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Do Australian secondary school students have a ‘problem’ with writing?

Nearly a decade's worth of NAPLAN data and a sweeping review of how writing will be taught in NSW has suggested that Australian students’ writing skills are in a sad state of decline.

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald story, academic Dr Russell Daylight (who teaches first-year university students how to write at Charles Sturt University) stated that his students can express themselves clearly when they speak but, when it comes time for writing, what they too often produce is a “confusing jumble of jargon, colloquialisms and random punctuation”.

But is this a beat-up? Or is there more to the story?

Dr Janet Dutton, a lecturer in secondary English at Macquarie University and the former HSC chief examiner for English, says that the discourse surrounding students’ writing in years 7-12 needs to be far more nuanced and evidence-based.


The frequent evidence proffered as ‘proof’ that Australian students’ writing is declining comes from data provided by the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). Dutton states that Thomas’ 2019 analysis of NAPLAN writing scores “shows that the average student in 2018 performed nearly 1.5 years behind the average students in 2011 – despite an upward trend in reading and numeracy…”.

Declines for both genders in writing have been evident from 2011 and 2018, however females registered a more significant decline in 2018. Dutton also states that the NSW Education Standards Authority's (NESA) Thematic Review of writing found a “marked and consistent decline” in writing performance as students transition through the junior secondary years (years 7-9).

While the former HSC chief examiner for English asserts that NAPLAN data is critical in many ways (primarily due to the fact that “it is the largest aggregation of student performance data" available to Australian educators, and it can be an effective diagnostic tool), a glaring weakness of the NAPLAN writing task is that it measures a student’s ability to write a “single textual form (narrative or persuasive)”, therefore excluding other types of texts students will encounter more in the senior years and later at university, including explanations, information texts, essays and reports.

Surely this is a weakness and underprepares our students for the future.

Another key issue Dutton identifies with the NAPLAN writing test is that it can often require familiarity with a particular sociocultural context that “does not offer equitable access” to all students.

“I clearly recall the year when students were asked to craft a persuasive text, offering arguments about why/why not they should learn to cook”, she says.

“At the time I was working in a low SES, EAL/D context where the cultural backgrounds of many students did not involve males contributing to cooking unless working professionally in food preparation.

“Many students reported they couldn’t think of an argument in favour of the proposition so wrote one paragraph saying it was stupid to suggest they learn to cook as clearly that was not useful unless they were going to be a chef/cook/own a restaurant."

A similar and amusing anecdote was related to Janet's daughter.

"...one year the writing prompt for all years invited students to canvas possible law changes. Many younger and compliant students could not fathom this task – as my daughter pointed out surely a law is a law and it wouldn’t have been made a law had it not been important," Dutton said.

Dutton added: “There is also anecdotal evidence questioning how seriously the [NAPLAN] test is taken by some secondary students as well as the increasing evidence of the stress provoking nature of this high stakes instrument and the extent to which this impacts performance.”

Teaching practices

Dutton says that Australian research has examined how teachers approach the teaching of writing, with some reports noting a decline “in the teaching of writing in the early years of secondary school”.

The NESA-commissioned Summary of the Research Report of The Australian Writing Survey 2018 identified two key trends in relation to the teaching of writing. Firstly, it found a “distinct shift in the priority given to teaching writing across stages of learning from K-12 with significantly less time devoted to writing instruction across secondary schooling compared to primary school”.

The Australian Writing Survey also highlighted that, compared to secondary school teachers, teachers in the primary years were significantly more likely to put high effort (33.1 per cent versus 8.2 per cent) into teaching writing”.

Dutton states that another report focusing on initial teacher educators (ITEs) preparation to teach writing found that teachers’ confidence in teaching aspects of grammar declined between years 3-6 and years 7-10. Additionally, there was a further decline in confidence in teaching grammar between years 7-10 and years 11-12.

High-stakes HSC English exams

During her time at NSW’s chief examiner in HSC English, Dutton and her colleagues did not observe evidence that there was a trend of writing decline in the senior years.

“Happily, I can report we saw no evidence that HSC English writing standards were dipping across time. I’m not able to comment on writing standards in other HSC subjects,” she says.

“Analysis of performance bands year on year show small fluctuations but no pattern of decline. Certainly, in the case of NSW HSC English, students are writing complex, carefully framed responses to questions on their prescribed and unseen texts.

“They’re managing complexity in textual forms, crafting creative, analytical and reflexive responses and doing so in a high stakes, timed, single draft examination. I'm confident markers would agree that the majority of students are doing remarkable things in this high-stakes examination.

“Naturally HSC students demonstrate a range of abilities in writing, but changes to school leaving ages and arrangements mean we currently have students in the later years of secondary school who two decades ago would have left school to pursue employment or vocational training.

