Writing the next chapter in student learning

Reports of the death of writing have been greatly exaggerated as Linda Doherty discovered when she looked at the gains made since 2018.

Three boys sitting at an oval table writing in their schoolbooks Three boys sitting at an oval table writing in their schoolbooks
Image: Time to practise: Students at Peakhurst Public School work on their writing skills.

Principal Sally Lawson was thrilled to receive the 2022 NAPLAN writing results for her Peakhurst Public School students, which confirmed a consistent improvement over the past four years.

Both the Year 3 and Year 5 results were well above the State average and since 2020 the Year 3 writing results have been the highest recorded by the school.

Ms Lawson puts the improvement down to the introduction in 2018 of a new teaching role – Instructional Leader Literacy – and practise.

“Students need to have time to practise what they have learnt,” she said.

When Ms Lawson started as Peakhurst Public School principal in 2018, she recognised a need to improve students’ writing skills and identified teacher Rebecca Parsons-Tran as a perfect fit for the Instructional Leader Literacy role.

“My role as a principal is to recognise talent in staff and exploit that to the hilt so the children are getting the best of the best,” Ms Lawson said.

The 2022 Year 3 cohort has been immersed in the school’s writing approach from their first day of Kindergarten. As well as outstanding NAPLAN writing results, Peakhurst Public students have won five awards in the past three years in the state WriteOn competition, including a gold medal this year.

The current Instructional Leader Literacy, Merryn Whitfield, uses quality literature passages in the classroom to target particular areas of writing, such as building vocabulary or constructing an engaging opening sentence. The students are then given time to practise before moving on to the next writing building block.

The instructional leader also demonstrates lessons and techniques to teachers and provides one-on-one mentoring and strategic feedback to both staff and students.

Peakhurst Public School this year trialled the new Kindergarten to Year 2 English and Maths syllabuses, which involved professional development for teachers and working with five other schools in a primary learning community to analyse writing samples and develop rubrics, scope and sequences.

The English syllabus, developed by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) as part of the NSW Curriculum Reform program, will be taught in all schools from 2023. It outlines an explicit approach to teaching writing, including a focus on spelling, grammar and syntax.

NESA Chief Executive Paul Martin said building stronger foundations in literacy in these younger years aimed to strengthen students writing skills across all year levels.

“Critical to the success of our students is their ability to clearly express in writing what they know. We are focusing on writing throughout the development and implementation of a new NSW curriculum from K-12,” Mr Martin said.

Dr Paul Wood, NSW Department of Education Educational Standards executive director said the foundational work in writing occurring in NSW primary schools like Peakhurst Public School was part of a suite of supports for schools to drive improvements in literacy and numeracy, which are fundamental to deep learning in all subject areas.

This includes a new role, Assistant Principal, Curriculum and Instruction, in all primary schools to provide instructional leadership support to help schools implement effective teaching practices.

Since 2018 there have also been significant developments in curriculum and teaching resources, more testing of writing skills in student assessments, and expanded professional learning.

“The focus is on setting students up to have solid writing skills right through school, from the phonics check-in in Kindergarten to the HSC minimum standard assessments from Year 10 onwards,” Dr Wood said.


A photo of a person writing in a book A photo of a person writing in a book
Image: Write stuff: Balgowlah Boys High School has turned around its English results.


National assessment of writing

Despite learning disruptions in the past two years from COVID-19 lockdowns and natural disasters, the 2022 NAPLAN National Report found that declining national writing results had been turned around and showed an upward trend since 2019 for Years 5, 7 and 9.

“This suggest that the efforts being made by schools and teachers, in response to those earlier warning signs, are paying off,” Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority chief executive officer David Carvalho said.

In 2022 NSW led jurisdictions or was equal first in NAPLAN spelling, grammar, punctuation and numeracy for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9; and equal second with the ACT in writing for Years 5 and 7. NSW ranked fourth in Year 9 reading and writing but there was some good news.

“We are very pleased to see a reversal in the decline in writing in secondary years; boys in NSW have posted their highest mean score in a decade,” NSW Department of Education Learning Improvement relieving deputy secretary Martin Graham said.

ACARA has identified national improvement in the Year 9 writing mean score since 2018, with NSW writing mean scores increasing in that period.

The sharper focus on writing in NSW includes a significant expansion in professional learning to build teacher capacity in writing instruction, from Kindergarten to Year 8. Staff from 98 per cent of the 2,200 public schools have visited the Universal Resources Hub for evidence-based literacy resources such as building skills in phonics, spelling, vocabulary and handwriting.

The department started a full cohort writing assessment for Year 6 students as part of the Check-in Assessment at the end of Term 3, 2022. More than 61,000 writing scripts have been marked and the results will be available soon to schools.

“This check-in will give information to primary schools on where they can improve in writing for future cohorts and, importantly, will give Year 7 teachers a baseline to work from as soon as students start high school,” Dr Wood said.

