Spotlight On: A school-wide approach to writing

3 November 2023


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 2 November 2023.

 ‘Writing is the hardest thing we ask students to do, and very few become good writers on their own.’ Judith Hochman – The Writing Revolution
Many teachers would argue that the ability to write clearly and purposefully is essential for educational success. However, research undertaken by AERO (Australian Education Research Organisation) in 2022, examining more than 10 million NAPLAN writing results, revealed a significant number of students were writing at levels lower than expected for their age. While Queenwood’s NAPLAN results are consistently above the national average, they still indicate opportunities for improvement in the areas of cohesion, sentence level and punctuation.
One reason for this decline in writing standards could be attributed to the myth amongst some educators that students become better at writing by writing, or the assumption that if students read enough, they will simply master writing skills instinctively. In fact, students need to be explicitly taught how to write well and must be provided with multiple opportunities to practise writing, in combination with effective teacher modelling and constructive feedback. Furthermore, as Judith Hochman (author of The Writing Revolution) says, ‘all teachers, no matter their subject area, must be teachers of writing.’
With these falling writing standards in mind it is no surprise that writing instruction is seeing a resurgence, and we are at the forefront of research at Queenwood as we investigate how to improve teacher’s ability to explicitly teach writing. This year, the English, Social Sciences, History and PDHPE departments have collaborated with AERO on the SWIF Program (Secondary Writing Instruction Framework), a national research project. A key recommendation from the 2022 AERO report was to ‘increase access to high-quality and systematic professional learning resources about writing for school leaders and teachers’ and Queenwood are one of four schools in Australia to trial evidence-based resources and guides particularly designed to improve the writing standards of secondary students all over the country.

The SWIF program started with a survey of all Queenwood staff which included questions about how often they explicitly taught writing in their lessons and their confidence when doing so. It also asked how much time students spent on sustained writing in class. Considering these areas are not covered in most Initial Teacher Education programs, it was not surprising to find that some staff (including English teachers) indicated a lack of confidence in explicitly teaching grammar and punctuation or designing assessment tasks that allowed students to demonstrate their writing, inclusive of grammar.. For many years, the teaching of literacy has fallen predominantly to English teachers, and it requires a change of mindset for teachers in other faculties to reimagine how to accommodate this within their programs. In response to this challenge, and using resources designed by AERO, Queenwood staff have implemented a whole school approach to writing, focusing on Year 8 students. Time has been prioritised in these classes for the explicit teaching of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and cohesion. More importantly, teachers have been involved in professional learning workshops where they have learnt how to teach these skills and how to identify and assess features of quality writing. One of the key aims of the program was for students to recognise that writing is critical to all learning areas and valued by all teachers.

We will measure the full impact of the SWIF project over the coming year, with the ultimate goal that our students will be able to write with greater precision and cohesion, and our teachers will feel more confident in the teaching of writing. But in the short term, it has been heartening to see the development of a common language amongst students and teachers in regard to sentences and grammar, and a growing confidence in our students to identify and compose simple, compound and complex sentences. Students are becoming more aware that good writing requires a combination of these sentence types and that this is determined by their purpose and audience. The program has also aligned perfectly with the introduction of the new 7-10 English syllabus to be implemented in 2024, which has a renewed focused on sentence construction.

There is no doubt that the teaching of writing is a complex process but if we want to prepare our students for success where they can critically analyse information and express ideas in a confident and articulate manner, we must make the explicit teaching of writing a priority across all subject areas.