“Teachers do a great job in all subject areas at continuing to develop these students’ writing skills and supporting them to develop the writing literacies they will need when they transition into their lives beyond school.”

'Writing on the highwire'

Research has also shown that a large degree of writing tasks taking place in Australian secondary classrooms can be described as “writing on the high wire”.

“I use the highwire metaphor to describe the fact that teachers and students in Australian schools are working in a high stakes test regime characterised by NAPLAN test of writing in Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 and, then, in NSW and a range of other jurisdictions, an end of school high stakes examination,” Dutton says.

“It is a highwire act because both teacher and student performance are being measured and there are risks associated with falling off the wire.”

According to the Macquarie University lecturer, these high-stakes contexts (which have been mirrored in the UK, for example) encourage teaching to test and “eschewing the writing practices which we know lead to stronger writing outcomes for students”.

The result, then, is predictable: students are afforded less time and far fewer opportunities to experiment, take risks and “undertake the often non-linear journey” in becoming skilled, confident writers. In this kind of high-stakes, formulaic environment, too few students are given opportunities to write an array of different text types (including authentic texts) for a range of audiences. Instead they are writing texts for a teacher audience – in preparation for the high stakes examiner audience.

Has there been an overemphasis on reading?

Dutton believes that the teaching of reading is a highly contested area, which is not helped by the “oversimplification of the issues by media and politicians and by the constant pitching of ‘silver bullet’ solutions by the loud voices of those with commercial interests in the space”. However, in relation to whether the teaching of reading has taken away valuable time from teaching writing, she is unconvinced.

“Anecdotally there are many teachers who feel the teaching of reading is dominating in the primary years, but from my knowledge of secondary classrooms I don’t think we can argue that the teaching of reading is overemphasised in the middle years of secondary.

“Reading and writing are inextricable, and it is not helpful to set up a binary construct where we weigh up the either reading or writing proposition.

“Reading and writing are interconnected in so many ways and what skilful teachers do is gather evidence on the learning needs of their students and address these distinctive learning needs. They do this rather than reaching for a one size fits all solution to the teaching of reading and writing."

However, in saying that, Dutton also refers to the importance of “sustained writing in the classroom and across subject areas in the middle years”, as evidenced in the Australian Writing Survey.

So, how can we reconcile these different opinions of writings standards between school and university?

Perelman’s 2018 Towards a New NAPLAN: Testing to the Teaching report, which was prepared for the NSW Teacher’s Federation, compared the NAPLAN test with six other international tests, including from the US, Canada and the UK.

One of Perelman’s key findings was “that there is too much emphasis on spelling, punctuation, paragraphing and grammar at the expense of higher order writing issues” in such tests. As NAPLAN covers only years 3, 5, 7 and 9, a misplacement of a comma and or some other grammatical 'sin' is surely to be expected, particularly when many students do not take the test seriously.

So, in regards to Daylight's comments at the beginning of the article, it seems they are not problems that can't be conquered. As the evidence above has demonstrated, some year levels are outperforming their counterparts, and many initial teacher educators are still learning the skills to teach effective writing to their various cohorts.

Reflecting on my own writing journey, it was not until I reached university that I tried a lot harder, read style and punctuation guides, and was armed for subsequent courses. However, I would not have been able to access and/or understand these guides had it not been for the teachers throughout my schooling.

Schooling inspires us all too learn, but let's face facts: some students pay no attention at that age, and won't be ready to pay real attention until the time is ready.

So, besides a decline in a dubious test such as NAPLAN, and some variation spanning the ability of teachers to teach grammar in a cluttered curriculum, is there a systemic writing problem among Australia’s youth? The evidence doesn't seem to support it.

The school years prepare students with a multitude of sophisticated writing skills and exercises that equip them well for the next part of their writing journey, which will see them taking their wiring to the next level: synthesising a collection of studies into one reference to support an argument; cleverly varying sentence structures and punctuation to create textual complexity; and using vocabulary with ever-more precision and nuance to convey complex textual meaning.

Schools, with their highly diverse cohorts, and different levels of teacher training and knowledge are, by and large, doing the right thing. But as the studies above show, more targeted, informed and confident writing instruction should be prioritised.

Becoming overly concerned with a misplaced apostrophe or a comma splice will only give teachers, not students, a headache.

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One comment

  1. Students don’t give a hoot about NapLan. Parents expect teachers to do the work for the student. Computers read to the student and write for them via voice recognition – what do researchers expect other than lower accomplishments. Students do not have to pass Maths, Science and English to pass from 1 year level to the next + streaming is nearly non-existent. Governments know that they are doing students / families / teachers a disservice but don’t care! Responses to emails and letters confirm that politicians know nothing about education other than what is put before them with pre arranged visits etc.

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