Writing the next chapter in student learning

The forgotten ‘R’

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

The Report of the Thematic Review of Scripture, 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 reading-focused jurisdictions.

“Writing still matters. Much of the visual content that overwhelms us and that we produce as part of our daily professional lives still begins with writing. Movies 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’s recommendations, including declaring writing a priority area, improving the quality of teacher training in writing, new requirements for teaching credentials, and strengthening of the content of the writing in the programs.

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

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

The AERO report, Development of writing: what does a decade of NAPLAN data reveal?analyzed NAPLAN persuasive writing results from 2011 to 2018, finding that the majority of Australian Grade 9 students used punctuation at Grade 3 level and structured sentences at Grade 7 level.

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

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

That’s what the Balgowlah Boys Campus at Northern Beaches Secondary College has been doing for over a decade, turning poor writing scores into great NAPLAN and HSC English scores. The comprehensive high school is one of the top performing schools in the state in HSC English, having ranked in the top 10 since 2016 and second in 2020.

The school’s literacy programs were studied by the Center for Educational Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) in the report, Effective Teaching Practices at the Balgowlah Boys Campus, so that successful strategies can be shared with all schools.

The journey dates back to 2009 when Paul Sheather was appointed principal during a time of low enrollment and underachieving students academically, particularly in the English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA), a precursor to NAPLAN.

Sheather made an early decision to prioritize literacy skills for all students to meet identified need and because literacy proficiency is required for all key learning areas. His vision was to “create a strong culture of learning that would lead to better outcomes for all students and produce confident, articulate young men.”

National and international trends show that girls generally perform better in literacy than boys, but the improvement in Grade 9 NAPLAN score results – in writing, reading, spelling, punctuation and grammar – was evident for just a few years. after the Balgowlah Boys introduced intensive literacy classes nationwide. school. The school is also now one of the top performers in NAPLAN’s growth between grades 7 and 9 in literacy and numeracy.

Balgowlah Boys attributes the improvement to an explicit approach to writing that is introduced early and practiced regularly as students progress through schooling; a sustained and intensive emphasis on teacher collaboration between groups of teachers; and provide students with regular feedback on their work that is timely, specific, and actionable.

The school extends 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 speak or write about what ‘something’ does, whether it is a metaphor, a source history, of a type of joint used in wood, of physical activity, or an artist’s use of color or texture”, explains the EESC report.

“History, for example, often describes cause and effect, using verbs such as ‘contribute’, ‘affect’ and ‘undermine’. A student’s ability to use different verbs to remember and explore curriculum content strengthens their writing and is essential to their learning.

The EESC report noted research that showed that students who follow explicit teaching practices – where teachers clearly show students what to do and how to do it – do better than those who have to “discover or build information by themselves.

For principal Paul Sheather, the constant improvement “has come from the consistency of practice across the school, where teachers collaborate to develop examples, writing is scaffolded and then modeled in the classroom”.

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

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