Australia’s national education evidence body

The complex task of teaching writing

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A secondary classroom setting with a male teacher sitting at a table with three students. They hold pens with paper and laptops in front of them.

Written by Emina McLean, Senior Researcher at The Australian Education Research Organisation

Writing proficiency is central to student success during the school years, and it influences personal and vocational outcomes post-school. The importance of writing as a communication and learning tool cannot be overstated.

Despite this importance, Australian students are struggling with writing. NAPLAN data shows there has been no improvement in Years 3 and 5, and a moderate decline in Years 7 and 9 over the last 10 years. Students who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, have a language background other than English, live in regional, rural, or remote areas, and/or experience socioeconomic disadvantage tend to perform worse than other students, with approximately 60% of students in some groups scoring at or below the minimum benchmark in NAPLAN.

Given so many of our students find writing challenging, improving how we approach instruction must be a priority, to positively affect students’ abilities and outcomes in this domain.

Writing is one of the most cognitively demanding tasks we require students to master, and, as the ability to write does not develop naturally, it is one of the most complex and sophisticated abilities to teach. Significant amounts of instruction and practice are essential if students are to learn to write well.

Unfortunately, research findings suggest that too little time is allocated to writing instruction and students do not write often enough. Furthermore, effective writing instruction, assessment and feedback are not provided consistently, and insufficient attention is given to developing a motivating and supportive writing environment.

Writing about content helps students to better understand and remember. Writing about what they have read boosts students’ comprehension of that material, and writing instruction improves students’ writing and reading abilities. In this way, writing is a tool for learning – if we teach students to write well, we assist their learning in all areas of the curriculum.

We know that explicit instruction is required to develop accurate and effortless handwriting, spelling and typing. These skills lay the foundations for writing, and persistent difficulties with these skills affect writing quality.

Time and attention must be dedicated to developing students’ knowledge of parts of speech (word-level grammar) and how to construct a range of sentence types using appropriate punctuation. Students need to be taught how to create increasingly complex sentences, through the addition of detail and use of coordinating and subordinating conjunctions.

Students also need to be taught academic and domain-specific vocabulary to be able to create expressive, interesting and topic-specific compositions. The skills they need to write a science report are different to the skills they need to compose a short story or a review, and the different expectations of writing in different learning areas need to be explicitly taught

At AERO, we plan to develop a range of practical resources for teachers that focus on the many aspects that make up effective writing instruction, from teaching foundational skills like spelling, handwriting and sentence construction, to planning, structuring and editing compositions across text types and subjects.

Writing is not a single ability. Students need to learn a wide range of skills to write well for different audiences and purposes. The good news is that time spent teaching writing is time well invested, because writing assists students to think about and learn the content of the learning areas across the curriculum.

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