A recent survey of more than 4,000 NSW teachers found that 49% felt underprepared to teach writing.
These findings followed a review of education degrees which showed “significant variation” in how universities prepared trainee teachers. A separate review commissioned by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) found that higher education institutions must act to raise teaching standards.
However, Professor John Fischetti, Dean of Education and Human Development at the University of Newcastle, says schools – not teachers – have shifted the focus away from developing writing skills.
Amid this debate, COVID-19 has proven a major spanner in the works of teaching and learning this year, with one report showing that 1.2 million Australian students have fallen behind academically since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Fortunately, key learnings are beginning to emerge as schools, governments, universities and other education providers analyse important data to see where improvements can be made moving forward.
Seven Steps CEO, Jen McVeity, the year 2020 has required everyone to focus on alternative means of communication.
“This has been the case, whether you’re a teacher, student or parent,” McVeity told The Educator.
“It has really highlighted the need to be a deliberate, skilled communicator in written and oral forms, which is the essence of literacy learning”.
McVeity said teachers have also seen that some students’ learning styles are suited to the traditional school system, while others shine in different types of classrooms.
“We’ve seen teachers be extremely innovative and agile in maintaining students’ literacy standards during the shift to remote learning and back to the classroom,” she said.
“From this experience, they can continue their use of multimedia and multimodal texts in the literacy classroom, encompassing a broader range of learning styles”.
This year has also highlighted some superfluous areas of the curriculum that can hopefully be addressed, McVeity said.
“The crowded curriculum has been a huge problem for teachers for many years,” she said.
“Some Seven Steps teachers have told us the cancellation of NAPLAN has provided opportunities for them to spend more time on literacy skills, with the view of students’ progression and without rushing to meet the pressures of the standardised test”.
According to the latest “State of our Schools” survey, three quarters of teachers believe NAPLAN is ineffective as a method of assessing student outcomes.
Amid the push to reform NAPLAN, McVeity highlighted some opportunities she sees for improvement in the way student outcomes are assessed in the years ahead.
“The NAPLAN tests have not been seriously recalibrated in the years since they were first set,” she said.
“Some areas like maths are good for assessing where students are sitting. I’ve sat the tests for a few years and am quite impressed with the maths ones”.
However, McVeity said she has also sat the NAPLAN writing test seven times, and says it is a more complex test with open-ended responses.
“I do have recommendations for the way student outcomes are assessed with regards to writing,” she said.
McVeity said NAPLAN needs to increase planning time from five minutes to at least ten minutes, to lend weight to “the incredible power” that planning gives to any piece of writing.
“Can you plan an in-depth piece on a topic like The Gate in five minutes: the time it takes to write a shopping list?” she said.
“Students need to brainstorm ideas on gates: why gates? Gates to another world, to keep people out, people in, gates to opportunity?”
McVeity said students must then choose one of those ideas and map out the characters, their dialogue, the plot, the moments of tension, and an ending with impact.
“That’s tough to figure out in five minutes,” she said.
“Many published authors will tell you planning takes at least one third of their time. We also need to keep the focus on communication and creativity – not use 11/47 marks on the secretarial side of writing, like spelling and punctuation”.
She said the writing submitted will be a first draft only, in a short amount of time, so it is not logical to penalise students for typos and secretarial errors.
“In addition, the Language Conventions NAPLAN test already measures spelling, grammar and punctuation – so why double test?” she said.
“Students need to be given a fair chance of success when sitting any standardised test, and it is time to reconsider some of the elements of NAPLAN to help achieve this”.