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NAPLAN tests tell us nothing about the art of writing

Date

Robyn Cox

Australia leads the world in the teaching of writing, so why get hung up about the results of a NAPLAN test? Let's focus on our teachers' literacy achievements.

The explicit model of teaching writing, which focuses very closely on the academic study of text and language choice, has proved most successful.

The explicit model of teaching writing, which focuses very closely on the academic study of text and language choice, has proved most successful.

It is by written language that we are most often judged. It might be in a Higher School Certificate essay, a NAPLAN persuasive writing question, a job application or dare I say, a letter to the editor of a newspaper. How is it then that we come to be successful writers?

How do we know both what to write about and how to marshal the vast resources of our language system to make our point and to make it well? What is the place of writing in assessment at these times of digital literacies and fast communication systems such as Twitter, texting, Facebook all social media? 

Might we take a moment to consider the remarkable achievement of young learners and their teachers? 

The teaching of literacy in schools, for most students, is the primary way this complex skill set is acquired. In particular, writing requires learners to master this complex set of behaviours in a remarkably short time and yet, at the same time, it continues to be tested, judged, ranked and reported. Witness this week’s NAPLAN results release – there are gains in reading, punctuation and grammar but I have yet to see any celebration of this. Our focus is on the fall in writing scores.

Back to the question of how we become successful writers – a teacher will have, at some stage in our early school life, taught us how to decode language into sound symbol relationship and fit that understanding into the world. That is called learning to read. That same teacher will likely have taught us how to build up from those very same sound symbol relationships through word level, clause level, sentence level to text level and compose a text we might be proud to publish or share. That is called learning to write. This is a remarkable feat of learning and teaching – one that is often found wanting yet rarely applauded and recognised for its stunning achievement virtually across the board for all learners in schools.

Australia leads the world in the teaching of writing.  We have some of the best scholars in the world working closely with teachers and children in schools. The University of Sydney Faculty of Education has led the way for some 30 years in this field of educational linguistics and conducted research that is published in some of the most learned educational journals. We even have groups of teachers from Scandinavia, the United States and South East Asia visiting our schools to observe our methods.

The pedagogical and linguistic focus begins at the text level prior to moving through the layers of the linguistic system to word level. Young children are taught to consider the purpose for their writing and hence the "text type" before thinking carefully about the individual word or word group choices that they might use to produce a text which fulfils its purpose – which might be to report; entertain; instruct or even persuade. Such as in the NAPLAN persuasive writing question.

This model of writing pedagogy has been operating in schools across Australia since the 1990s and most recently underpins the Australian Curriculum: English and the NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum.

With the complexity of the curriculum, the busy routines of classrooms and the ongoing diversity of learners in schools, this explicit model of teaching writing, which focuses very closely on the academic study of text and language choice, has proved most successful. Its greatest success, according to ongoing research results, has been with those learners who may not have "Standard English" as their first language and may not have access to the full range of language choices to write a text that fulfils its purpose and does it powerfully.

Now might be a moment to pause and consider what writers can do after taking part in literacy lessons in schools rather than try to find a reason for scores dropping.  Might we take a moment to consider the remarkable achievement of young learners and their teachers? Nobody ever congratulates teachers for what they do accomplish; the miracle of teaching someone how to read and write.

Can we celebrate our literacy successes, like the rest of the world does, rather than focus on a bad question in a test that teaches us nothing about how to write?

Robyn Cox is president of the Primary English Teaching Association of Australia.

0 comment so far

  • Good to read an article from someone who knows what is actually going on in classrooms rather than from Commentators and Politicians peddling their own ideological cant. It is great to celebrate the really good work undertaken by teachers in our schools and understanding what teachers actually do, as this article demonstrates, is a good start.

    Commenter
    David
    Location
    Merewether
    Date and time
    August 19, 2014, 1:12AM
    • NAPLAN or no NAPLAN that is the question. If Australia leads the world in the teaching of writing then why do we put our children through these tests? I'll tell you why. The Australian education system needs to categorise your child into a group. Is your child dumb, borderline or brilliant? This will then reflect on the teachers ability to teach and the schools overall performance. It then determines which high schools will accept your child and in effect your child's future is determined.

      Teach our children what is important for them not what some miserable system needs to know.

      Commenter
      sunstruck
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 5:30AM
      • well said. What ever happened to letting children be children. In another article the mother of "a gifted child" frets her little boy will get a bad mark when she knows he is gifted. Thats the pressure these kids can be put under. I just hate all this adult interference in children's lives. I am well reminded of the time those coloured wooden blocks, cuisinaire rods, when I was about 6. They gave them to one class to use for a couple of days and then brought me and a couple of others in to see if we could learn off the others. I still recall my best friend David saying "this is really hard, you have to remember each colour is a number." I told him to forget the numbers and just look at the lengths and he could work out the number colour later. He was delighted with my approach as it made sense. I can later recall the teacher taking me to meet some man who was there to introduce them to the school. I recall how they all laughed and he looked defeated as I seriously explained to him that colours are colours and numbers are numbers and they ahould not be mixed up. Leave them kids alone.

