Writing

Beginning writers need a variety of opportunities to encourage them to write about their ideas and experiences. Children’s writing development is likely to be enhanced through planned and effective teaching that enable them to use a variety of personal, social and instructional purposes for their writing. These experiences help young learners to make sense of the world through discussing and sharing real life experiences that then lead them to write for different audiences.

In making a judgement about how well teachers of Years 1 and 2 managed writing programmes, ERO evaluated:

  • how well teachers in Years 1 and 2 classrooms used writing assessments to inform their teaching;
  • how well teachers in Years 1 and 2 classrooms used instructional writing strategies in their teaching; and
  • the overall quality of teaching of writing in Years 1 and 2 classes.

The overall quality of teaching of writing in Years 1 and 2

ERO found that many teachers demonstrated knowledge of the processes and features of writing. They regularly provided highly motivating opportunities for children to develop and enjoy their writing. However, some of these same teachers were not confident with assessing achievement or progress in writing, and using the information to respond to individual children’s needs.

Figure 4: Overall quality of teaching of writing

This is a bar graph. The y axis is called percent of schools and is ranged from 0-100 at intervals of 20. The x axis has four labels they are High 25%, Good 39%, Adequate 22% and Limited 14%.

Figure 4 shows that the overall quality of teaching was high in 25 percent of the schools. Thirty-nine percent had good quality writing programmes. In 22 percent of schools the teaching of writing was adequate, while in 14 percent teachers had limited understanding about effective writing programmes and the quality of their teaching suffered.

Using writing assessments to inform teaching

Teachers need to know how well children are developing their skills and confidence as writers to form words and sentences, create meaning and engage their audiences. They are more likely to make accurate judgements about children’s progress and achievement when they gather assessment from various sources.

Teachers also need a thorough understanding of what is expected of children as they move through their first years at school. They use this information as reference points in order to make judgements about how well a child is progressing towards an expected target and whether their progress is appropriate. Reference points help to shape the writing expectations teachers will have for their children in the first two years of school. Together with their knowledge of the children’s learning needs gained from various assessments, teachers’ judgements influence what and how they teach the child.

ERO found more variability in schools’ expectations about collecting and using writing assessments than in reading. In most schools teachers were expected to assess children’s writing formally. However, in a small number, no formal writing assessments were collected or used to decide what to teach. At the time of the evaluation many teachers were participating in professional development to increase their capability in assessing writing.

Figure 5: Teachers’ use of assessments in writing

This is a bar graph. The y axis is called percent of teachers and is ranged from 0-100 at intervals of 20. The x axis has four labels they are Very good use 27%, Good use 33%, Some use 21% and Little use 19%

Figure 5 shows that teachers in 60 percent of schools either made very good or good use of writing assessments for teaching decisions and sharing information with children and parents. Teachers at 21 percent of schools adequately used assessments for their writing programmes, while 19 percent made limited use of writing assessments.

What was working well in schools

Recent involvement in professional development for writing had helped teachers make more accurate judgements about their children’s writing. School literacy leaders or external facilitators encouraged teachers to take advantage of Ministry of Education resources including The New Zealand Curriculum Exemplars [17], the draftLiteracy Learning Progressions and the handbook Effective Literacy Practice in Years 1 to 4.

Where schools managed their own literacy development, teachers had been encouraged to share research and literature about effective writing practice. Lead teachers then led syndicate or team discussions about how new practices might be included in their classroom programmes. They observed each other’s teaching to suggest improvements and shared successful teaching approaches. The quality of discussion, reflection and learning resulting from professional learning and development had a positive effect in helping teachers develop confidence about determining children’s achievement and progress in writing.

