Earlier this week, the first major report by the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) revealed that the writing skills of Australia’s school students have declined over 7 years, with spelling the only metric to buck the trend.
The analysis, which reviewed more than 10 million NAPLAN year 3-9 writing results between 2011-2018, 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.
So, what’s behind the slump in writing outcomes, and what can schools do about it?
According to researchers from AERO, a big part of the problem is the excessive workloads distracting teachers from time that could be better spent helping students improve their literacy outcomes.
"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 Jenny Donovan, AERO CEO, said.
The report laid out a number of other recommendations, including 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.
Evidence-based methods are key
Dr Jennifer Buckingham, director of strategy at MultiLit and founder and director of the Five from Five project, says writing has always been the most contentious component of NAPLAN.
“AERO’s analysis of student writing performance in is a much-needed objective insight into the sub-skills that are assessed and shows that the concerns that have been expressed about the teaching of writing in schools is warranted,” Dr Buckingham told The Educator.
“While spelling has improved, which might be related to improvements in reading instruction particularly phonics and morphology, other components of writing are not being taught effectively in the main.
Dr Buckingham says it’s not just a matter of not enough time being spent on teaching writing, but also whether teachers are using evidence-based methods that build skills explicitly and systematically.
“When students know how to write, they can focus on what to write about. A knowledge-rich curriculum and rich vocabulary instruction contribute to this aspect of good writing. They are also missing in many schools, but this is gradually changing.”
‘Writing must be prioritised at a whole of school level’
Professor Susanne Gannon from Western Sydney University’s Centre for Educational Research is an expert in the teaching of writing in secondary schools.
Her research indicates that expectations for improving NAPLAN in many schools has fallen predominantly on English teachers who have varied experiences, levels of confidence, and pedagogical strategies for teaching writing.
“To improve writing outcomes in secondary schools, a school leader needs to prioritise writing across all facets of school operations including allocation of time and resources. Do whatever it takes to get everyone on board to create a writing culture,” Professor Gannon told The Educator.
“School leaders must also build in opportunities to celebrate writing and to write for authentic audiences and purposes, and consider resourcing a key person within the school with time and authority to drive the writing focus and incorporate ongoing monitoring and evaluation.”
‘Greater investment in teacher professional development needed’
The recommendations from the AERO report were welcomed by Jen McVeity, professional author and founder of the Seven Steps to Writing Success, Australia’s largest educator in writing.
“If we want real change in Australia, we must invest in ongoing teacher training and development. When it comes to teaching writing, giving teachers the training and tools they need to do this effectively in their classrooms empowers them to make great things happen,” McVeity told The Educator.
“The proof is in the results seen by schools like Bunbury Primary School in Western Australia – the 2022 Australian School of the Year – which has taken a whole-school approach to improving student writing.”
McVeity said the school has invested in professional learning and resources to support their teachers.
“This common approach and the consistent use of terminology has ensured sustained change and improvement, transforming writing not just for NAPLAN but for life.”
Build a culture of writing that sticks
Professor Gannon said teachers may have uneven knowledge, experience and confidence about teaching writing, so to drive comprehensive culture change they will need access to professional learning with a writing focus.
“External expertise and resources will be integrated at points in time, but culture change that sticks comes from teachers working shoulder to shoulder over time. School data may suggest a particular year level or subject for the first tranche of the writing strategy,” she said.
“Evidence-based research suggests particular strategies that can begin the process of change.”
Professor Gannon said school leaders should audit how much extended writing students do are doing in a school day, across subjects, and investigate how teachers are explicitly teaching the language structures, features and concepts of their subject.
“Are assessment tasks fit for purpose? Do students have opportunities to see progress, gain confidence and independence?”
Professor Gannon said school leaders must also determine whether their teachers provide formative feedback so students can set goals and know what to do next, and know the relevant written forms for different purposes and audiences for the subject and content that is being taught.
She also pointed out that teachers and students should have a shared language to talk about writing, including grammar. Writing routines should also be evident where students take notes, summarise, process ideas in language, collaborate and compose their own texts.”
“Writing is cognitively complex, and all students have capacities to develop as writers, with the help of their teachers.”