In secondary schools there is an increasing focus on strengthening the teaching of subject-specific writing, instead of leaving the teaching of writing just to English teachers. The department has around 100 resources to support the teaching of writing in Years 9 to 12, which align to the writing skills assessed in the HSC minimum standard online test.

The arms and hands of students reading books and writing The arms and hands of students reading books and writing
Image: Room for improvement: Since 2018 there has been a renewed focus on writing.

The forgotten ‘R’

The warning on falling student writing standards – particularly in high school – came in 2018 when a major review found that writing results had been static or declining since 2011.

The Report of the Thematic Review of Writing, commissioned by NESA, found that teachers lacked the knowledge, skills and confidence to teach writing and called for more training and resources. Writing had become ‘the forgotten R’ as public policy nationally and in jurisdictions focused on reading.

“Writing still matters. Much of the visual content that swamps us and that we produce as part of our daily working lives still begins with writing. Films have scripts, ideas have written proposals, Bill Gates carries a notebook and Twitter has increased its word limit to 280 characters,” the report said.

NESA endorsed the review recommendations including declaring writing a priority area, improving the quality of teacher training in writing, new requirements for teaching degrees and strengthening writing content in syllabuses.

The report recommended increased use of the National Literacy Learning Progression, which provides “line of sight” for teachers from syllabus content to a clear description of the skills students will typically demonstrate as they learn to write from Kindergarten through to Year 10. The NSW Department of Education has led the use of the progressions, aligning all literacy assessments, professional learning and resources to the literacy progression.

This recommendation was reinforced in a recent report by the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), which called for a re-examination of the National Literacy Learning Progression, curriculum documents and students’ actual writing results to focus on the syllabus sub-elements of creating text, grammar, punctuation and spelling.

The AERO report, Writing development: what does a decade of NAPLAN data reveal, analysed NAPLAN persuasive writing results from 2011 to 2018, finding that the majority of Australia’s Year 9 students used punctuation at a Year 3 level and structured sentences at a Year 7 level.

“The decline in students’ persuasive writing ability is something that needs to be acted on quickly through effective, evidence-based and explicit teaching,” the report said.

"Writing still matters. Much of the visual content that swamps us and that we produce as part of our daily working lives still begins with writing. Films have scripts, ideas have written proposals, Bill Gates carries a notebook and Twitter has increased its word limit to 280 characters."

This is what the Balgowlah Boys Campus of the Northern Beaches Secondary College has been doing for more than a decade, turning around poor writing results into outstanding NAPLAN and HSC English results. The comprehensive high school is one of the state’s most consistently top-performing schools in HSC English, having placed in the top 10 since 2016 and second in 2020.

The school’s literacy programs have been studied by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) in the report, Effective teaching practices at Balgowlah Boys Campus, so that successful strategies can be shared with all schools.

The journey dates to 2009 when Paul Sheather was appointed principal at a time of low enrolments and students under-performing academically, particularly in the English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA), a forerunner to NAPLAN.

Mr Sheather made an early decision to prioritise literacy skills for all students to address the identified need and because competence in literacy is needed for all key learning areas. His vision was to “create a strong learning culture that would lead to improved outcomes for all students and produce confident and articulate young men”.

National and international trends show that girls generally perform better at literacy than boys, but improved results in Year 9 NAPLAN scores – in writing, reading, spelling, punctuation and grammar – were evident just a few years after Balgowlah Boys introduced intensive literacy classes across the school. The school is also now a top performer in NAPLAN growth between Year 7 and Year 9 in both literacy and numeracy.

Balgowlah Boys attributes the improvement to an explicit approach to writing that is introduced early and practised regularly as students progress through schooling; a sustained and intensive focus on teacher collaboration across faculty groups; and providing students with regular feedback on their work that is timely, specific and actionable.

The school is extending the English faculty’s explicit teaching approach to other key learning areas to build teacher capacity across the school. Each faculty has its own list of subject-specific verbs, “because all subjects require students to talk or write about what ‘something’ does, whether it is a metaphor, a historical source, a type of joint used in timber, a physical activity, or an artist’s use of colour or texture”, the CESE report explained.

“History, for example, often describes cause and effect, using verbs such as ‘contribute’, ‘affect’ and ‘undermine’. A student’s capacity to use different verbs to recall and explore syllabus content empowers their writing and is critical for their learning.”

The CESE report noted research that showed that students who are taught with explicit teaching practices – where teachers clearly show students what to do and how to do it – perform better than those who are left to “discover or construct information for themselves”.

For principal Paul Sheather the consistent improvement “has come from the homogeneity of practice across the school, where teachers collaborate to develop exemplars, writing is scaffolded and then modelled in the classroom”.

Local families can see the learning improvement and are voting with their feet – Balgowlah Boys has more than doubled enrolments to 1,170 students since 2011.

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