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Stepping up writing: hybrid training for teachers

Writing is always a challenge for schools, with teachers crying out for professional development on effective writing instruction. Seven Steps to Writing Success has the answer – as Dawn Veary at Margaret River Primary School discovered.

Four years ago, Dawn Veary, a Level 3 classroom teacher with more than 30 years’ experience, was looking for “that special something” to engage her most reluctant students in writing.

“I have always included a writing improvement goal in my performance management agreements over the years and in 2020 my manager mentioned Seven Steps to Writing Success PD (professional development),” she says.

“When you live 400kms from Perth, it is expensive and difficult to participate in quality PD, so I was delighted to find out that Seven Steps offered online workshops. They’d re-configured their face-to-face workshop into three two-hour sessions on Zoom, held after school over a few weeks.”

Ms Veary enrolled in Seven Steps’ Workshop One online.

Image: Dawn Veary

“It was exciting. It was inspiring – and the following day I’d incorporate what I’d learnt with my Year 3 students. This was life-changing for both my students and my teaching. Their excitement and enthusiasm was immediate,” she says.

Nothing was radically new about what she was teaching her students, Ms Veary says, but everything was new about how she was teaching them.

“It’s fascinating to watch your students progress and transform before your eyes. By the end of that first year, I could honestly say that I no longer had a single reluctant writer in my Year 3 class, and what’s more, it was those same students who were now clamouring to share their writing with the class.”

Based on this success, Ms Veary was eager to introduce more of her colleagues to this style of writing instruction.

“At the time, the school had just under 1,000 students and we were comfortable with our students’ writing performance, but I knew we could do better. I wanted all our students to experience the emotional wellbeing of not feeling threatened by writing tasks but becoming capable and creative writers.”

In 2022, Ms Veary completed Seven Steps’ Workshop Two online which switched focus from narrative writing to persuasive and informative.

“This workshop was intensive, and I was happy to be spacing the sessions across three weeks, as it gave me time to absorb what I’d learnt and implement it in my class to fully understand how it could integrate with my school’s pedagogy of inquiry-based learning,” she says.

The tools and strategies she learnt greatly impacted her students’ writing.

“Writing collaboratively was an amazing personal growth experience for all students. In the mixed ability groups, weaker students ‘stepped up’ to write stronger texts using the shared resources of information. Peers were able to support each other to produce a high-level piece of informative writing.”

More than two million students in Australia can write more effectively as a result of the Seven Steps program. Image: Seven Steps

Ms Veary continued to encourage her school to see the benefits of the program.

“In my quest to make this a whole-school experience, I continued to share outcomes with my colleagues – classroom anecdotes, students’ written work and hard data from Seven Steps Track Your Success tools. I wanted them to see the impact the approach was having on my students’ writing,” she says.

“It was important that my colleagues saw it as something integral to what we were already doing, and not ‘another new initiative’ that increased workload or would be a passing fad. I shared some of the tools and strategies I’d used with my Year 3 students, and my colleagues were excited about the potential and saw how closely aligned it was with our school’s pedagogy.”

Ms Veary says the principal and deputy principal both saw the improvements in student writing and the potential benefits of all staff undertaking training. So, the school invested in a whole-school face-to-face PD in the final term of 2023.

“Now, in 2024, four Seven Steps ambassadors are actively teaching the Seven Steps, and three leaders across junior, middle and senior level are ready to offer support and encouragement. We also have a supportive acting principal who has backed this program from the start,” Ms Veary says.

“[This year] will be a critical year to build on last term’s professional development. I am passionate about the program and have seen firsthand the benefits in my own classroom, first with Year 3 students and now that I am teaching Year 6, the benefits have been exponential. This is a change-agent for teaching writing.”

Tackling writing decline step-by-step

Quality training and a consistent whole-school approach to writing are now more important than ever with NAPLAN data showing that Australian literacy results are declining, particularly in writing. Last year, about a third of students performed below proficiency in writing, with the need for additional support increasing each year.

While the data is disheartening, there are plenty of schools and classrooms that are seeing a very different trend in their writing results, and for many, the secret to their success is Seven Steps to Writing Success.

Developed by international author and former teacher Jen McVeity, OAM, the Seven Steps approach explicitly teaches students the skills that professional authors use.

