Improving literacy skills through learning reading by writing: The iWTR method presented and tested
Published in Computers & Education, Volume 67, September 2013, Pages 98-104
By Annika Agélii Genlottand Åke Grönlund, Örebro University, Sweden
In order to contribute to developing better methods for learning to read and write in early years this study tests a new method developed to improve reading and writing learning in early ages. The ICT (Information and communication technologies) supported “Integrated Write to Learn” (iWTR) method lets children in 1st grade use computers and other ICT tools to write texts and subsequently discuss and refine them together with class mates and teachers. iWTR extends previous WTR methods by more social work methods using a web site and peer comment for providing social meaning and feedback.
The results show that while reading skills were improved considerably the biggest improvement concerned writing skills. Students in the test group wrote longer texts with better structure, clearer content, and a more elaborate language.
There is a need for better methods for literacy development. Drawing on a critical social practice view of literacy this project has developed such a method based on a social view of learning and ICT use. This paper describes the method and its rationale, and presents results from a quasi experiment test involving 87 first grade students in Sweden. The test group included 41 students, the control group 46. The children were 7 years old.
A more recent view is socio-culturally anchored, emphasizing the social, cultural, and historic situation of language. This strand of literacy research is fundamental to this study. In a socio-cultural perspective, learning takes place in formal as well as informal contexts, and important aspects of learning include use of tools and development of artifacts.
Reading and writing are culturally defined social activities. There are always underlying purposes and relations, texts are not neutral. We learn reading and writing through social relations, with parents, teachers, friends, media, etc.
Computer use and “write to read” research
In 1984 a computer-assisted “Write To Read” (WTR) program was designed and tested in a number of US schools over the following decade. Results were mixed; some schools achieved good results, others not.
Drawing on a critical social practice view of literacy this project has developed the method further to include a social view of learning. The project is a small-scale pilot study taking its empirical material from the Swedish city Sollentuna where teachers have further developed the WTR concept into the “iWTR” (Integrated Write To Read) method and used it in two classes. “Integrated” means that reading and writing are integrated within the classroom, within a social learning process, and across school subjects. Children cooperate pairwise producing texts, using keyboard, which are then published on a class web site and subjected to discussion among students, teachers, and parents, and subsequently refined in joint efforts. This means all writing has a purpose and an audience, and texts are not static but further developed based on discussions. Speech technology is used to check that the writing produces the desired sound, thus providing direct response to the children's spelling.
The overall aim of this research was to contribute to developing better methods for learning to read and write in early years. We do so by testing a new method in two first grade classes, with another two serving as control group. The ICT supported iWTR method lets children in 1st grade use computers and other ICT tools to write texts and subsequently discuss and refine them together with other children and teachers. Handwriting is mainly postponed to 2nd grade. The traditional method requires students to go through two development processes in parallel, a cognitive (learning to read and) a motor (learning to write with a pencil). iWTR works with one process at a time, first cognitive development, then (from grade 2, or earlier depending on the literacy development of the pupils) the motor one. The hypothesis (H1) is that this sequencing of two, each fairly complicated, development processes will make it easier for all children, but in particular those with slower motor development (or other difficulties concerning reading and writing) to develop reading and writing skills over the period of the first school year (we also hypothesize positive effects later in life as reading and writing are skills that are fundamental to other learning, but investigating that is not part of this article). Throughout this project the students continuously were to practise fine motor skills in many different ways so that when starting writing texts with a pencil they have already improved their fine motor skills which facilitates learning writing.
A second hypothesis (H2) is that ICT tools can improve performance during the process of learning reading and writing. Such tools include not just the obvious keyboard, without which writing at early age is impossible, but also speech technology and web places (here Google docs, for sharing texts and discussions), which all in different ways can support various steps in the process.
A third hypothesis (H3) is that a social writing process involving children in cooperative development is conducive to learning.
Apart from separating motor training from the work of learning to read and write, iWTR involves an extended – as compared to earlier WTR models as well as to traditional methods – social process. This means not only that students cooperate more and differently, but also that all writing the children do has a purpose and an audience. Topics were chosen among issues which were at the focus of children's interest at that time. That might be some world news, some local event, or something from the latest book the teacher had read for them. Speech technology was used to check that the writing produced the desired sound, i.e. to provide direct response to the children's spelling.
iWTR starts with students writing texts themselves from the outset. This creates a pre-understanding for reading (because they know what they want to tell). The keyboard helps them produce letters, which also are more easily read than hand-written letters made by beginners – an important point when it comes to presenting the texts to other children – and speech synthesis helps them understand when they got the letters right, as the right sound will then be produced. This way the time for reading and writing learning in 1st grade is clearly focused on the cognitive development; decoding of letters and sounds, the ability to formulate oneself in writing, reading the texts written by peers and responding to them in writing.
