According to the latest NAPLAN results, about 10% of Year 7 students, 7% of Year 5 students and 3% of Year 3 students are not meeting the writing minimum standard – a standard that is already so low that some argue it should be scrapped altogether.
To address the literacy slump, the Federal Government recently launched stage one of the $10.8m Year 1 Phonics Check, aimed at helping parents and teachers ensure children are developing the skills to become strong speakers, readers and writers.
With today marking International Literacy Day 2020, the focus this year is on how educators are delivering outcomes in this crucial area during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seven Steps to Writing Success program creator, Jen McVeity, said that despite working extraordinarily long hours, facing COVID fears and, in some states, battling with remote teaching and online challenges, teachers know the most important thing right now is the same as ever – to connect with their students.
“Before they can learn successfully, students need to know that you respect them and that you genuinely care. Teachers are doing that so well right now,” McVeity told The Educator.
“They are also embracing the chance to connect with parents in stronger and more frequent ways”.
McVeity said the “postcode lottery” is becoming even more acute in these chaotic times.
“Disadvantaged students don’t have as much access to resources and are not always able to get the support they need,” she said.
“We can expect a discrepancy between students who have done long-term remote learning and those who were able to learn at school. 2021 will be a very ‘unequal’ year”.
However, McVeity said there have been some inspiring changes in students’ ownership of their learning.
“With school closures, less face-to-face contact with teachers and less direction, self-responsibility has accelerated,” she said.
“Yes, some students are skipping school or chilling out on online learning platforms with their cameras off, but others have relished the opportunity to take control of their own learning goals. They have shown us that students want to have more power in their own education”.
What literacy slump?
McVeity questions what she calls a “continual emphasis” on the slump in students’ literacy outcomes, saying she is seeing encouraging signs that writing outcomes are improving.
“Where is this data coming from? NAPLAN? We talk with a huge number of teachers, and what they are seeing in their classrooms right now are more creative and confident writers,” she said.
“When analysing literacy data, we need to remember that 25% of students now are coming from an EAL/D background. This was not the case 12 years ago when NAPLAN started”.
McVeity said tests such as NAPLAN also do not differentiate between the secretarial and creative skills of writing.
“NAPLAN allocates 11 out of 47 marks to the basics of spelling and punctuation; this weighs heavily against students who are writing in a second or third language,” she said.
“However, their ideas, concepts and ability to communicate are what need to be measured”.
McVeity welcomes the current review of NAPLAN, saying it’s important that
“Many schools still believe the tired old ‘formula’ is the way to go. It’s not,” she said.
“Sit down with a group of NAPLAN markers and ask them – they probably want to stick a fork in their eye every time they read ‘I think … firstly, secondly, thirdly … in conclusion’”.
McVeity said that formula can make a talented Year 7 writer sound no different to a beginner Grade 3 writer.
“We need to keep a focus on what literacy is – it’s about using words to learn from others and, in turn, reach out to those around us. It’s not just about correct spelling or knowing every grammar function,” she said.
“If we keep that focus, then our students will see the real purpose of writing, and what it can do to help them shape stories, live more creative lives, and connect powerfully with the world around them”.
More work needed on improving data literacy
According to the recent Human Impact of Data Literacy report, only 20% of the Australian working population is confident in their data literacy skills.
While the term literacy often refers to one’s ability to read and write, Paul Leahy, country manager ANZ at Qlik believes schools and communities should also focus on data literacy and its importance in the modern workforce.
“While traditional literacy skills are still important during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, it’s imperative we also draw attention to data literacy skills that are critical to today and tomorrow’s digital native workforce,” Leahy said.
“If we look at how experts from around the globe have managed the COVID-19 pandemic, data [and data literacy skills] have been at the core. From visualising the spread of the virus to interpreting figures for contact tracing purposes, data is at the centre of it all”.
Leahy said the pandemic is just another example of how vital data literacy skills really are.
“For many years we've tracked primary level reading and math skills, but not an important competency like data literacy, which is just as important and so must be put front and centre in both the education system and the workplace,” he said.
“It’s essential that we educate the workforce of today and tomorrow to be data literate in order to be successful and prosperous moving forward”.