        Commenter
        a don
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        August 19, 2014, 8:17AM
      • My experience has been that a lot of the problem is overly competitive, output focused parents.
        Many parents in my children classes are totally focused on their children ranking in the class which I find totally pointless. Let's face it there is a lot of stuff that gets taught that has little long term benefit and a lot of teaching is pretty boring.
        As someone with 4 tertiary degrees including a Masters, my view is that not everything we learn or get taught is important or in many cases even necessary.
        What is important is teach our kids how to think, how to read the question and comprehend it, how to break issues down into component parts how to apply principles learnt, how to gain confidence by repetition of concepts, how to look for and research information. Exams don't necessarily give this insight and often don't reflect capability. Also exams are a construct which has very limited application in real life ( apart from working to a deadline) where if you don't know something, knowing how to go about finding out or working it out is far more important than that you may not know the answer initially.
        I tell my kids that school is not about what everybody else is doing or achieving; it is about them, what are they learning, are they improving, have they put the work in, have they practiced, are they trying their hardest, because if they do all of these things they will succeed in their lives in what they finally chose to do. Worrying about what everyone else is doing will get them nowhere.

        Commenter
        Seriously
        Date and time
        August 19, 2014, 9:15AM
    • A very well written article if you'll pardon the pun. My take on the problem is that far too much emphasis has been place on NAPLAN by Labor when it was introduced. They sold it so well as a barometer for the performance of a school and even individual teachers, that now many parents use it and nothing else to make school choices for their children. This is wrong.

      As you point out there is so much to celebrate about what happens day in and day out in our schools. NAPLAN needs to have some of the wind taken out of its sails. And parents expectations about its significance against all the wonderful things being achieved in our classrooms needs to be adjusted. It is just one test verses the months and months of caring, mentoring, encouraging and just plain teaching. Ignore the political hype that came with the previous government. Focus instead on what the vast majority of dedicated teachers are achieving every day. And occasionally st down and read abook with your children.

      Commenter
      Pete
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 7:27AM
      • Thank you, Robyn, for the article that needed to be written at this time.
        Now if we could just convince the parents that they don't constantly need numbers to update them on their child's progress, and we'd have the battle almost won.

        Commenter
        NewsHound
        Location
        Work
        Date and time
        August 19, 2014, 7:30AM
        • It is a very broad, and ambitious, statement to write that Australia leads the world in the teaching of writing. Frankly it sounds like a very parochial statement, especially in absence of any credible supporting facts. The reality is that there are very few fields in which Australia leads the world, although there are several fields where we join other countries at, or near, the top. Except for this grandiose statement, the author makes many good points.

          Commenter
          Roger
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          August 19, 2014, 8:13AM
          • Someone has to say it....imagine having actual tests that test progress; I've never heard of such inequity. The poor little darlings having to sit an exam...what is this world coming to? Far too onerous on them.

            Commenter
            graeme
            Location
            newtown
            Date and time
            August 19, 2014, 8:14AM
            • Robyn, I teach at university in a course that students can apparently only get into if they are very academic. At least half of them could not write to save their lives. The NSW school system is not teaching them to write. They continually write in non-sequiturs, use words they do not understand, and sentences that are too long. They have been taught to write to a formula - 'topic sentence' etc - and they have been taught to write to sound 'smart'. They should have been taught to write clearly and to say something meaningful.

              It starts in primary school. Year 3 students should not be thinking about the 'purpose of their writing' or the 'text type'. They are babies! They should just be writing - anything and everything they feel like writing.They should not be being stifled by having to think about adult concepts like 'text type'. They should be writing to express whatever is in their mind - the point of writing - not writing to express what they think adults want to hear.

              Commenter
              Cathy
              Location
              I have to disagree
              Date and time
              August 19, 2014, 8:28AM
              • I agree, wholeheartedly.

                From what you wrote it sounds like primary school teachers are using very similar techniques to ESL teachers, and quite frankly the formulaic, structured approach does not work.

                Australia, again, is often claimed to be a world leader in ESL methods, and the University of Sydney is again at the forefront of this research. However, as my European wife has undertaken numerous IELTS preparation courses so that she can have her international qualifications recognised, I have been astounded by the techniques they use. It is exactly as you say, topic sentence etc etc. When it comes to reading they teach skimming techniques, and openly tell my wife that she doesn't need to understand the article, she just needs to be aware of the key concepts so that she has a good chance of selecting the right multiple choice answer.

                It's horrifying. There is a dearth of people who are able to think critically and to clearly express these thoughts in writing.

                I have great admiration for teachers, I really do. It's not a vocation I could happily embrace. If I were a teacher I would be too frustrated by the idiotic directives that come down from above.

                Commenter
                Roger
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                August 19, 2014, 9:03AM

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