“Some people just cannot write”. The radical statement made by a colleague and reading through some of the pieces written by my classmates (in Rhetorical writing course offered by Ohaio University), made me wonder whether or not genes play a greater role in determining writing skills. Mariana’s first assignment entitled “Natural Born Writer”, Omoniyi’s success story in publishing “Kane and Abel” and even the encouraging note from Anonymous, “Never give up”, all claim, directly or indirectly, a common idea. The mutual claim is that our ability to write is written in the genes!
As a clinician and a researcher, the nurture versus nature hypothesis triggered me to investigate. I have two questions in mind: Does gene determine writing skills? Does reading improve writing?
Knowing that twins are useful in such studies, I started my web-based search using keywords such as “writing skills” and “twins”. Because all identical twins share exactly the same genes, any difference observed in twins would be related to the environmental differences. Moreover, twin studies make it possible to estimate the extent to which genetic variations affecting one skill also affects an associated skill. I wonder if reading skills would impact the ability to write. Previous research has shown that vocabulary and grammar skills in 2- to 4-years-olds, were largely to represent the effects of the same genetic variations (Dionne, Dale, Boivin, & Plomin, 2003). This may be due to the fact that genetic variation affects these skills simultaneously. Another explanation is that one skill affects the development of the other. Naturally, I thought reading as an environmental trigger could affect the writing skill. Let’s find out” I told to myself”.
I searched the Pubmed, Medline and some other fancy medical databases and there it was. A fairly recent publication on “genetic and environmental influences on writing and …” by Richard Olson and Colleagues (Olson et al., 2011). The researchers studied the heritability of writing skills among identical and fraternal twins (n=540, age 8 to 18 years) using three different measures of writing (Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement-Writing Samples and Writing Fluency; Handwriting Copy from the Group Diagnostic Reading and Aptitude Achievement Tests). The handwriting test asked children to copy a short paragraph as quickly as they could without making mistakes. I thought to myself, ”I will put this test aside as it does not measure what I am looking for”. Study further claimed “Substantial genetic influence was found on two of the writing measures, writing samples and hand writing copy,…”. Well, I was not going to take the later part seriously, as I ruled it out earlier. But, the former part of the statement banged on my head like a falling hammer. Wow! This could explain a lot. Perhaps, I was not really able to write! May be I do not have the genes!
Lost in despair for a second, I reminded myself that I am a scientist and would not believe anything that I read unless I examine it thoroughly, first. I continued reading some more. My epidemiological training came to rescue. There were so many problems with this study. “Small sample size and selection bias”, I said loudly. My husband turned to look at me in total confusion. It is my writing assignment, I reassured him. I continue reading. I was right. The authors choose a non-random sample of selected twins with deficit in reading and ADHD– a condition in which twins were suffering from a history of attention problems. In fact they have diluted the result by including unhealthy samples. But, wait there were more issues. The writing fluency test consisted of a difficulty-graded series of three target words and a simple line drawing. The test was described as showing a picture of a boy’s head and the words “boy”, “happy”, and “is”. Twins were required to use three words in a completed grammatical sentence. The authors then provided a measure of so called “reliability” to convince the reader that this was a reliable test. Wow! How dare! The authors used a clumsy weak evidence to provide an answer for such a complicated question. Writing is a complex skill that develops with the exposure to competent users, personal observations, collection and selection of ideas as well as creativity and inventiveness. How can a simple play of cards measure such as complex phenomenon? It was obvious to me that this study is suffering from major measurement error, selection bias and lack of precision. Genetic influence of writing skill was measured by a simplified game of cards.
Other caveat to keep in mind about the behaviour-genetic studies such as this is that samples with greater environmental range relevant for the phenotype tend to yield lower estimates for genetic influences and higher estimates for environmental influences. For instance, excluding children whose first language is not English, could narrow the environmental range for the sample and seriously muddle the results. In such circumstance, one cannot extrapolate ones’ result to the general population and make a sweeping conclusion that genes are the solo determining factor in writing skills. Moreover, low estimate of environmental influences do not negate the possibility that education, as environmental intervention can have powerful effect on writing skills.
Genetic or environmental, nurture or nature, there is no doubt that training would help. This is just common sense and I do not need a fancy study to prove that to me or my colleague who claimed “some people just cannot write”.
I do not believe that writing ability is entirely genetic, as further studies are needed to prove or refute the nurture versus nature hypothesis. Although, I have not investigated the scientific evidence of how reading would impact our writing skills (because of time constrains), I think we all can agree that reading does improve writing capability for sure. With that I conclude my investigation for now and rely on the capable hands and minds of Ohio University professors to teach me how to write more efficiently, precisely and professionally.
Dionne, G., Dale, P. S., Boivin, M., & Plomin, R. (2003). Genetic evidence for bidirectional effects of early lexical and grammatical development. Child development, 74(2), 394–412. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12705562
Olson, R. K., Hulslander, J., Christopher, M., Keenan, J. M., Wadsworth, S. J., Willcutt, E. G., Pennington, B. F., et al. (2011). Genetic and environmental influences on writing and their relations to language and reading. Annals of Dyslexia, 63(1), 25–43. doi:10.1007/s11881-011-0055-z