- Writing skills declined overall from 2011 to 2018, but the decline was steepest in years 7 and 9
- There has also been a noticeable decline in the writing skills of high-achieving students
- The gap between low- and high-achieving students is widening
Most year 9 students are structuring sentences at a level expected of those two years their junior and are using punctuation like children in year 3, which leaves them struggling to meet curriculum standards and unprepared for senior high school or life beyond it.
A review of 10 million NAPLAN year 3-9 writing results and more than 350 persuasive writing samples by the government-funded Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) has found students’ writing declined significantly in every key skill area but spelling over seven years to 2018.
Writing skills are declining in Australian schools.Credit:Craig Abraham
“We do have a serious decline, and it’s worse for our older students,” said the head of AERO, Jenny Donovan, who called for the core skill of writing to be given greater emphasis in the nation’s schools. “It’s a big drop and [writing] is a really basic expectation.”
Claire Wyatt-Smith, an Australian Catholic University professor who was a key contributor to the NSW Education Standards Authority’s review of writing in schools, said an emphasis on reading had taken the focus off writing in Australian schools.
“Writing is of at least equal need and greater urgency,” she said. “The teaching of writing is perhaps the biggest equity issue we face. We can use the word illiterate. They finish school and are unable to have the proficiency in writing they need for workplace engagement.”
The national findings echo those of a major review in NSW, which also found teachers lacked confidence in teaching writing, were not given the training and resources they needed, and spent too little classroom time focusing on it, particularly in high school.
Year 3: Students should use capital letters to start a sentence and a full stop or question mark at the end. They may be able to use commas and apostrophes.
Year 9: Students should be able to use complex punctuation such as colons, semicolons and dashes to clarify meaning.
Students were better at punctuation in pen-and-paper tests and better at paragraphing in online tests.
Writing is key to success at school because students who struggle to express their thoughts clearly on the page cannot demonstrate their knowledge. Research has shown that writing ability in year 9 is a strong indicator of success in year 12, when many subjects require essays.
Donovan said clear written expression was also essential to life after school. “Everybody is going to need to write a job application,” she said. “They’ll have to question a traffic fine, or make a case for why their rental bond should be returned.”
AERO’s analysis found the decline was particularly noticeable among high-performing students.
In 2011, more than 20 per cent of year 9 students achieved five or six out of possible six marks in sentence structure, which meant they could write sentences that varied in length and complexity. By 2018, that proportion had fallen to just eight per cent.
Forty-five percent of students in Year 7 can score a 3 out of a possible 6, meaning they can correctly write most simple and compound sentences, and some complex sentences.
In year 9, more than a third of students are still only able to write at the same basic level.
Only a quarter of year 9 students used apostrophes, commas and colons correctly most of the time. Most were at the level of a competent year 3 student as defined by curriculum documents, which meant they could use capital letters at the beginning of sentences and full stops at the end.
The many students who are below the standard assumed in the curriculum are likely to find lessons and assessments too hard. This is a particular problem in year 9, although students in years 5 and 7 are also achieving at a lower level than curriculum expectations.
“Students are a long way short of where the syllabus and curriculum anticipates they should be in their learning,” said Donovan.
“When teachers are using the syllabus or curriculum to guide them, rather than the knowledge of where their students are up to, they’ll miss the mark. They’ll be teaching at a point where the students are not ready for the learning.
“There’s no reason why a year 9 teacher will know what’s in a year 3 syllabus document. That’s a big gap to straddle.”
Donovan has made writing a priority for AERO, which was founded to help schools use effective teaching approaches, and has developed resources that teachers can use in their classroom. “The good news part is we also understand what to do about it,” she said.
NSW has also become the first jurisdiction to make writing a key focus of its new syllabuses.
Donovan said improvements in spelling could be attributed to improvements in reading. “Student spelling is going to be directly linked to their reading, and our reading has improved, so spelling has gone along for the ride,” she said.
The chief executive of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, David de Carvalho, said the national English curriculum has always prioritised writing. Each year level description affirms “the importance of creating and editing texts critically and with clarity, authority and novelty,” he said.
The authority had also been researching and trialling better approaches to assessing writing in NAPLAN. “An update on progress will be provided to education ministers before the end of 2022.”
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