Seven Steps founder
Jen McVeity, OAM. Image: Seven Steps

“All I did was break down the techniques of effective writing to make them easier to teach; more accessible, more practical,” says Ms McVeity.

“But most importantly – I wanted to make it fun. The key is to unlock the joy and power of writing for kids, then they’re unstoppable.”

Ms McVeity’s work in this field contributed to her being awarded an Order of Australia (OAM) in the King’s Birthday Honours last year for services to literacy.

Since it was founded in 2005, the Seven Steps to Writing Success has trained more than 45,000 teachers in half of Australian schools – predominantly primary school teachers. That means over two million students in Australia have been taught the Seven Steps.

Schools using the program have seen a 10 per cent improvement in student writing in as little as 10 weeks – the equivalent of a two-year increase in writing ability.

They have also see an improvement in their NAPLAN results. NAPLAN values great writing, with eight of the 10 NAPLAN marking criteria focusing on the authorial writing skills covered by the Seven Steps approach.

Schools also report that teachers feel more confident teaching writing, and student engagement soars.

The company is getting major industry recognition for the difference it’s making and the quality of what it delivers. It was awarded:
• EPAA Primary Publisher of the Year 2023 and 2022
• Teacher Hub, Seven Steps’ subscription platform – shortlisted in the Digital Education Awards 2023
• The Educator’s 5-Star Service Provider Award in 2023 and 2022.

Whole-school momentum at Nazareth Catholic College

Teachers from Nazareth Catholic College in South Australia is another school setting their students’ writing alight with the Seven Steps. Step 2: Sizzling StartsTM – the technique that’s all about grabbing reader’s attention from the very first paragraph – has been a particular favourite of the students.

“The Year 4 classes who hosted the whole school assembly used Sizzling Starts to begin each of their items. It was engaging and fun for the whole school community,” says Nazareth’s Head of Campus, Natalie Cameron.

Nazareth took a whole-school approach to learning and implementing the Seven Steps, investing in both a school workshop and the Seven Steps online platform Teacher Hub in 2023. This combination of training alongside practical resources and support helped school leaders, including Literacy coordinator Deb Featherby, build momentum and create engagement school-wide.

A common language is used in all year levels and there’s an overall ‘buzz’ about writing in their school community.

“Some of our teachers have said that they haven’t felt this excited about teaching writing for such a long time. I’ve been teaching for 29 years and it’s the most exciting program I’ve worked with – my class loves it,” Ms Featherby says.

“This program is truly transforming our students to become confident and creative authors – as well as inspiring our staff and supporting us to foster a love of Literacy.”

Schools using the program have seen a 10 per cent improvement in student writing in as little as 10 weeks. Image: Seven Steps

No time for PD means teachers are missing out

Quality training was important for helping both Margaret River Primary School and Nazareth Catholic College kick start their students’ writing improvement. But what happens when teachers struggle to find time for professional development?

That was one of the questions Seven Steps explored in a nationwide survey that received nearly one thousand responses from teachers and school leaders across all school sectors.

Seven Steps’ CEO, Kathleen Killick, says the survey responses made clear that Australian teachers are crying out for hybrid learning models, more PD in teaching writing, and flexible training options.

“Teachers are time-poor. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is worsening. Teachers are doing less PD than ever before due to staff shortages, curriculum changes and stricter time-in-lieu rules making it difficult for teachers to attend training outside of the school day.”

The survey confirmed that support in teaching literacy was a high priority for teachers, with more than half of the respondents saying that writing in particular was the area in which students needed the most support.

But it’s not only students who need support in writing; almost half of the teachers surveyed also picked writing as the area where they need the most development in their teaching practice.

This is supported by a recent report from the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) which found that teachers across primary and secondary education commonly reported inadequate pre-service preparation in writing instruction and inadequate professional development in the writing domain while working as a teacher.

Seven Steps is receiving major industry recognition for the difference it’s making in teaching students how to write. Image: Seven Steps

Bite-sized and on-demand – the new way to learn

The survey results posed a challenge for PD providers like Seven Steps to design quality training options that meet the real-life needs of schools and teachers.

