How principals can address the slump in writing outcomes

How principals can address the slump in writing outcomes

The latest NAPLAN data revealed a further decline in the proportion of students meeting the National Minimum Standard (NMS) in writing, suggesting a rethink is needed on how schools are working to improve students’ literacy.

According to some education leaders, a national research project into NAPLAN writing results in high schools is urgently needed find out whether young people are being “short-changed” in the development of their cognitive skills.

Mark Stanley is the CEO and founder of Literatu, an organisation helping principals and teachers improve students’ core writing ability through real-time tracking and personalised learning.

He says that writing has received much less attention than the other disciplines because it is an often time-consuming, and complex, subject for educators to teach.

“From my experience, to be able to write well, one needs workable knowledge of words and grammar, language styles, organisational patterns of information, and communication strategies to name a few,” Stanley told The Educator.

“Extending writing skills needs continuous practice and feedback, both requiring more time than is typically allocated in the confines of a busy curriculum. Expecting students to sharpen their writing skills on their own outside of class seems is also a false expectation.”

Writing needs STEM-like focus

Lidija Loridon, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder at Literatu, said boys in particular find that writing is a skill that takes focused teaching and time to learn.

“It's well researched and documented that boys trail girls in literacy, especially written expression,” Loridon told The Educator.

Loridon pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the United States, which holds reading and writing achievement data of 3.9 million children over 30 years. She said the data confirms that gender differences for reading and writing start early with girls outperforming boys, and typically widens over time.

“In Australia, NAPLAN data confirms this. In fact, poor written expression can even be a problem for boys that are highly proficient in reading. What is the benefit of ‘knowing’ if you can't translate what you know into written expression?” she said.

However, she pointed out that the problem of declining writing skills doesn't just belong to boys. Loridon says 90% of the longitudinal NAPLAN data she has seen shows that writing underperforms every other domain, year on year.

“I can see the impact of the focus on STEM, and there has been an uplift in maths skills over time. That same focus has to be applied to writing,” she said.

According to Tom March, director of teaching and learning at Literatu, the difficulty in improving students' writing ability is that it's a “moving target”.

“Even when teachers make the huge effort to provide detailed feedback on students' writings, the timing of the feedback is often measured in days, not moments and instead of fully grappling with the teacher's feedback, the paper is often filed away as another new assignment is on the way,” March told The Educator.

“Not letting those valuable teacher comments slip down the ‘data drain’ is the first way a school can work systemically. This way, the target isn't always moving.”

March said some schools take a "fluency first" approach to encourage students to write and revise for correctness, while others choose to focus on the building blocks of sentence construction, then paragraphing, etc. 

“When schools have easy to access data, the flood of texts and feedback flow into a curriculum framework,” he said.

Stanley said principals can help turn the tables at a local level by providing professional development around better using tech and pedagogy integration to improve writing skills through faster need identification, differentiation and targeted teaching.

“Time poor in schools is hard to fix. Most teachers work over 20 hours a week keeping up. Duplication of effort, manual systems., data demands, all take teachers off piste. Their main value is delivered through teaching and feedback,” he said.

“PD is the main answer, support for more efficiency and cross department skilling in literacy feedback. Reduce the time between finding evidence and using it to improve teaching is the trick.”

‘Principals must lead by example’

One of the big insights gained from the last decades' research into the teaching of writing, says March, is the focus on building a positive environment focused on creating and celebrating quality writing.

“Thus, the first thing any leader can do to contribute is to lead by example,” he said.

“Whether it's writing for pleasure or persuasion, when leaders and teachers are active writers themselves, this fuels a culture that values writing.”

With this in place, says March, creating many opportunities to publish people's writings is “a natural celebration” of the craft.

“Fortunately, current technologies make this both very easy and inexpensive,” he pointed out.

“Obviously, this suggestion follows on from the leader's role to support a pedagogical vision that captures the best approaches found in the school and helps them permeate the curriculum and culture.”