In effective schools, teachers worked together, across the school or in clusters with other schools, to critically analyse writing samples. Assessments were analysed to identify what children had mastered and what their next learning steps would be. The information was also used to identify and group together children with similar learning needs. Team, school or cluster meetings provided time for teachers to reflect on, and discuss, practices that encouraged children to progress as writers. Teachers met regularly to moderate each others’ professional judgements about children’s unassisted writing samples. Moderation of writing samples gave teachers useful opportunities to talk about different ways and stages children develop their writing.Assessment information was used to respond to individual children’s needs. Although teachers’ planning often identified a class-wide writing purpose, individual children’s goals or group learning intentions were carefully matched to their needs. Teachers shared the moderated writing sample with each child and discussed their next goal with them. Each group or individual child had writing goals recorded in their exercise books. These goals were referred to and monitored through regular teacher-children conferences, and were formally reflected on at the end of each term before setting new goals. Classroom displays highlighted examples of children’s work that successfully showed writing features described in their goals.

Teachers understood what was expected of children during their first two years at school. They could reference the writing stages, behaviours and skills children were developing, to well known and understood exemplars or benchmarks. Many effective schools were using the draft Literacy Learning Progressions and The New Zealand Curriculum Exemplars as their reference points for children’s achievement.

Families were given accurate and useful information about their children’s achievement in writing. Collections of individual children’s writing samples were shared to help them and their parents reflect on their goals or objectives, and recognise or celebrate the progress made. Samples of writing, sent home to parents, included teachers’ comments about the child’s level of achievement, the skills they had mastered and what they should focus on next. Children explained their progress with their goals during three-way conferencing held as part of parent interviews. Families sometimes provided written feedback about their child’s writing progress and success. Children were well aware of what they had done well and how they could improve their writing.

Examples of effective use of writing assessments

Composite school, urban, large, middle decile

Profiles sent home regularly for parents include analysed writing samples of different types of writing genre. These clearly outline school writing achievement expectations for the end of Years 1 and 2. Children work with the teacher to set goals in writing. These are reviewed each term and included in the profile. Reports on children’s progress and achievement and three-way parent/children/teacher interviews give parents information about their child's progress in writing. Children know the strategies they need to develop as teachers talk to them about what they are expected to learn in the lesson and how they can use their new skills successfully. These ideas are reinforced throughout the writing lesson and are used by children at the end of the lesson to help them see how well they are applying new skills.

Full primary, rural, small, high decile

The teaching principal has a good understanding of writing programmes and writing assessment. She has a clear rationale for the use of exemplars and individual interviews for assessment. She analyses and interprets assessment information to determine each child’s writing levels, progress, next learning steps and to group children with similar learning needs. Children’s emerging skills are well monitored and writing tasks match their learning needs. Children’s individual’s goals reflect what they will next aim for in their learning from what has been identified in assessments. High quality information about each child’s learning needs and progress is shared with children and parents, and the significance of the data is fully explained. Children are involved in parent teacher interviews and know about their progress. Goals for improvement are set together.

What was not working well

Although schools had national guidelines about how to assess writing, in ineffective schools teachers had no school expectations about when or how often assessments should occur. In some schools, Years 1 and 2 children’s writing was not assessed formally. In other instances assessments were used to identify what the child could do without using the information as a basis to plan future programmes. School-developed writing expectations included only a few of the features of writing expected of children in the first years of school. Teachers were, instead, encouraged to concentrate entirely on how well children used capital letters and full stops or how neatly work was presented. This limited teachers’ ability to focus on the other critical writing features and processes to which Years 1 and 2 children should be introduced.

Some teachers were still developing their confidence in the use of a writing matrix or in moderating their judgements about children’s writing. The practice of a teacher always assessing children’s writing on their own relied largely on what knowledge the teacher had acquired. Some did not have a strong understanding of the different writing features and were, therefore, unable to decide accurately what children had mastered or what they should focus on next. A lack of, or poor, moderation procedures resulted in some children being assessed at the wrong levels and these having to be adjusted when the child moved into the next class. Teachers had limited understanding about appropriate levels or writing progressions because they weren’t using the reference points to set their achievement expectations or make judgements.

Writing assessments in some schools were used only to report levels of achievement school-wide or report on how a child had progressed recently. Results were sent to a school leader to collate, enter into the school’s computerised student management system and, in some cases, report overall school-wide achievement patterns to the board. Teachers were given no opportunity to collaboratively reflect on the collated data to decide whether previous changes in teaching practice were successful or future adjustments were necessary.