“Time, staffing and budgets are tight. So schools are asking for short, drip-fed training solutions that fit within the school day,” says Sarah Bakker, who heads up the Teacher Resources team at Seven Steps.

So, Seven Steps transformed its award-winning live training into a series of bite-sized training videos available on-demand on its subscription platform, Teacher Hub. This allows teachers to learn the Seven Steps at their own pace, individually or with colleagues in just 15 to 20-minute bites.

The new on-demand training videos give schools greater flexibility by using a hybrid approach to learn and implement the Seven Steps program:
• literacy leaders can come to live training and then roll out the Seven Steps in staff meetings using the training videos and resources
• schools can bring a Seven Steps expert in to train their whole school, then use Teacher Hub to revisit the learning and roll it out
• literacy leaders can use the training videos and resources on Teacher Hub to learn the program themselves and then train their staff.

What’s more, learning the Seven Steps using these hybrid approaches has many inherent benefits for teachers, which include:
• Making learning bite-sized – grab actionable insights in just 15 to 20 minutes
• Reducing the cognitive load – learn new concepts in smaller, bite-sized chunks
• Learning by doing – try out the activities before using them with students
• Implementing as they learn – put learning into practice one Step at a time
• Ensuring better retention – refresh learning by rewatching the videos, again and again.

Having a hybrid solution that offers training, ongoing support and ready-made resources has allowed Seven Steps to better meet the needs of teachers and schools.

“Schools can now adapt the training to suit their own schedule or budget. So, every teacher can now access Seven Steps’ transformative training experience anytime, anywhere,” Ms Bakker says.

Students gain confidence with each step they learn, practising each technique in isolation using short, collaborative activities before they tackle a whole text. Image: Seven Steps

Is it working?

A recent survey showed that, since completing the on-demand training on Teacher Hub, teachers feel more confident teaching the Seven Steps, selecting appropriate resources and developing their own customised implementation plans.

Nat Russell, Deputy Principal at Mount Terry Public School, is finding Teacher Hub to be the hybrid learning tool the school needs.

“I am currently championing the Seven Steps to Writing Success strategies at whole-school professional learning sessions and the staff are loving it. I constantly refer to Teacher Hub and direct all our staff there,” she says.

And feedback shows it’s addressing the time constraints that teachers are facing right now.

“It has cut down on my planning time for writing,” Laura Potts, a teacher from Edwardstown Primary School, says.

Kristie Mulholland, a teacher at Beverley Hills Primary School, says the comprehensive resources are “ready to go”.

“It takes the load off me and my teaching as I know the lessons are going to be amazing,” she says.

But the key test of success is the impact on the students.

“The best comments I’ve had from my kids were the groans and pouty faces when we didn’t get to our writing lesson,” Rachel Grech, a Year 4 teacher from Iona Presentation Junior School, says.

“On another occasion, when just about the whole class put up their hands for writing when we were voting for favourite subjects, with the comments being ‘I used to hate writing; now it is one of my favourite subjects.’

And then the trail of responses … ‘Same!’, ‘Same!’, ‘Same!’ echoed throughout the class.”

“And this comment: ‘No teacher has ever taught us how to write before, they’ve just told us what to write’,” Ms Grech says.

Seven Steps in a nutshell

Based on best-practice pedagogy and supported by years of educational research and the Science of Learning, Seven Steps is an approach that empowers teachers to make writing fun and achievable for all ability levels.

Covering all text types – narrative, persuasive and informative – this author-based approach explicitly breaks down writing into seven core techniques. Students practise each technique using short, collaborative activities before bringing together all they’ve learned to write compelling, complete texts.

What are the Seven Steps?
• Step 1: Plan for Success – brainstorming and generating ideas
• Step 2: Sizzling Starts – grabbing the reader’s attention immediately
• Step 3: Tightening Tension – building momentum and tension in a text
• Step 4: Dynamic Dialogue – using dialogue to make writing more vibrant
• Step 5: Show, Don’t Tell – show, rather than tell the reader, to engage with their emotions
• Step 6: Ban the Boring – use all the techniques to revise and improve a text
• Step 7: Exciting Endings / Endings with Impact – leave a lasting impression on the reader.

Schools who are interested in getting started have a variety of options:
• Teacher Hub – 2-week free trial available
• Whole school workshop
• Online workshops

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