Most students’ writing skills on the decline, but spelling improving – report

Most students’ writing skills on the decline, but spelling improving – report

The writing skills of Australia’s school students have declined over 7 years, with spelling the only metric to buck the trend, new research from the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) has found.

The AERO researchers reviewed more than 10 million NAPLAN year 3-9 writing results and more than 350 persuasive writing samples from 2011 to 2018. They found that by Year 9, 85% of students were constructing sentences at or below the level expected of Year 7 students, and the majority could only demonstrate punctuation to a level expected of Year 3 students.

“Writing is the foundation skill that students require to understand and communicate what they are learning across all their school subjects, and one of the most important skills in working life,” Dr Jenny Donovan, AERO CEO, said

“We know that teachers want to see their students achieve their full potential. If our teachers are given time, access to good resources and the opportunity to build confidence, I am certain they will adopt evidence-based practices that will support students to improve their writing.”

Dr Donovan said more support must be given to teachers to identify best practice in literacy education.

“This isn’t about increasing the workload on our already stretched teachers, but assisting them to expand on what has been proven to work in improving student writing, while stopping what has little or no evidence of benefit,” Dr Donovan said.

“AERO has already published several targeted, evidence-based resources to assist teachers with improving their students’ writing skills. We are developing even more to address the findings of this report.”

The report’s recommendations include elevating the importance of the teaching and learning of writing across the curriculum in schools; ensuring teachers are aware of their students’ actual writing development and achievements, when planning for teaching; and increasing teacher access to evidence-based resources on best practice approaches to teaching writing.

More professional learning needed

Another recent study found that while most teachers feel well prepared and confident in their abilities to teach writing, less are confident in developing teaching practices to support struggling writers in their classrooms. 

“Historically, writing has been studied from different theoretical approaches and fields making it difficult to understand what we meant when talking about good writing and teaching writing,” the report’s chief investigator, Dr Anabela Malpique, a Senior Lecturer in Literacy at the School of Education at Edith Cowan University's School of Education, told The Educator.

“In the last 10 years, research has been expanding as we try to learn more about what effective writing instruction looks like across the globe. We do know that writing is a very complex skill, that can take potentially 20 years to master, and that it needs explicit instruction.”

Dr Malpique Teaching said writing is a complex job since it involves the teaching of many different sub-skills – namely foundational (such as handwriting, typing and spelling) and process skills (planning and revising texts).

“Having that in mind, school leaders should start by promoting a community in which writing (and the teaching of writing) is valued.”

“This includes offering opportunities for teachers to develop their knowledge about evidence-based practices for writing instruction, and having teachers engaged in sharing their best practices with each other.”

Dr Malpique said principals can also promote ways in which universities and schools can work together and share best-practices for writing instruction, as well as promote ways in which teachers and parents work collaboratively to support children’s writing development.

To address the issue more broadly, Dr Malpique recommends that professional development opportunities be put in place at state and national levels that equip teachers with evidence-informed writing and keyboarding tools for teaching.

“While there are number of evidence-based practices and recommendations for teaching writing, there’s no perfect model for teaching writing, no one-size fits all program,” she noted.

“That makes writing instruction quite challenging.”