linguistic feature                  Errors observed

Common long vowel patterns          laves (leaves)
                                    bech (beach)
                                    outsied (outside)

Dipthongs                           Nil

-r influenced vowels                propale (properly)

Complex consonant clusters          warks (walks)
                                    counld (could)
                                    hethy (healthy)

Double letters at syllable          polanted (pojjenated)
junctures                           polanting (poUenating)

Letter sequences in unaccented      animles (animals)
final syllables                     animlas (animals)
                                    verey (very)

Morphological errors

Error count: 7

Linguistic feature                  Errors observed

Inflected suffixes                  moveys (movies)

Derivational suffixes               propale (properly)
                                    helthey (healthy)

Morpheme juncture schwa vowels      hethy (healthy)

Homophones                          too (to)

Root word                           holadays (holidays)
                                    nacher (nature)

Assimilated prefixes                Nil
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Author:Daffern, Tessa; Mackenzie, Noella
Publication:Literacy Learning: The Middle Years
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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