Training of hand writing is postponed to 2nd grade. At that time, students are already familiar with letters, their sounds, and their combination into words. Hence training of hand writing is not confused with the process of learning to combine letters into words and sentences. It is an ability in its own, trained for its own purpose. This is not to say, of course, that hand writing training is not worthwhile. The point to be made is that the process of understanding letters and writing them are separated so as to facilitate learning.
Students worked in half-class groups (on average 11 students) with producing texts at least one hour every day. The tasks varied and different text genres were used. Students worked in pairs where one student spoke what was to be written and the other typed on the keyboard. The two roles were taken intermittently by the two. As skill in writing improved, students were increasingly allowed to work alone if the pairwise cooperation was felt limiting, e.g. by slowing writing down.
The iWTR method
The iWTR method is based on the goals of the Swedish National curriculum (Lgr 11), and it uses active writing, publishing, peer feedback and formative assessment as main distinctive components. Supporting components include inspiration and preunderstanding, text genres, and writing strategies. Fig. 1 illustrates the general work process by which lessons were carried out in the project.
The students' texts were published on a class site, built in Google docs (the name at that time). The purpose was to make sure texts were read by others, primarily the other students and teachers, but also by parents. This served to increase the students' awareness of an audience and to make sure there were responses to the texts.
As concerns reading skills, Table 2 shows that the percentage of students who achieved the “pass” level – reading at least 35 words per minute – was slightly higher in the test group than in the control group. The main difference is concerning the high performers scoring 55 or above. While 36% of the control group achieved that, in the test group the share was 56%.
Table 2. Results on H4 test (number of words correctly read in one minute).
Total number of students: 87
% of students scoring >35 words/minute (pass level)
% of students scoring >55 words/minute
Test group (41 students)
Control group (46 students)
This means that in the test group there were more excellent readers than in the control group.
As concerns writing skills, we found that the texts produced in the test group were (much) longer, they had a clearer story with a more logical flow of events described than the control group students. According to the teachers' assessment, a majority of the students in the test group had already at the end of grade 1 achieved writing skills required by the national tests to be taken in grade 3. This was not formally tested, so it remains an assessment based on experience.
Importantly, also students with lesser literacy skill performed well in the test. For example, a student with suspected (but at the time not formally diagnosed) dyslexia managed to produce a 359-word perfectly readable text. A normal performer would produce a text at around 700 words, while an excellent performer produced a 2319-word story.
Discussion and conclusion
We started out with three hypotheses, that the iWTR method would lead to better reading and writing skills (H1), and that ICT tools (H2) and a well designed social environment including peer feedback (H3) would be instrumental to achieving those results. While the size of the test group is fairly small and hence far-reaching conclusions cannot be made, the results of this trial are clearly encouraging.
The tests show that both reading and writing skills had improved considerably in the test group; H1 is hence supported. Also, student satisfaction – as reported by students in comments on the web site and in talks with the teachers, was high, both as concerns method and results. By the end of grade 1, all students in the test group, irrespective of whatever difficulties they had had, were assessed by the teachers as having good confidence in their reading and writing improvement. They had all published their texts, all equally good-looking in terms of the visual appearance, irrespective of the level of motor development of the child. Nobody had had to erase mistakes on paper resulting in wrinkled and miscolored paper, missing words squeezed into too small spaces etc.
We believe that the good results can to a part be explained by the technology used, to a part by the social arrangements, but in particular by the two together. Clearly the technology has helped as motor skills do not make so much of a difference when using a keyboard as compared to writing letters with a pencil. On a computer screen, everybody's letters are just as good looking and therefore more easily to be read by other students. Also the students who yet not were able to read could participate completely in all kind of communication between the classmates by using the speech technology to read the different texts and be able to write feedback to their classmates. We believe that the fact that all the students, regardless of their different level of development concerning reading and writing, due to technology have published their texts, commented on each others texts, and made improvements subsequently have made an important difference. This is also what students report in their assessment of the work. Hence, H2 is supported.
The social process increased motivation but also improved students' understanding of how other people receive their texts, i.e. the social nature of language has been more clear to them during the process of producing the texts. The texts have all been used to communicate with peers, they have not just been a task assigned which the teacher will later check and correct. This was made practically possible by the implementation of the class website where texts could be easily accessed, commented upon in writing, and subsequently revised and improved. Also children who for various reasons not would have been able to produce a readable text with pencil and paper have been able to do so using keyboard and speech technology. This means that every student has been visible and read on the web. Students have been able to read their peers' comments over and over again. This written feedback proved to be very important for everybody, but in particular for those who had difficulties in reading and writing. Ever so often, precisely those students went back to old texts, read their friends' comments and gained in self confidence.