Jenny Donovan discusses AERO's analysis of NAPLAN writing data and the importance of writing instruction. Originally published in The Mandarin.
A female student writes in a notebook.

Writing well is crucial to success at school and beyond but learning to write is complex, requiring explicit instruction over years.  

In Australia, writing instruction has slipped behind other education priorities to a point that, sadly, we now have comprehensive evidence showing that too many young people cannot write well.  

AERO’s latest report examines millions of data points from a decade of national assessment of students’ writing. It is the most extensive analysis of students’ writing that has been conducted in Australia.  

The analysis shows a troubling decline. Student writing scores are consistently lower than expected of their year level. They are not writing as well as students once could in the same year level, nor as well as our curriculum says they should, and older students are experiencing the sharpest decline. 

AERO’s analysis focused on persuasive writing tasks undertaken as part of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests. The ability to write a coherent argument is an important life skill.  

In school, the ability to write persuasively will be a starting point for success in end-of-school essays and, beyond this, it supports participation in civic life. Who knows when a young adult may need to mount the case against an unfair parking fine, or why a rental bond should be returned, or what makes them the best candidate for a new job? 

Students have become less proficient at most of the persuasive writing skills assessed, but there has been a particular decline in writing sentences. Fewer than half of Year 9 students are proficient in sentence structure, dropping from 58% in 2011 to 42% in 2018.  

Sentences are fundamental for all writing, so difficulty constructing sentences suggests that students have missed out on learning an important aspect of grammar.  

Students have also become less proficient at structuring their texts. Grammar and text creation are included in the Australian Curriculum and various state and territory syllabus documents that set expectations for teaching and learning. Yet we now have a growing disparity between what our curriculum says should be taught to students and what they actually learn. 

There may be several reasons why this disparity has emerged and expanded. Surveys from NSW in 2018 revealed that many teachers lack confidence in their knowledge and practice of teaching writing. More recently, submissions to the 2021 Quality Initial Teacher Education Review described how education degrees offer scarce training about how to teach fundamental skills, such as reading and writing.  

At the secondary school level, teachers tend to be experts in their subject areas but at times feel less equipped to teach the specific literacy requirements of their discipline. However, time and access to effective professional learning in teaching writing is in short supply – especially for high school teachers. 

Now a benefit of having this new understanding of the nature and scale of the problem with students’ writing is that we can address it. In further good news, we already know what the evidence says about what should change.  

Cognitive science explains how brains learn skills that are not innate or ‘biologically primary’. This is why unlike speaking, which develops naturally in most people, writing must be explicitly and systematically taught in a structured way. 

We are lucky in Australia to have dedicated teachers who want their students to gain the best outcomes possible. If teachers have time, access to good resources and opportunity to build confidence, then evidence-based practices that lead to student success will be widely adopted.  

In a couple of weeks, we will have NAPLAN data from the 2022 assessment, including data about student writing. We have an opportunity now to review this alongside insights from AERO’s analysis, and address the areas of the curriculum where students are not learning what they need to know.  

We must accept that education practices need urgent change for students to be able to write well. Teaching writing should continue throughout schooling, so student skills increase to match the growing complexity of ideas and concepts that they need to think and write about.  

We owe it to students to act quickly. We can rewrite these findings by prioritising the necessary instruction in a skill that will serve them throughout their lives.  

First published in The Mandarin