License article

NAPLAN tests tell us nothing about the art of writing

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.

Show comments

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? 

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.