Ineffective programmes were planned to match a particular writing context, purpose or feature without any clear links to assessment information. School writing plans indicated the activity teachers should give priority to without regard for children’s actual needs. Programmes were organised to ensure children had equal amounts of time to concentrate on each particular type of writing. This system limited beginning writers’ opportunities to write expressively about something meaningful to them that matched their learning need.

In some classes assessments were only used to develop one teaching point that was likely to be the one skill many of the children in the class needed to develop. This practice meant some children were introduced to concepts they were not ready for, or those they had already mastered. Many children were not taught the writing features they specifically needed to focus on to progress to their next writing development stage.

Children and their families at some schools were not aware of what the child should do to improve in writing. Children received superficial feedback comments in their books or writing portfolios that mainly praised effort and neatness. Although teachers reported sharing lots of information with parents on an informal basis, they had no process to ensure all parents were fully aware of their child’s writing levels or progress. Samples of writing sent home to families had no evaluative comments from the teacher. This made it difficult for parents to understand what was expected of their child or how to help their writing at home.

Examples of ineffective use of writing assessment

Full primary, rural, small, high decile

There is no evidence of the teacher using any assessment, either formal or informal, to evaluate the effectiveness of writing programmes or children’s achievement. The teacher has limited understanding of writing development steps. Limited examples of writing are included in children’s learning profiles. The class focus is on handwriting, spelling, and letter-sound knowledge. Children are unable to talk about how they can improve their writing.

Special school, urban, small, low decile

There is no formal assessment of writing in the first years. Written comments are only recorded about the neatness of colouring in. Children are not grouped according to their learning needs. Instead they take part in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ experience loosely targeted at a ‘junior age’ class level and based on what the teacher thinks might interest these children.

Assessment tools used for Years 1 and 2 writing

Schools were using a considerable variety of assessments and tools to find out about aspects of their children’s writing. These included the English matrix from The New Zealand Curriculum Exemplars or a similar matrix designed by literacy PLD facilitators for use in schools that were using Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning (asTTle) writing levels.[18] Teachers also had writing conferences with children when marking their work.

Other assessments and tools schools identified focused mainly on spelling, and word and letter formation.

Spelling assessments included:

  • The Essential Spelling Lists;
  • Vernon Essential Skills;
  • Schonell test;
  • Daniels and Diack test;
  • Korakonui Spelling;
  • Peters Spelling;
  • School-based weekly spelling lists; and
  • Joy Allcock formative spelling assessments.

Some schools also included other items such as: information from the child’s early childhood portfolio; ‘the words I know’ writing check; Wordpower; 10 minute writing samples, pre and post test writing samples; and a knowledge of genre requirements assessment.

Using instructional teaching stategies in the classroom

Children need a wide variety of experiences to motivate and engage them so they enjoy writing. Teachers play a critical role in developing their classroom as a place where children take an active part in their learning, and have plenty of opportunities to share their experiences in an inclusive, non discriminatory and cohesive environment.

Effective teachers know about successful strategies for teaching writing. They know how to modify or change their teaching practices when necessary. They recognise that effective teaching requires deliberate instruction balanced with opportunities for children to experiment with writing for different purposes and audiences.

Effective teachers also understand how important it is for children to know what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they can use their new skills. In particular teachers should structure learning experiences that help children draw on oral language and enable them to transfer words encountered in speaking and reading, into their writing.

Sixty-eight percent of the schools that completed the questionnaire allocated between three and six hours a week for Year 1 writing programmes and 71 percent allocated that same amount of time to Year 2 writing programmes. More time was given to writing than for reading programmes. Eight percent of the schools, Year 1 classes spent more than six hours a week on writing and 10 percent provided Year 2 children writing time for more than six hours a week. It was difficult to find out how much time was spent on instructional teaching compared to writing related activities.

In investigating the use of instructional teaching strategies for writing, ERO considered how well teachers:

  • decided on and used instructional writing strategies to meet the identified needs and interests of the children; and
  • engaged their children in writing.

ERO found that many schools had clearly stated teaching guidelines for when and how writing was taught. Most schools gave children regular opportunities to develop their writing. Teachers generally used a range of ways to motivate children before they began to write. Teaching often skilfully highlighted the links between reading, speaking and writing.

