A comparison of fifth-graders' oral and written stories

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Prior research in children's writing (Sawkins, 1971; Graves, 1973 and 1981; Calkins, 1980, and Giacobbe, 1982) has not offered a comprehensive analysis of both oral and written stories. My study, therefore, identified and analyzed the differences between eighteen fifth-graders' oral and written stories. I also conducted interviews to determine students' perceptions of their preferred composing situation and particular story preferences.

Among the findings were that these students' oral stories were longer than their written stories. The simplest narrative pattern, "situation + problem + solution" (King, 1979:3), was the most prevalent structure. All the students used active voice in both types of stories, with the majority using simple past tense. The students showed a preference for first person point of view in their written stories, but a majority used third person in their oral composing. Most students developed their stories with primary settings relating to home and school, and the number of major characters was fairly consistent in both types of stories. Girls, however, used more minor characters than boys. These students preferred the written composing situation. All the students took some time to think about their stories before composing; however, girls used more written plans than boys. Students also used drawing to enhance their written texts but not their oral ones. The majority of students chose their written stories as better than the oral ones. Both trained adult raters and other fifth-grade raters agreed that the written stories were better.

These findings are fairly consistent with conclusions reached in prior research, except those of Sawkins (1971). The differences center on planning strategies, interview skills, and story quality. Sawkins found that most of her fifth graders did not have the complete story in mind before they began composing and proceeded to compose without first having made notes. I reported, however, that my fifth graders indicated they had the complete story in mind before composing and some of them chose to write plans before they began. Although Sawkins (1971) believed that her fifth-grade boys responded better in an interview situation than her girls, I found all students in this study to be articulate and willing to talk about their individual composing processes. Finally, Sawkins reported that girls wrote compositions which were judged to be of high quality, while her boys wrote lower-quality compositions. Evaluators, however, agreed that my fifth-grade boys' stories were good, while rating the girls' stories lower.