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5 ways to reverse Australia’s writing decline (hint: spelling and grammar didn’t make the cut)

This year’s NAPLAN results drew the usual critique, followed closely by the customary hand wringing. Why the angst? They revealed that about a third of Australian students in years 5, 7 and 9 are performing below proficiency in writing, with the need for additional support increasing each year. And so the downward trend continues:

“A review of 10 million NAPLAN year 3–9 writing results and more than 350 persuasive writing samples by the government-funded Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) has found students’ writing declined significantly in every key skill area but spelling over seven years to 2018” (Sydney Morning Herald).

These results are worrying. Writing is an essential skill students need to develop – not just for NAPLAN, but for life beyond the classroom. In our ever-changing world, it’s crucial that we help students become effective communicators and creative and critical thinkers.

It's time to respond, not react

Many jurisdictions have reacted to the slide in writing results by honing their focus on grammar, punctuation and spelling. But will this really improve student writing in the long run?

Not according to the evidence, with multiple studies over the last hundred years showing no clear proof that grammar intervention improves writing quality (The Effect of Grammar Teaching on Writing Development, Andrews et al., 2006; Grammar and Usage, George Hillocks and Michael Smith, 1991).

This isn’t to say that secretarial skills have no value – they can definitely aid clarity. But no amount of good grammar can compensate for weak, undeveloped ideas, poor structure and dull expression.

Make a real difference to student writing

Students need explicit instruction and continual practice in the core skills of writing: how to generate great ideas, organise their thinking and create coherent texts that persuade or entertain.

Teaching these skills can be hard. It’s much easier to focus on grammar, punctuation and spelling because there’s a right or wrong answer. This is the trap many schools fall into.

Here are 5 steps schools can take to build students’ mastery of the fundamental skills of writing and reverse the downward trend.

1. Choose a proven approach

Schools need to unlock their students’ abilities by focusing on the craft of writing – the authorial skills that make a significant improvement to writing.

One Australian program – Seven Steps to Writing Success – is leading the way. It explicitly teaches the craft of writing using evidence-based pedagogy. And it gets results.

In one study, schools teaching the Seven Steps have seen dramatic improvements in students' writing in just 10 weeks, with 68% of students improving by more than one entire NAPLAN band.

Mary Semaan, Head of Primary at Al Sadiq College in NSW, shares her school’s results: “In 2018, less than 25% of students in Years 3–6 were able to compose a satisfactory piece of writing. So we brought in the Seven Steps and have seen a consistent and marked improvement in NAPLAN ever since. Our 2022 results in writing have been the best yet: more than 50% of students in both Years 3 and 5 are sitting in the top two bands and for the first time, many of our Year 7 students have hit the top band.”

2. Invest in teachers

Writing is one of the hardest skills to teach. And yet, instruction on how to explicitly teach writing isn’t given the same airtime as reading in teaching degrees around Australia.

“When surveyed, teachers across primary and secondary education commonly report inadequate pre-service preparation in writing instruction and inadequate professional development in the writing domain while working as a teacher.” (AERO report, 2022)

It’s crucial to invest in professional development to build teachers’ confidence and expertise.

But with the current teacher shortages and a lack of CRTs, the way schools access training has had to change. Schools are now using staff meetings to roll out pre-recorded training, bringing suppliers in to train staff on curriculum days or attending short online workshops after school hours.

3. Be clever with your budget

Can you link your budget for writing professional development with another need in your school? For example, evidence suggests a strong link between writing and wellbeing. Writing encourages creative thinking and expression – vital skills on their own, but they can also help reduce anxiety and boost positive emotions.

Even better, writing can boost engagement, which in turn improves students’ wellbeing. Programs like Seven Steps help teachers shift students’ writing mindsets and create buzzing writing classrooms. Year 7 Teacher Dawn Skiba-Grant uses Seven Steps and shared her experience: “I’ve seen an astronomical rise in engagement from my students, it’s been phenomenal.”

4. Don't teach to the test; teach great writing

NAPLAN values great writing, so by building student writing skills and confidence throughout the year, results will improve organically. Give your teachers year-round classroom support by investing in quality teaching materials.

Seven Steps helps schools to focus their efforts on an effective approach and gives them the tools to do it. Seven Steps Teacher Hub is an online platform that provides on-demand access to everything teachers need to teach great writing, including expert training videos, an extensive resource library, an inbuilt classroom planner and assessment tools.

5. Integrate different approaches

If your school is making grammar, punctuation and spelling a priority, incorporate this into the bigger writing picture. Students can often pass language conventions tests and quizzes, but then can’t demonstrate this understanding in context when writing texts. An integrated approach – whereby the authorial skills are also taught – is necessary to improve results.

Doing what works

For over a decade now, we've witnessed a decline in Australian students' writing skills. And the subsequent focus on the ‘secretarial’ skills is failing our young people. Writing results are not improving.

We must shift our attention to what actually works – explicit instruction in the craft of writing, alongside regular writing practice. This will not only help teachers make a real difference in their classrooms, but most importantly, it will bolster student writing for the future. And end the hand wringing once and for all.

Try Seven Steps' simple, proven approach to teaching writing today. Start your free 14-day trial (no payment details required).

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