You couldn’t miss the headlines and page one stories across Australia recently about the decline of Australian children’s writing skills. The release of results of national tests in literacy and numeracy meant we were treated to a range of colour-coded tables and various info graphics that highlighted ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ and that dire, downward trend. A few reports were quite positive about improved reading scores and an improvement in writing in the early years of schooling. However, most media stories delivered the same grim message that Australian students have a ‘major problem’ with writing.
Of course politicians and media commentators got on board, keen to add their comments about it all. The release of NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) every year in Australia offers a great media opportunity for many pundits. Unfortunately the solutions suggested were predictable to educators: more testing, more data-based evidence, more accountability, more direct instruction, more ‘accountability’.
These solutions seem to have become part of ‘common sense’ assumptions around what to do about any perceived problem we have with literacy and numeracy. However, as a group of educators involved in literacy learning, especially writing, we know any ‘problem’ the testing uncovers will be complex. There are no simple solutions. Certainly more testing or more drilling of anything will not help.
What worries us in particular about the media driven responses to the test results is the negative way in which teachers, some school communities and even some students are portrayed. Teachers recognise it as ‘teacher bashing’, with the added ‘bashing’ of certain regions and groups of schools or school students. This is what we call ‘deficit talk’ and it is incredibly damaging to teachers and school communities, and to the achievement of a quality education for all children and young people.
Providing strong teaching of literacy is an important component of achieving quality outcomes for all students in our schools. There’s little doubt that such outcomes are what all politicians, educators, students and their families want to achieve.
As we are in the process of conducting a large research project into learning to write in the early years of schooling in Australia we decided to have a say. We have a deep understanding of the complexities involved in learning to write. Especially, our research is significant in that it shows teachers should be seen as partners in any solution to a writing ‘problem’ and not as the problem.
Our project is looking at how young children are learning to write as they participate in producing both print and digital texts with a range of tools and technologies. While the project is not complete, our work is already providing a fresh understanding of how the teaching of writing is enacted across schools at this time. We thought we should tell you about it.
What we did
Our research was carried out in two schools situated in low socio-economic communities across two states. The schools were purposefully selected from communities of high poverty that service children from diverse cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds in Australia. Schools like these often achieve substantially below the national average in writing as measured by NAPLAN. These two schools are beginning to demonstrate that this does not need to be the case.
We looked at how, when, where, with what, and with whom children are learning to write in early childhood classrooms. We want to know what happens when writing, and other text production, is understood to be a collaborative, shared practice rather than an individual task; and when teaching and learning has a focus on print and digital tools, texts resources and devices. We worked collectively with the schools to think about the implications for teaching and learning.
Spending time in these schools has giving us a deeper understanding of how poverty and access to resources impact on student outcomes. We found many positive things, for example the way the teachers, researchers, children, their families and communities work together enthusiastically to plan and implement high quality literacy curriculum and teaching to all students.
As part of our study, we audited the current practices of teaching and learning writing. We interviewed teachers and children to gather their perspectives on what learning to write involves, asking them about when they write, where they write, who they write with and the resources they use when writing. By combining teacher and children’s perspectives, we aim to understand how children learn to write from a variety of perspectives.
What we found (so far)
This is just the first step in sharing the results of our research (there is much more to come) but we thought this was a good time to start telling you about it. It might help with an understanding of what is happening in schools with writing and where NAPLAN results might fit in.
We identified four vital areas. Each is important. This is just an overview, but we think you’ll get the idea.
Teaching skills and time to write
Teachers are indeed teaching basic print-based skills to their students. This is despite what you might be told by the media. What teachers and children have told us is that they need more time to practise writing texts. Our observations and discussions with teachers and children suggest that the current crowded curriculum and the way schools now expect to use a range of bought systems, tools, kits and programs to teach the various syllabuses, is providing less time for children to actually write and produce texts. We believe this has significant implications for how well children write texts.
Technology and writing
We captured the close and networked relationship between texts, technologies, resources and people as young children learn to write. In summary, we believe print-based and digital resources need to come together in writing classrooms rather than be taught and used separately.
Another important point is that there is a problem with equity related to access to technology and digital texts. Children in certain communities and schools have access while those in other communities do not. This is not something teachers can solve. It is a funding issue and only our governments can address it.
Writing as a relational activity
We know that teachers and children understand that learning to write is a relational process. It needs to be a practice that people do together – including in classrooms when the learners and the teacher and other adults work on this together. When asked, children represented themselves as active participants in the writing process. This is a positive outlook to have. They talked about being able to bring their ideas, preferences, and emotions, not just their knowledge of basic skills, to the mix. They represented writing as an enjoyable activity, particularly when they were able to experience success.
Who is helping children to learn to write?
Children saw other children and family members, as well as their teachers, as key human resources they could call upon when learning to write. Children perceived these people as being knowledgeable about writing and as being able to help them. Again this is a positive finding and has many implications for the way we teach writing in our schools, and the way we engage with parents.
We know that learning to write should not be considered an individual pursuit where the goal is to learn sets of composite skills, even if these skills are easy to test. Rather, it is a process where the goal should always be to learn how to produce texts that communicate meaning.
We hope our work can help you to see that learning to write is not a simple process and that any problems encountered won’t have simple solutions.
For schools in communities of poverty, the aim to achieve improvements in how well students write will be impacted upon by a variety of complex social, economic, political and material issues. Teachers do play an important role. However, while teachers are held accountable for student outcomes, so too should systems be held accountable for balancing the policy levers to enable teachers to do their job.
If the latest NAPLAN results mean that standards in writing in Australia are declining (and we won’t go into how that could be contestable) it is unlikely that any of the simple solutions recently offered by media commentary or politicians will help. More testing leading to more box ticking means less time to learn to write and less time to write.
We will have more to tell you about our research into young children learning to write in the future. Watch out for our posts.
**The blog is drawn from the ARC funded project, Learning to write: A socio-material analysis of text production (DP150101240 Woods, Comber, & Kervin). In the context of increased calls for improved literacy outcomes, intense curriculum change and the rapidly increasing digitisation of communication, this project explores the changing practices associated with learning to write in contemporary Early Childhood classrooms. We acknowledge the support of the Australian Research Council and our research partners who are the leaders, teachers, children and their families who research with us on this project.
Annette Woods is a professor in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She researches and teaches in school reform, literacies, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. She leads the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240).
Aspa Baroutsis is a senior research fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is currently working on the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240). Her research interests include media, policy, social justice, science education, digital technologies and literacies.
Lisa Kervin is an associate professor in language and literacy in the Faculty of Social Sciences and a researcher at the Early Start Research Institute at the University of Wollongong. Lisa’s current research interests are focused on young children and how they engage with literate practices. She is a chief investigator on the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240).
Barbara Comber is a professor in education at the University of South Australia. Barbara researches and teaches in literacies, pedagogy and socioeconomic disadvantage. She is a chief investigator on the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240).