Year

2014

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of Education

Abstract

There is a relative scarcity of research into children’s writing, especially into the specifics of how the writing of children develops once they are in the schooling system. This study aims to profile such a development. More precisely, the study examines in detail a set of written texts from Year 3, 4, 5 and 6 Australian primary school students (ages approximately 8 to 12 years old) within the framework of a functional model of language stemming from Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). SFL espouses language as a meaning making system intimately related to its context of use, and is concerned with theorising and researching language as social practice, especially educationally. It has come to underpin and inform literacy programs and syllabuses in Australia. It thus provides an appropriate theoretical model for this study.

The main concern of the study was to identify and make explicit the linguistic resources primary students use to make meanings in response to the demands of schooling, and how these linguistic resources might vary with age and according to different curriculum requirements. A large number of texts was obtained through the co-operation of primary school staff, children and parents. From these a representative selection of 48 texts was made, spanning schools, grades, genders and genres, forming the corpus for analysis.

The analyses and observations were grouped according to social purposes adopted in schools: writing to entertain (a Narrative), writing to argue for or against a particular point of view (an Exposition) and writing to give information about something (a Report). Within each of these groupings, an ideational analysis was undertaken across the four grades. The texts were analysed from the clausal level, proceeding to the phrasal/group level then through to the word. The analysis examined how the deployment of experiential clausal elements differed according to the three genres and the four grades.

The main findings of the study revolve round the fact that the development in children’s writing is genre-specific, meaning that features appear in one genre that are not necessarily apparent in another genre at a comparable age, and that a development of use can be traced through the Years. This is very evident, for example, in the use of the nominal group as Participant and in Circumstances; the fractional use of an embedded clause as the whole nominal group always increases and the fractional use of an embedded clause as qualifier in a nominal group always decreases across the Years for Expositions.

The study is motivated by a desire to better understand the development of writing proficiency with a view to improving the teaching of writing at the upper primary level, and making explicit the language demands of schooling so that they are visible and teachable, giving all students access to the discourses of power. It addresses the problem of the relative lack of empirical evidence for children’s writing development from a functional perspective on which to base decisions regarding policy, curriculum and assessment.

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