Figure 6: Teachers’ use of instructional writing strategies

This is a bar graph. The y axis is called percent of teachers and is ranged from 0-100 at intervals of 20. The x axis has four labels they are Very good use 37%, Good use 34%, Some use 21% and Little use 8%

Figure 6 shows that teachers in 71 percent of schools used a very good or good range of strategies to engage their children in writing. Twenty-one percent of schools used some effective teaching strategies, while eight percent had few strategies likely to improve children’s writing development.

What was working well in schools

Effective teachers gave children a purpose for writing and encouraged them to write about things and experiences they were likely to be familiar with. They used objects, artefacts, books, and visual images to motivate children to write. They also showed photographs or computer images of events and occasions, and learning activities or discoveries children had previously been involved in and could talk and write about. As part of writing motivation, teachers used big books and texts used during shared reading to reinforce how reading and writing are linked. Children could sometimes make choices about what they wanted to write about and were given many opportunities to write independently.

Oral language activities promoted discussion about ideas and helped children to talk about what they wanted to say before they wrote. Effective questioning by the teacher encouraged children to think more deeply and clarify their thoughts before planning their writing. Children talked about the likely content of their stories with buddies or in small groups before they began writing. Teachers immediately reinforced children’s suggestions when they offered interesting or exciting words. Introductory discussions were carefully timed to ensure children were motivated and did not sit for too long. Teachers showed interest and enthusiasm in children’s ideas and writing.

Children were given ways to improve their writing. During shared writing sessions, teachers modelled language features by writing together with individuals or groups. They carefully broke down the skills children were expected to focus on. This helped children to understand what they were learning to do and what they should be looking for in their writing. When modelling, teachers used contexts suggested by children to show how their ideas were valued. Children were taught to use diagrams, charts and pictures to plan their own writing. They could talk about the skills they were focusing on and how they could improve.

Good classroom management made time available for teachers to support individual writers. They managed time with small groups of children who needed additional help or extension. Teachers roved around the class reinforcing children’s success with the language features or writing skills focused on in the lesson. They had conversations with individual children to help them further refine or expand their ideas, help them edit their work, and highlight their success and progress.Teachers provided many opportunities for children to assess their own learning. Children were carefully taught how to reflect on their own work and were skilled at helping peers critique their writing. They used such things as ‘I Can’ or ‘My Goals’ sheets to help them assess progress against their individual goals. They also highlighted where they had used the effective writing features in their work. Time was given to share their writing with, and receive oral feedback, from others. This helped children recognise they were writing for an audience. They confidently regulated and monitored their own progress.

There was ample support for and celebration of children’s developing writing in the classroom. Writing was valued and presented on classroom walls. Word cards and simple dictionaries for finding words, highlighter pens for editing, and computers for word processing were provided to encourage children’s independence. Children enjoyed reading together from displayed books featuring collections of their writing or that of their peers. Writing corners provided a place for children to write in their spare time and displayed successful work completed by ‘writers of the day’. Teachers created lots of opportunities for children to celebrate and affirm their writing achievements. Children were encouraged to aspire to be writers.

Examples of effective strategies for teaching writing

Full primary, urban, medium size, medium decile

Teachers use a wide range of effective instructional strategies. These include modelling and explaining new skills, and carefully sequencing learning so children can build on their previous learning. They prompt and encourage children to extend their ideas and they ask questions that encourage them to think more deeply. Children are provided with specific feedback that explains to them how well they have achieved the aspects taught in that particular lesson. The purpose of lessons is shared orally and often recorded in class learning journals. Children spoken to were able to share their learning goals.

Full primary, urban, small, medium decileChildren work in groups or with buddies to talk about and practise new writing skills. They capably help each other by reminding their friends of the ideas they shared and suggesting ways to attempt to write new words. Their previous learning is reinforced. Pictures are used for building images in their minds that they can then write about. They regularly brainstorm words and ideas together, and the teacher reinforces their use of new words. They have opportunities to read their stories to each other, and to other classes, and they have them displayed in the classroom. Interactive boards are used in highly motivational ways by children, as well as the teacher, to develop writing skills.

