Novel approaches to improving writing skills

Teachers videoing their writing lessons to critique practice, and the use of non-fiction to motivate boys to write, are just two techniques that have helped improve how writing is taught to upper primary students.

Year 7 students from Auckland's Northcross Intermediate, Logan, Andrew and Ella, practise their new writing skills.

Year 7 students from Auckland's Northcross Intermediate, Logan, Andrew and Ella practise their new writing skills.

The latest report from the Education Review Office (ERO) details schoolwide improvements in six case studies of primary schools that have successfully raised student achievement in writing. 

Part of the Teaching Approaches and Strategies that Work series, ERO undertook the evaluation, Keeping Children Engaged and Achieving in Writing, in response to evidence that achievement was lagging among students at upper primary level. 

The 2012 National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) found that while 65 per cent of Year 4 children performed as expected, only 35 per cent of students in Year 8 performed at the expected level.

Good practice

To search out good practice, in 2016 ERO visited 40 primary schools that had students achieving above expectation or had significantly lifted student achievement.

'These schools made time and space for information-sharing and peer support among teachers and with neighbouring schools,' says Deirdre Shaw, ERO Group Manager Evaluation and Policy.

'Curriculum was carefully designed to make sure core reading, writing and mathematics was integrated across learning areas.'

Dr Shaw says that in some less successful cases it was found that school leaders wrongly assumed that practices introduced as a result of professional learning and development (PLD) were being implemented as agreed and were working for children. 

“Good practice case studies show that PLD needs to focus on the development needs of both the teachers and children, with careful evaluation of how well new practices are implemented and how well students are progressing,” she says. 

Emphasising the craft of writing

“In successful schools, teachers use every writing opportunity for children to practise the current strategies being taught,” says Dr Shaw.  

“Pre-writing activities are balanced, interesting and motivating. Teachers deliberately emphasise the craft of writing to help children organise their ideas more logically and coherently.” 

Children’s perspectives were also valued, and parents and whānau were involved in setting goals and agreeing on next learning steps with their child. 

Developing teacher capability

Fairfield Primary School, Hamilton

Leaders at this school focused on improving the quality and consistency of writing programmes throughout the whole school.

Initially the PLD introduced wasn’t successful because the approaches were too complex for some teachers, yet not challenging enough for others. So the school found a new PLD provider, which it partially funded, and concentrated on developing senior leaders and senior teachers first. They learnt how to better mentor other teachers and monitor how well staff were introducing new strategies.

Videoing helps improve practice

To check progress, teachers began videoing some of their writing lessons so they could critique their practice and discuss next steps with senior leaders.

Staff worked together to determine what progress students should be making across the curriculum levels written as “I can” statements for children. These outlined what a student should be able to do after each year in school, in relation to audience, purpose and voice, structure, and proofreading and editing. 

Teachers used these progressions to set success criteria for children to use when self-assessing, including: 

“I can…

  • think about and share feelings and ideas that mean something to me
  • communicate a message in my writing
  • retell an event or story in the correct sequence
  • independently record my ideas and opinions.”

Teachers in the junior school introduced all students to some of the writing strategies used in Reading Recovery. They regularly tested children to see how many words they could write correctly.  

During shared reading, teachers introduced a range of books about the same topic to help children develop and use prior knowledge in their writing. Newspaper clippings, video clips, artefacts and pictures were also used as part of discussions.

Good examples of student writing were published, laminated, and sent home for the child’s whānau. 

Keen to increase the gains made by students, this school decided next steps would include more oral language and improving teachers’ cultural competencies. One way of doing this was for teachers to better understand the home cultures and interests of their students so they could further engage children in writing.

Tackling sentence structure

Northcross Intermediate School, Auckland

Students at this school were generally achieving well in reading and maths, but leaders and teachers were concerned about writing levels.

Children had difficulty with sentence and paragraph construction, so the Board of Trustees funded a half-time release for a literacy leader to find ways to accelerate progress.

A programme designed for secondary students, ‘Write that Essay’, was adapted for the school’s Year 7 and 8 pupils. It focused on sentence and paragraph structure, to better prepare students for secondary schooling and beyond. The programme covered: structure, sentence, style, coherence, fluency, logic, analysis, precision,  clarity, focus, argumentation, conciseness.

Teachers as students

Teachers became students during a PLD session. They wrote for short periods before critiquing their work using the new criteria.  

The facilitator said students often have too many ideas in the planning phase, resulting in writing that lacks depth. Children should be encouraged to select their three best ideas, saving the others for another time. 

The teachers used what they had learned, with positive results. “Wow! Why didn’t someone teach me that before?” said one student.

The school developed a two-year plan to introduce writing skills to students. Ongoing support for teachers was differentiated to cater for their varying needs. Some teachers wanted only the resource book and software, while others wanted workshops and opportunities to observe colleagues’ teaching practices. 

Children were taught to use the online resources and modules independently and in groups.

One Year 7 teacher told ERO he was now much more confident when helping students with writing. He had learnt a lot about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the craft, and really enjoyed seeing the students make such great progress.  

Games help engagement

Some of the activities organised to engage students included ‘adverb dominos’, and quizzes in which groups had to locate the prepositions in sentences. Writing assignments included a scary story, a recipe, and a script.

One student reported: “Our teacher gives us challenging things to do with words. I was always an okay writer, but now I am much better.” 

A parent evening was held in the second year of the programme, as teachers decided more emphasis needed to be placed on working with parents to improve students’ writing.

Staff also collaborated with local secondary schools and had teacher swaps to help prepare intermediate students for essay writing at college level.

Non-fiction inspiring for boys

East Taieri School, Dunedin

Teachers adopted a non-fiction writing model to help boys who were not as motivated as others to write. 

A non-fiction model has helped learners improve their writing at Dunedin's East Taieri School.

A non-fiction model has helped learners improve their writing at Dunedin's East Taieri School.

During a visit to another school, they learnt about a non-fiction writing model that had been successful with struggling readers and writers.

After introducing it at East Taieri School, one teacher told ERO the non-fiction process had helped students to write a lot more and use more complex sentences. It helped that they discussed their ideas before getting started.

A non-fiction model has helped learners improve their writing at Dunedin's East Taieri School.

A non-fiction model has helped learners improve their writing at Dunedin's East Taieri School.

Year 3 and 4 children developed mindmaps in a focus programme on sharks. A video clip was paused regularly for discussion and so children could record key words in their mindmaps. The day before, the students had discussed the task and the measures they were to include in their writing, such as: 

  • hook the reader in
  • group ideas into categories
  • include a range of punctuation
  • write a conclusion.

Some students included imagery and other features they had learnt from creative writing. Teachers encouraged students to work with a peer to help them upgrade at least one word or sentence.

Year 5 and 6 students used the process to investigate their chosen topics and write speeches to practice persuasive writing.

One lesson included:

  • creating a topic sentence
  • discussing the order of their notes for a paragraph
  • turning notes into full sentences
  • discussing how to link a sentence to the previous sentence
  • writing paragraphs.

Topics included banning zoos, dangerous dogs, poultry farms, saving endangered species, and the damage caused by plastics. 

School leaders found that using the structure helped boys decide what to write. 

They had also become more enthusiastic about writing. 

Teachers agreed that the process was helping children develop high-quality research and writing skills that they could confidently use in their future learning.

Source: Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero

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