How schools can tackle the slump in writing outcomes

How schools can tackle the slump in writing outcomes

An independent review of NAPLAN by Victoria, NSW, Queensland and the ACT found that in the period between 2008 and 2019, writing performance among students plateaued between Years 3 and 5, before declining in Years 7 to 9.

According to researchers at the Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education at the Australian Catholic University (ACU), this is because, while education systems have prioritised teaching reading, “far less attention and expertise has been directed to teaching writing, beyond perhaps spelling.”

One literacy expert says that despite gloomy reports, there have been some crucial learnings for schools from this year in terms of how literacy outcomes can be strengthened in the year ahead.

“2020 has clearly shown that educators have to be adaptable in their delivery of the curriculum and that differentiation is a key issue,” THRASS founder, Denyse Ritchie, told The Educator.

“This year has also provided educators with a unique window, a concrete opportunity, to see first-hand the inequity that is the reality of our society”.

She says this insight, gained from discussions with many teachers and schools both during and since the COVID-19 lockdowns, has changed the way that many educators think about their learners regarding individual perceived opportunities.

“This has clearly shown that a ‘one size fits all’ pre-packaged program for teaching literacy does not fit our society needs,” she said.

“It also shows the importance of continued professional learning to build teacher knowledge and capacity to enable schools to build a strong, cohesive literacy program”.

Ritchie said such a program should be interwoven across the school using consistent metalanguage and strategies to provide a sustainable learning platform.

“The program should also be easily adapted to different modes of delivery, not marginalise groups of learners and that be delivered to individual learners needs,” she said.

Greater emphasis on vocabulary and writing skills needed

According to the latest “State of our Schools” survey, three quarters of teachers say that NAPLAN is ineffective as a method of assessing students.

The survey, released in September, found that 75% of teachers and 73% of principals do not believe NAPLAN is effective for school comparison, and nearly the same number (74%) believe NAPLAN is effective for measuring school performance.

Ritchie said she would like to see literacy assessments in NAPLAN have greater emphasis on identifying vocabulary development and writing skills.

“Vocabulary is the most important element in comprehension and written expression. Many children struggle to answer questions not because they can’t read/decode a word but because they do not know the meaning of a word/s,” she said.

“I have seen many children who were referred to as ‘excellent spellers’ but who have no understanding of even simple common words they can spell”.

Ritchie said spelling is seen as a major performance indicator in NAPLAN when meaning is the critical element to word usage, for comprehension and to allow for ongoing learning. 

“Knowing the spelling of a word does imply you will use the word – understanding meaning provides that opportunity,” she said.

“Children’s writing samples provide opportunity to assess, language and vocabulary acquisition, phonics knowledge, spelling, grammar attainment and handwriting ability. Analysis of writing samples is critical in providing schools with the detailed information needed to build a strong and sustainable literacy curriculum”.