What was not working well

Writing programmes were spasmodic or not purposefully structured in some classes. There were few or no documented school guidelines outlining how teachers should approach writing teaching. Children wrote about topics decided school-wide. The type of writing or genre was matched to a school-wide focus rather than to the genre that would interest and motivate young writers. Teachers over-emphasised daily-diary writing, leaving children without exciting or new experiences to write about. Children were not well motivated and took a long time to begin or complete their writing.

Some lessons were not managed in a way that helped children focus on their goals, compose, edit and publish their work when appropriate. Writing sessions began and ended abruptly, with little time for motivation, instruction or reflection. Children were expected to rewrite and publish their work without a sense of purpose. Children had no opportunities to share their writing or discuss the features of good writing. In some instances, independent writing occurred only one day a week with such things as handwriting, spelling, copying poems and topic writing timetabled for other days. There was little sense of the reciprocal nature of writing with other aspects of literacy.

Ineffective teaching limited children’s ability to develop as independent writers. Instruction and feedback focused almost entirely on spelling, punctuation and presentation with little regard to how children formed and expressed their ideas. Offering children the same sentence starters each day made writing repetitive and provided no challenge. Having children tell their teacher a sentence that the adult wrote down, and the children copied, showed a poor understanding of children’s writing development and little regard for their attempts.

Limited resources were available in some classrooms to help children spell commonly used words. High frequency words were not displayed, or made known to children before they began writing. As a result their ideas and motivation for writing were interrupted as they waited for the teacher to spell words for them. Teachers did not encourage children’s attempts to form letters to represent a word. Very young children were not supported in developing their independence as writers or encouraged to take ownership of their writing.

Ineffective teachers did not base their programmes on children’s identified needs. Instruction focused entirely on exploring a topic with the whole class. Children had few opportunities for extra instruction because the small group focus was often the same as for the whole class. Teachers generally gave no time for an instructional teaching session and instead supported children by responding to any learning or behaviour needs they recognised as they moved around the class. Although children were aware of what they were to write about, they had little or no feedback to reinforce what they had learnt, or indicate what to focus on next. Children were not clear about how to improve their writing.Examples of ineffective teaching of writing practices

Full primary, rural, small, high decile

Although the teacher responds to children’s writing with comments, there is little evidence of working with children to extend their understanding of either deeper or surface writing features. The context for writing is based on recounts of events or activities that children were involved in at home, for example, ‘at the weekend I…’. Children’s writing books do not have any feedback or goals for improvement. The classroom has no examples of children’s writing on display.

Contributing primary, urban, medium size, low decile

Writing is planned to focus on a school-wide genre and the teacher’s idea of what might be interesting. There is little input or feedback sought from the children about their interests or the meaning of what is written. As activities are broadly ‘one-size-fits-all’, some children are not challenged and others are not able to work independently on the tasks provided. Instructions and conversations are fleeting, with a focus on fitting writing into the time slot, rather than exploring quality and engaging children. There are almost no children’s writing samples displayed in any of the three classrooms. A lack of motivational strategies results in off-task behaviour.

Writing professional learning and development

Fifty-seven percent of schools that completed the questionnaire reported that teachers had participated in some type of PLD on writing during 2007 and 2008. The period of time for professional development initiatives varied. In some schools writing PLD was undertaken for up to three years. In others teachers may have attended one-day courses or worked with a lead teacher or literacy development facilitator for periods of two years, a year, or a school term. Table 2 shows the types of PLD undertaken by teachers in these schools.Table 2: Professional learning and development in writing

Professional learning and development 2008 2007
General literacy 32% 29%
General writing  31% 19%
Literacy progressions 11% 1%
Spelling 8% 8%
Oral language 6% 2%
Exemplars 6% 5%
Literacy lead teacher 5% 2%
Early literacy 1% 2%
Handwriting - 1%
Assessment for learning - 4%

General literacy included Ministry of Education PLD contracts that focused on both reading and writing. Resource Teachers of Literacy, RTLB, Literacy Development Officers and literacy advisors were also used to lead PLD in this and the general writing developments.