Australian students’ declining achievement in National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), as well as in international testing, has revealed that writing skills are below the 2011 average with one in five failing to meet the national minimum standard.
The NSW Centre for Statistics and Evaluations (CESE) has indicated that high school students struggle with writing more than with reading and numeracy.
The CESE report, based on 10 years of NAPLAN literacy data, revealed that one in every six Year 9 students in New South Wales fails to achieve the minimum standard required to succeed in their final years of school.
As a result, students who lack sound writing skills are disadvantaged in almost every academic endeavour, unable to achieve maximum benefit from the wider school curriculum and likely to be disadvantaged in post-school life and work.
Fiona Mueller and Deidre Clary from the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) have investigated what has led to this generational decline.
In their report – Writing matters: reversing a legacy of policy failure in Australian education, the pair found that Australia has seen at least 60 years of the adoption, variable implementation and occasional jettisoning of a parade of methodologies including: learning styles, multiple intelligences, critical literacy, constructivism, whole language, process writing, genre theory and text types, balanced literacy and learning progressions.
Fiona Muller says that a major consequence has been the near abandonment of consistent, explicit instruction about how the English language works as a system, juxtaposed with an ideological preoccupation with the socio-cultural experience of students in the classroom.
“Many of us have been concerned about what some might call the basics for a long time. At a number of conferences and forums, colleagues of mine and I have been approached by practicing teachers with those concerns of the decline as one aspect which is clearly evident in NAPLAN results,” she says.
“My personal concern has been for a very long time that we have adopted a whole range of methodologies over 40 years. On the one hand the evidence of the decline in student’s capacity to write and more broadly literacy skills, and secondly a long-standing concern that we have adopted a wide range of methodologies over decades without being sure of their value in the Australian curriculum.”
Outlined in Muller and Clary’s research, due to no NAPLAN testing in 2020 as a result of COVID-19, the validity of the 2019 NAPLAN results remains contested, largely because of questions about comparability between the work of students taking the tests online and those using pen and paper.
In 2018, less than 80 per cent of Year 9 students achieved at or above the national minimum standard in writing. Statistics further revealed that 2019 achievement by Year 7 and 9 students in writing had fallen below the 2011 national average, but there was a slight movement upwards in the percentage of Year 9 students achieving at or above the national minimum standard.
The University of Tasmania’s Dr Damon Thomas says declining student performance affects the quality of democracy because it’s about the ability of people to question something, make interpretations, [and] argue for what they need or what they want.
The results “paint a dismal picture of student progress with writing,” Thomas says.
He cautions that “a nearly 10-year pattern of decline in NAPLAN writing should be warning enough. We need to pay attention to this.”
A further concern is the gap between male and female writing scores, which widens with every tested year level and is equivalent to two years of learning by Year 9.
Muller says the design and utility of the NAPLAN tests the extent to which a limited number of test items can reflect the curriculum, and the national minimum standards approved by state and territory authorities, are all matters of ongoing debate.
“With its fixation on text types, the NAPLAN writing task has become the curriculum by proxy for many Australian schools,” she says.
“The stand-alone test requires students to respond to a stimulus or prompt to produce, for example, a narrative or persuasive text. One criticism is that this restrictive approach demands one-shot-perfect productions with teachers focused on criteria and minimal opportunity for students to demonstrate their linguistic dexterity.”
Muller reinforces that she is not a fan of the NAPLAN literacy test as they are currently produced because the test of English conventions – spelling and grammar – are separate to the test of writing.
“Any test we do to measure student’s progress in written English should include what we are required to do in real life,” she says. “That is to express ourselves correctly and effectively, in an increasing sophisticated way.”
“In the case of English, this means achieving confidence and competence in grammar, spelling and punctuation to free the writer to concentrate on the ideas and information to be communicated in any writing task. Beyond the practical gains, an individual’s capacity to write is important because it is an enduring manifestation of thought processes and freedom of expression.”
Muller says to help reduce the further decline in writing skills, an English proficiency test for every year group to allows students to show what they can do needs to be introduced.
She suggests a test that asks students to reposed to a series of short answers, longer form questions that pick up other parts of the curriculum.
“At the moment the NAPLAN test is very narrow. Being able to test multiple components that do check students’ capacity to express themselves in different formats, while being able to check sentence structure, grammar, subject agreement is a more effective way to test writing skills,” she says.
In 2019, a University of Tasmania study emphasised the importance of all teachers having the capacity to support their students’ English literacy.
The report submitted to the government — Literacy Teaching in Tasmania: Teaching Practice and Teacher Learning — concluded that emerging evidence strongly suggests that the key to improving literacy in high school is to prioritise disciplinary literacy over generic approaches to literacy.
The Australian Catholic University’s Professor Claire Wyatt-Smith insists that writing instruction is the responsibility of all teachers across the curriculum.
“Students need to learn grammar, structure, terminology and what good-quality writing looks like even in things like science and economics. This is not just about essays. It’s any written expression,” Wyatt-Smith says.
Highlighted in Muller’s research, both Wyatt-Smith and Christine Jackson, working at the Australian Catholic University’s Learning Sciences Institute, believe students’ progress in writing is at risk because Australian schools “drop the focus too early”.
They believe Secondary teachers have generally resisted taking responsibility for teaching writing in their subject areas, believing it to be the work of specialist English teachers and of primary teachers, and expecting students to have developed sound writing skills before they enter high school.
Muller says her and her co-author found the weight of writing skills continues to rest with primary teachers.
“The expectation is that they will ensure all students develop the written and literacy skills in English that will allow them to embark on into secondary school with confidence. Unfortunately, we have an awful amount of teachers who came through experimental programs who themselves aren’t confident in their written skills or knowledge,” Muller says.
“It is this compounding process where year by year and generation by generation that knowledge and skills reserve is declining. As a result, primary school teachers aren’t able to do their best work and then of course a significant number of students entering in Year 7 have very poor skills.”
Based on a study of over 200 teaching students in their graduating year at an Australian university, Edith Cowan University researcher Dr Brian Moon concluded that the capacity of secondary school teachers to support school-based literacy practices and teach disciplined-specific literacy skills is highly dependent on their personal literacy competence.
“The number of graduates who fell short of expectations was quite significant and, in some
cases, the prospect of successful remediation so late in their academic career appeared poor.,” he said.
Muller says The Centre for Independent Studies is now calling for tougher entry requirements for university teaching courses.
Research has found that initial teacher education programs have largely dropped the ball on writing instruction, at least in terms of ensuring that all graduating teachers demonstrate sophisticated control of the rules and conventions of English.
“There are fabulous teachers around Australia doing great things, but we need to be sure we are giving students the fundamental knowledge and skills to use their language and also showing them what great language expression looks like and that isn’t going to be taught in 280-character tweets,” says Muller. “You have to be able to walk before you can run, so once you understand how English works and what its elements are and how they fit together, you are then free to express your ideas in a very clear way.”