Survey: the importance of writing for learning

Karolina Nacovski
NSW Education Standards Authority

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” — Aldous Huxley

The capacity to write clearly and effectively is the bedrock of success at school. Yet while there is significant academic research and public commentary about the benefits of literacy, too seldom is writing identified as a pivotal literacy domain at the heart of teachers’ work.

We know that literacy is embedded within, and referenced across, NSW Education Standards Authority’s (NESA) educational responsibilities of curriculum, assessment, teaching and school standards.

Literacy is also incorporated into NESA syllabus content as one of the seven general capabilities expected of students across learning areas.

Literacy, and by implication the domain of writing, is also an explicit focus area in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

Writing is a key way in which students clarify and synthesise knowledge, and it is most often the way teachers are able to assess what students know and understand.

Writing remains, in one way or another, the main way students are required to demonstrate what they know across all subjects.

Recent research has identified important benefits of writing in learning. These include:

  • training the brain to operate efficiently by increasing the neural activation of multiple areas of the brain
  • corresponding advances in reading. A 2012 study of preschool students found that the students who practiced free-form handwriting (not tracing) activated the brain’s reading pathways. Put simply, the better we write, the better we read. (This relationship also works in reverse: We know that the more students read, the better their writing skills become)
  • stimulation of creativity. It is a slower process to write by hand than it is to type, allowing the writer to develop ideas. As students begin to learn to handwrite “automatically”, their brain is freed to process content
  • cognitive improvements, including increased word recognition and memory retention, and
  • increased focus and attention by “writing it down” (serving as a mnemonic) to reinforce a memory or connection.

For more than two decades it has been said that every teacher needs to be a teacher of literacy, a teacher of writing. But what does that mean in practice? Teachers recognise that they have a professional responsibility to understand the sequence of writing within their content domains, how to teach it and how to assess it.

Yet anecdotally we know some teachers do not feel confident teaching students to write. Teachers have expressed how difficult it can be to teach these skills across Stages and Key Learning Areas, as the demands of students’ writing skills change within and across primary and secondary school and between subjects.

Over the past decade, results for Australian students in both national and international assessments of student writing have declined.

While issues of assessment processes and student performance continue to be a matter of public debate, the writing data are clearly a matter for concern.

Preliminary results for 2017 suggest a significant improvement, but more work must be done to assist students to meet the requirement of a minimum standard in literacy, including in writing, to receive the HSC from 2020. It is NESA’s responsibility to provide support so that all teachers are confident teachers of writing.

To do this, NESA has partnered with the Learning Sciences Institute Australia to gain teachers’ insights into how they teach writing. NESA is researching what teachers do when teaching writing, what they know about teaching writing and what support NESA can provide teachers.

The Australian Writing Survey is open to all primary and secondary teachers across all subjects and learning areas. The survey asks teachers to reflect on their practice to understand what teachers know (and what they want to know) about writing.

The survey asks teachers about:

  • writing instruction they received in initial teacher education
  • professional learning experiences
  • preferred teaching strategies
  • preferred approaches to teaching writing
  • how they use digital technologies
  • how they assess and report on student writing
  • their knowledge of NAPLAN writing criteria.

The survey takes approximately 30 minutes to complete, and responses will remain confidential.

Completing the Australian Writing Survey will contribute one hour of NESA-registered PD addressing Standard 6.2.2 from the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers towards maintaining Proficient Teacher Accreditation in NSW.

Survey results will be analysed to inform the development or commissioning of subject-specific professional learning. Any new approaches developed by NESA to help the teaching profession teach writing will be linked to NESA syllabuses.

The survey is the first piece of work NESA is conducting as part of a broader research project into the teaching of writing.

A link to the survey is available at educationstandards.nsw.edu.au/wps/portal/nesa/about/initiatives/literacy-numeracy-strategy/australian-writing-survey.

Karolina Nacovski is Project Manager, Teacher Quality Policy, NSW Education Standards Authority