Developing core literacy skills: Do students have the write stuff? - Education Matters Magazine
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Developing core literacy skills: Do students have the write stuff?

core literacy

Writing is a core literacy skill that all students need to master to be able to function effectively in school, the workplace, and the community. It is also a major focus of national educational bodies. In Australia, for example, writing is included as one of four core areas assessed in the nationwide tests of student achievement (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy [NAPLAN]), and students are expected to know how to write within diverse creative, informative, and persuasive genres.

However, many students struggle with writing, including spelling and grammar as well as audience and purpose. Consequently, there is a need for more research to understand how writing outcomes may be improved, especially since written tasks are often how students communicate their knowledge about a particular topic or discipline within both formative and summative assessment tasks.

In particular, motivation and engagement have been identified as key factors important for improving writing outcomes. Here we summarise findings of a recent Australian study of writing motivation and engagement published in the international journal, Educational Psychology (Collie, Martin, & Curwood, 2015). This study identified the motivation and engagement factors important for students’ writing success.

What is writing motivation and engagement?
Writing motivation refers to students’ inclination, energy, and interest in writing and writing tasks – including essays, stories, short answers, and reports. Engagement refers to the writing behaviours and writing strategies that follow from their writing motivation. While students may take part in very different writing tasks depending on the subject area, their ability to craft a creative story in English and to produce a detailed report in science (for example) are in part dependent upon the attitudes, behaviours, and emotions relevant to writing and writing tasks.

Most writing motivation and engagement research has focused on individual aspects of motivation and engagement – for example, only on self-belief or confidence in writing, or on students’ valuing of writing, or on writing fear and anxiety. To best understand writing motivation and engagement, it is important to look at a wide range of writing motivation and engagement factors. The Motivation and Engagement Wheel (Martin, 2003, 2010) captures this range of motivation and engagement factors.

The motivation and engagement wheel
The Wheel identifies positive and negative aspects of students’ motivation and engagement.

In most research and student assessment, this Wheel applies to school generally (i.e., motivation and engagement at school) or in particular school subjects (e.g., in mathematics, English, history, and science). The study published in Educational Psychology investigated the Wheel’s factors in the writing domain, as follows:

  • Self-belief. Self-belief is students’ belief and confidence in their writing tasks and in their ability to write.
  • Valuing. Valuing refers to how much students believe that writing is useful, relevant, meaningful, and important.
  • Learning focus. Students who are learning-focused are interested in learning how to improve their writing, develop new writing skills, and do a good job for its own sake and not just for rewards or the marks they may get for their efforts.
  • Persistence. Persistence is how much students keep applying themselves to their writing, even if that writing task is difficult or challenging.
  • Planning (and monitoring). Planning refers to how much students plan their written work, and monitoring refers to the strategies used to keep track of their written work and their progress.
  • Task management. Task management refers to how students use their writing time and organise their writing task.
  • Anxiety. Anxiety has two parts: feeling nervous and worrying. Feeling nervous is the uneasy or sick feeling students get when they think about or do their writing tasks. Worrying is their fear about not doing very well in these writing tasks.
  • Uncertain control. Students have an uncertain or low sense of control when they are unsure how to write well or how to avoid writing poorly.
  • Failure avoidance. Students are failure avoidant when the main reason they apply themselves to their writing is to avoid doing poorly or letting others down.
  • Self-sabotage. Students self-sabotage when they do things that reduce their success in writing tasks. Examples include putting off doing their writing or wasting time while they are meant to be writing.
  • Disengagement. Disengagement refers to thoughts and feelings of giving up in writing tasks, detachment from writing tasks, feelings of helplessness as they approach their writing, and little or no involvement in writing tasks.

Assessing students using the Motivation and Engagement Scale
The Motivation and Engagement Scale (Martin, 2016) is used in schools (e.g., by teachers, counsellors, psychologists) to assess students on each part of the Wheel. There is a primary school version (Motivation and Engagement Scale – Junior School) and a high school version (Motivation and Engagement Scale – High School). Students answer a set of questions for each part of the Wheel and receive a score that can be compared against Australian norms. It takes about 15 minutes to complete. There are 11 parts of the Wheel and thus students receive 11 scores. Students’ scores can be used to provide educational assistance, information to teachers and parents, or to benchmark year groups or the entire school.

Our study published in Educational Psychology used the Motivation and Engagement Scale to assess students’ motivation and engagement in writing. This article describes our major findings using the Motivation and Engagement Scale in this way.

Students in the study
Our study involved 781 male high school students from one government school located in a middle class area of Sydney. Students had an average age of 14-15 years and were in grades 7-12. Students were asked to complete the Motivation and Engagement Scale as well as numerous other survey items that explored various literacy outcomes, including their enjoyment of writing, their involvement and participation in writing tasks, their writing resilience in the face of difficult writing tasks and challenges, and their literacy achievement.

What did we find?
Key writing motivation and engagement factors: We found that the 11 parts of the Motivation and Engagement Wheel were indeed relevant to the writing domain. It is certainly the case that writing motivation and engagement are underpinned by the following positive factors: self-belief, valuing, learning focus, planning (and monitoring), task management, and persistence. It is also the case that there are some motivational barriers to writing, including: anxiety, failure avoidance, uncertain control, self-sabotage, and disengagement.

Effects of writing motivation and engagement: We found that the positive writing motivation and engagement factors were associated with greater enjoyment of writing, greater participation in writing tasks, more positive writing goals, more resilience when faced with difficult writing tasks, and higher literacy achievement. Notably, we also found that the negative writing motivation and engagement factors were associated with less enjoyment of writing, less participation in writing tasks, less positive writing goals, less resilience when faced with difficult writing tasks, and lower literacy achievement.

Our research has highlighted very clear and specific motivation and engagement factors relevant to students’ writing. The research also showed that these motivation and engagement factors are significantly associated with many important writing outcomes, including literacy, which in turn shapes student achievement across multiple subject areas.

Given writing and writing tasks are central to students’ success at school (and beyond), practitioners are to be mindful of the important motivation and engagement factors relevant to writing. Our results provide information to practitioners to help the students who struggle with writing, while maintaining the positive experiences of those who are writing well.

Contributing Authors

Professor Andrew J. Martin and Dr Rebecca J. Collie
School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia

Dr Jen Scott Curwood
Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney, Australia

Collie, R.J., Martin, A.J., & Curwood, J.S. (2015). Multidimensional motivation and engagement for writing. Educational Psychology.
Martin, A.J. (2003). How to motivate your child for school and beyond. Sydney: Random House/Bantam.
Martin, A.J. (2010). Building classroom success: Eliminating academic fear and failure. New York: Continuum.
Martin, A.J. (2016). The Motivation and Engagement Scale. Sydney, Australia: Lifelong Achievement Group (

Reproduced with permission from A.J. Martin and Lifelong Achievement Group (download Wheel from

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