Learning to write should not be hijacked by NAPLAN: New research shows what is really going on

By Annette Woods and Aspa Baroutsis and Lisa Kervin and Barbara Comber

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).


11 thoughts on “Learning to write should not be hijacked by NAPLAN: New research shows what is really going on

  1. Jane Hunter says:

    What a fabulous post – so glad you have spoken up (‘blogged up’ – such a word/phrase???) and shared some early findings of this important research to contest the ‘click-bait’ headlines. The four vital areas you have already identified are very helpful. Look forward to hearing the bigger story soon.

  2. Dr. Rose-Marie Thrupp says:

    Thankyou for speaking up. Writing takes time…writing, editing, sharing, discussing. It is more than grammar, sentences and longer pieces of text. It is a multitude of genre, each requiring different knowledge, skills and understanding.
    I wonder if we could leave out Friday afternoon sport that takes hours of travel to other locations and leave out all the practice sessions that have to happen to enable Friday afternoon sport to happen. Could we use this time for writing and reading? As a Deputy Principal for many years, I would look through our week to look for Education department – instructed activities and Regional-instructed activities that provide little benefit to our children. Try to do away with them to give children the time they need to do what they need to do to learn to read and write. I think physical activity is important too but we overdo it with sport in schools…regional carnivals, district carnivals……

  3. Frances Cameron says:

    No – you can’t and shouldn’t take out things like sport. These activities are of great benefit to our students and the answer to any writing ‘problems’ is not as simple as more of it. Sport teaches many things that are incredibly valuable such as perseverance, resilience, and communication without which our literacy levels will never improve. As a classroom teacher of many years the interruptions sometimes drive me nuts, but I believe that it is important that children are given the opportunity to engage in other activities. Research also agrees – we are spending too much time measuring what is easy rather than what is important.

  4. Annette Woods says:

    As educators we all want to see children get a balance of things to learn, teaching approaches to experience and content, skills and understandings to master. The school day is finite of course – which is a good thing as children and young people learn, live and engage in spaces other than schools. As part of this research we advocate for thinking broadly about what we prioritise in the time that is available for learning literacy during the school day. Our assumptions are always that children and young people need access to a rich repertoire of practices that they draw on to produce and comprehend texts as they make meaning in and of their worlds. To achieve this teachers and children will need to engage in worthwhile, purposeful activities that support children to learn, encourage collaboration and deal with substantive issues. Simple worksheets won’t provide this – but being active and engaging with others in games and team relationships can be an important part.

  5. Tracey Sanderson says:

    Thank you for your part in illustrating that educational research is telling us the stories that NAPLAN can’t.

  6. Annette Woods says:

    Thanks Tracey. I think it is so important to get a broad range of research perspectives in any field isn’t it. That’s the best way to get the policy levers set right. We appreciate your interest in the project. There’s more results on their way very soon.

  7. Tony Roberts says:

    It is interesting reading all of the recent commentary on the plight of the writing skills of Australian students highlighted by the NAPLaN results. I am a Primary school teacher and have also spent many years as a Basic Skills Test and a NAPLaN test Marker and Senior Marker of the written test. Therefore I have both taught students in preparation for the test, as well as marking them. My entire career has been dedicated to teaching in very low socio-economic schools.

    Simply put, from my experience in a number of low SES schools, writing is not explicitly taught! Almost all teaching in Literacy is aimed at Reading. The mechanics of Writing is not widely understood, the mechanics of ‘demand’ writing for standardised tests is virtually unknown by the vast majority of generalist teachers.

    Most teachers dislike the NAPLaN test, most also believe that preparing students for the test is unethical, that it will ‘skew’ the results. I believe this is incredibly counter-productive. The above research states that students are more engaged when they feel successful, this is basic teaching 101. Why then would teachers not prepare students for the test so that they can be successful. The ten criteria marked no not change and in my experience, there are 4 areas that need constant attention. Teaching these explicitly, and rigorously, will make a huge difference, I have proven it over and again with my own students.

    Text Structure: Students are given 30 minutes to write their text. That’s right, only 30 minutes to digest the topic, create their ideas and write their test. If they do not complete all aspects, such as for a narrative, the orientation, complication and resolution, they cannot score well. Yet teachers give far more praise for pages and pages of poorly written fluff than they do for a half page of well written complete story. Students need to be explicitly taught to plan and write complete short stories within time frames. If they are able to do this, they can then expand and enhance at their leisure when not writing for a test. It is upskilling, not narrowing their ability.

