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Testing Written Expression:
Myths and Misconceptions

by Melissa Farrall, Ph.D.

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boy writing at desk

The Importance of Writing in School

Writing is complex. When we write, we draw upon our knowledge of words, sentences, and meaning. We use rules for grammar, spelling, and mechanics. The job of the writer, however, does not stop there.

Writing requires children to think deeply about facts and concepts. It requires them to make connections between new and old. Writing is not just about putting thoughts on paper; writing helps us organize our thoughts and learn.

The importance of writing in school is often underestimated. Children who have difficulty writing are at a disadvantage in their schoolwork. They lack opportunities to develop critical thinking skills. 

Children with disabilities are at risk for writing failure. Language, spatial thinking, attention, memory, processing speed, and handwriting can all make writing challenging. As a result, it is important to monitor writing skill from kindergarten through high school. Writing remediation is more effective when it is implemented early. It is more effective when it is targeted to children’s individual needs.

Myths and Misconceptions about Written Language Testing

Myth #1: All tests of written expression are created equal. Writing tests reflect different views of how children learn to write. Some tests ask children to fill in parts of a story; others measure performance on isolated tasks. Some authorities believe that spelling is part of written expression; others feel that an emphasis on spelling detracts from creativity.  Some tests measure writing skill apart from background knowledge; others incorporate higher-level thinking skills.

Myth #2: Short and easy does it. Evaluators want tests that are quick and easy to score.  Test publishers try to make them happy. Some writing tests focus on sentence-length responses. Other tests provide opportunities for students to write stories, opinion pieces, and/or summaries. Tests that focus on short responses do not measure the organizational skills needed for essay and story writing. They may not measure the skills needed to write for a history or science course.

Myth #3: Written language is separate from oral language. Written language has its roots in oral language. Children who have difficulty writing sentences require language testing. They may also require speech and language therapy.

Myth #4: Handwriting is not important. Children who labor to control their pencils do not write a lot.  As a result, they get less practice. They may have difficulty thinking about what they want to say.

Myth #5: Written expression tests are sensitive to the skills of first and second graders. Many writing tests do not adequately sample the skills of young children. In the testing world, this is called a “floor.” A “floor” is the term used to describe the number of items at the lower level of a text. When tests do not have enough lower level items, young children can earn inflated scores simply through lucky guessing.

Myth #6: Written expression tests are sensitive to the skills of middle school and high school students. Most writing tests do not measure the skills needed for reports and essays.  They may not measure whether children write with an age-appropriate vocabulary. On some tests, sentences that do not make sense do not affect the score.

What a Written Language Evaluation Should Include

A written language evaluation should include testing in these areas:

  • Alphabet Knowledge
  • Sentence Writing
  • Paragraph Writing
  • Story Writing
  • Essay and Report Writing
  • Writing Fluency
  • Mechanics (Capitalization and Punctuation)
  • Spelling
  • Handwriting and/or Keyboarding
  • Review of Classroom Writing Samples

The skills tested will depend on the child’s age, as well as his or her specific challenges. Cognitive testing and neuropsychological testing may clarify aspects of writing difficulty. Language testing may be needed for children with weak sentence writing and/or poor vocabularies.

Occupational therapy and assistive technology evaluations may be needed for children with poor handwriting. Poor spelling may necessitate testing of reading, phonological awareness, and rapid naming. Do not forget to check vision and hearing.

A Few Commonly Used Tests of Written Expression

Woodcock-Johnson IV Tests of Achievement (WJ IV)

The WJ-IV measures short responses only. It should not be used as the only measure of writing skill. The WJ-IV subtests include:

  • Writing Samples measures sentence-length writing ability. Children are not penalized for errors in grammar, spelling, or punctuation. 
  • Writing Fluency measures skill in formulating simple sentences quickly. To receive credit, children write sentences using three target words. Children are not penalized for awkward sentences, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, or handwriting.
  • Editing examines skill in identifying and correcting errors in punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and word usage.

Test of Written Language, Fourth Edition (TOWL-4)

The TOWL-4 measures skills in two areas: Contrived Writing (sentence writing) and Spontaneous Writing (story writing). The Contrived Writing section consists of the following subtests:

  • Vocabulary measures skill in writing sentences with specific words.
  • Spelling measures skill in writing dictated sentences.
  • A Punctuation score is obtained when these same sentences are scored for capitalization and punctuation.
  • Logical Sentences requires children to edit illogical sentences.
  • Sentence Combining requires children to combine sentences in the best way.

The Spontaneous Writing section requires children to write a story about a picture prompt. Sadly, this new version of the TOWL features “updated” pictures that are young in their content. Older children do not have to use mature language when they write.  Many evaluators complain that the directions are too long.

Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement, Third Edition (KTEA-III)

The KTEA-III Written Expression subtest uses a story format. There are different stories for different ages. Children perform sentence-length tasks. They edit passages for errors in capitalization and punctuation. They also write summaries. Scoring of the story is based on length, content, sentence structure, and organization. Spelling does not count. It is tested in a separate subtest. Sentences in the story that do not make sense may not affect the score.

Wechsler Individual Achievement Test, Third Edition (WIAT-3): The new edition of the WIAT measures three domains of writing: Alphabet Writing Fluency, Sentence Composition, and Essay Composition. Sentence Composition items are scored for meaning, grammar, and mechanics. The Essay Composition topic is designed to accommodate children of all ages.  It is scored for theme development and organization. Scoring for correct/incorrect word sequences is valuable for capturing overall quality.

Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS)

The OWLS measures Listening Comprehension, Oral Expression, and Written Expression. The Written Expression Scale measures skill in four age ranges. Skills range from alphabet knowledge and sentences to summary writing, and expository writing. While expository writing tasks make this test unique, there is no lengthy writing sample. It should not be used as the only measure of writing skill.  Young children with severe writing challenges have been noted to earn inflated scores.

Scores on tests do not tell the whole story.  Small differences between tests can result in large differences in scores. When evaluating writing skill, it is important to look at the skills tested. Scores alone on writing tests do not help in writing IEPs.

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About the Author

Melissa Farrall is an Educational Evaluator at St. Joseph Hospital in New Hampshire and works as Adjunct Faculty in the Language and Literacy Program at Simmons College. She was one of the founders of The Reading Foundation.

Dr. Farrall co-authored Wrightslaw: All About Tests and Assessments.

She helped to revise the chapters on testing in Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd edition. Thanks to Dr. Farrall, these chapters now include information about dozens of tests that are used to evaluate children.

Rev. 03/22/15

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