Dr David Caldwell, Program Director: Masters UNISA Education Futures, explores using meta language across key learning areas to improve secondary writing skills.
Ever since the introduction of NAPLAN, improving students’ writing has been a priority for Australian schools. As the foundation of communication, writing is an essential skill, yet with 20 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls in Year 9 still not meeting minimum standards, secondary schools are under increasing pressure to improve writing production.
The challenge appears to be associated with the specialisation of subjects as students progress through secondary school. While teachers recognise that writing styles become more distinctive within each learning area – for example, writing for science is very different to writing for music – the responsibility to deliver solid writing skills sits squarely on the shoulders of specialist teachers, creating a need to support all teachers to develop a meta-language for writing within their own subjects.
In 2020, I led a year-long professional learning program with Marryatville High School, a large public secondary school in metropolitan South Australia. My task was to have each learning area produce at least one model text, that is, an exemplar text from their discipline that aligned with relevant Australian Curriculum content descriptors (for a specific year level). I also worked collaboratively with the teachers to analyse and annotate their model texts, highlighting important language features to teach in the classroom, such as technical language, relating verbs and causal sentences in a science lab report. The resulting text production was outstanding.
In total, the Marryatville teachers produced 19 model texts across eight learning areas. All texts were accurately analysed for genre and grammar, with teaching staff producing a range of genres in line with their respective learning areas, including responses, explanations, reports, and arguments. So, what helped facilitate this level of teacher engagement and text production? The key was three-fold: professional learning, empowerment through production, and leadership. Firstly, it’s important to understand that this teaching intervention was one part of a three-year sequence of professional learning. In the year prior, staff had undertaken rigorous training in genre and functional grammar; they analysed texts, experienced joint construction, and had essentially been ‘taught’ explicitly about the language of their disciplines. By year two, they had a reasonably strong sense of how language works in their learning area.
Then, in the third year, after producing model texts, the staff focused on classroom pedagogy – how to use the model texts in the classroom. Giving staff ownership over their own text production and analysis was especially critical. First, it forced teachers to think hard about what language constitutes the kinds of texts their students produce – scientific reports, narratives, or data-driven descriptions – each has different structure, vocabulary, and grammar preferences. Second, it made teachers experience the same linguistic demands that their students experience when writing for their discipline.
Finally, teachers were empowered to write as the experts in their respective fields, and unlike traditional literacy learning, where decontextualised grammar exercises can be both frustrating and boring, the teachers tended to be engaged because it was their world they were writing about! Technology teachers bonded over the construction of spatulas; English teachers argued about the aesthetics of poetry; and HASS teachers related the Black Plague to COVID. Their field expertise kept them engaged in the hard language work. Finally, and most critically, the school leadership had a clear vision for this professional learning, hence the three-year time commitment. Leadership recognised the importance of a whole-school approach to language –- they were not afraid of meta-language (language about language); they readily used terms like genre, nouns, alliteration, and conjunction.
They understood that to effectively teach writing in secondary school, each discipline area needed to understand how language works for the different kinds of texts they demanded from their students. In fact, staff were encouraged to display posters of meta-language in classrooms across the school. So, what did we learn overall? Well, as tempting as commercial products and short- term professional development courses might sound, the reality is that improvement for something as complex and critical as writing, takes time. It cannot be rushed or crammed into a one-day seminar. However, with the support of leadership and commitment from teachers, it is possible to build a positive and productive culture where metalanguage for each learning area is commonplace in secondary schools. Only from good foundations will good writing flow.
This ‘Last Word’ Column was originally published in Education Matters Secondary Print Magazine in April 2022.