    Sentence Structure: Students will write as they speak unless they are explicitly taught otherwise. Good writers have high lexical density. By teaching students to use a variety of sentence types to add meaning and expression, their writing gains both control and power. Without explicit teaching, students simply will never gain these skills.

    Paragraphing: It is incredible the amount of scripts that I have marked that have absolutely no paragraphing at all. Not even to separate the elements of a genre (orientation/complication etc.). This is a simple area to teach, why is it not being taught? How can students learn to sequence ideas, edit and rewrite, improve their work, if it is not set out in a way that is accessible to both student and teacher?

    Punctuation: Again, it is incredible how many scripts I have read without control of basic punctuation, that is capital letters and full stops! This is simply poor teaching and lack of rigour. It is not that students do not understand the convention, they simply place no importance on it. I have even heard teachers say that with the digital age punctuation not as important as it used to be. It is certainly important to the results of testing!

    Trying to concentrate on all ten criteria too hard, too complex. I am not advocating not teaching spelling, or to limit the creativity of writing. However, I am convinced, and my own practice has shown, that concentrating on these 4 areas, really pushing them, consistently and rigorously, will equip students with the ability to succeed in demand writing tests and scaffold them properly for real control of their writing abilities.

  8. Annette Woods says:

    Thanks for your comment Tony.
    Part of the argument for the significance of our research is based in the assumption that the receptive dimensions of literacy have received more attention than the productive dimensions – in teaching, research, and policy. There are exceptions to this of course – in 1990 the QLD English Syllabus was very focused on production with its genre approach. What we do know is that regardless of where you stand on this and whether children and young people are being taught to write in schools – they are definitely being expected to write to demonstrate competence in many other school subjects and activities. So how well you write has implications for you across your school career in very important ways.

  9. Tony Roberts says:

    I totally agree with your point on the focus on receptive elements of literacy. One of the reasons for this is the ability to measure progress using tools such as the PM Benchmarks running record levels, PAT-R, ‘Golden 100’ words etc that are very widely used and understood. Apart from NAPLaN there really are no widely used Writing assessment tools.

    There are a lot of State Curriculum resources published over the years like the Qld Syllabus, one I found to be a very good tool is the NSW Board of Studies English K-6 Modules (I am a South Aust. teacher). The schools where I have seen the most success have a school wide genre plan program that is rigorous and has strong. committed leadership that keep staff focussed and on track. However, this is much easier said than achieved, as teaching writing is plain hard work.

    I also very strongly agree with your point regarding improved writing ability giving students greater access to higher competency in other curriculum areas. Unfortunately, many, many practitioners fall into the habit of having students fill in the blanks on Black Line Master photocopies when studying rather than create their own work. I have lost count of how many times I have heard of the wonder of sites such as ‘Studyladder’ to get a quick printout lesson on any topic you need! Even electronically, students are taught to be much more adept at cutting and pasting work into their projects than ingesting information and responding with their explanation or interpretation.

    Confident, successful writers are what we should (need to!) encourage, so good luck with your research, it is a much needed area of study.

  10. Dr. Rose-Marie Thrupp says:

    Thankyou for responding. My thinking is based on all the time and distraction that occurs because of Friday afternoon sport. I totally support Health and Physical education and sport-type activities within a school. However, after 35 years of teaching and as a Deputy Principal, I watched Friday from 11.30 a.m. disappear as children rode on buses for over an hour on a hot summer afternoon to play 45 minutes of sport. We need to maximise effective learning time (MELT). More time is needed for writing. Writing i.e. learning to write is a lengthy process..children need time to ponder, write, edit especially with the benefits of word processing.
    Physical exercise and well-being is important but it can be achieved within the realms of the school environment and not travelling, as some of our more remote schools do, for hours.

  11. Ajay says:

    They aren’t getting dumber, it’s more a reflection of standards changing and Australia not keeping up in a number of ways. That is a reflection on what we are measuring !

    Standards and work are getting harder, the curriculum is constantly getting more crowded, and moreover it’s difficult to compare results internationally on NAPLAN, it’s done via comparing roughly equivalent standardised testing, but not completely equivalent and balanced. PISA is more balanced in that similar tests are given, but only to a small sample of students from each country. Further other countries that out perform us take standardised testing more seriously, running extra classes and tutoring etc all directed at those tests and raising the country’s score, whereas how much emphasis NAPLAN is given in Australia is left to the discretion of the individual schools.

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