Exemplar Review - Fairfield Primary School - Writing - May 2019

Background

Introduction

Under Part 28 of the Education Act, 1989, the Chief Review Officer has the power to administer reviews either general or relating to particular matters, of the performance of applicable (pre-tertiary) organisations in relation to the applicable services they provide, and prepare reports on the undertaking and results of such reviews.

An exemplar report may be produced when ERO finds an organisation demonstrates effective practice in relation to specific aspects of performance.

Effective Practice: Keeping children engaged and achieving in writing

ERO reviewed Fairfield Primary School to investigate the teaching approaches and strategies that have led to considerable improvements in children’s writing in Years 5 and 6. In particular, we wanted to learn more about any short‑term interventions or long-term strategies that the school had implemented which may have been influential in bringing about these positive achievement trajectories.

Fairfield Primary School was selected from a database of 129 schools, with rolls over 200. The school was chosen because increased numbers of students were achieving at or above standards as they moved through Year 4 to Year 6. The school’s achievement levels were also higher than the average for their decile.

Before the review, we sent the school a set of discussion points and questions for leaders to consider. We asked leaders what they saw as the reasons for their positive achievement trajectory. We then looked for evidence of the approaches and strategies used, and the outcomes, by:

  • talking with children, parents, teachers, leaders and, where possible, trustees
  • observing in classrooms
  • looking at documentation, student work, class displays and the school environment.

Context: Progress and achievement in writing Years 5 to 8

Writing is important part of life, whether in the workplace or school, as a hobby or in personal communication. Writing proficiency provides a doorway into the world by helping the writer express their ideas, beliefs and personality. Children’s success in all learning is largely the consequence of effective literacy teaching. Literacy learning builds cumulatively on each learner’s existing proficiency.

Why ERO focused on writing programmes

National data shows that while many New Zealand children make good progress during their first three to four years at primary school, the rate of progress slows during Years 5 to 8. Generally, New Zealand students are underperforming in writing.

The 2012 National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) study, English: Writing reported many more Year 4 than Year 8 students were achieving at the expected curriculum level. That NMSSA report found 65% of Year 4 students achieved at or above the expected curriculum level (Level 2). However in Year 8, 65% of students were achieving below curriculum expectations (Level 4). Findings reported by the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) in 1998, 2002 and 2006 indicate ongoing disparities in achievement in writing related to gender, ethnicity and school decile over this period.

The NMSSA study also showed student attitudes to writing decline between Year 4 and Year 8. Girls were generally more positive than boys at both year levels, and the difference was similar at both year levels.

The lack of progress in writing from Year 4 to Year 8 could not be attributed to limited access to professional development. The 2012 NMSSA report indicated over 80 percent of Year 4 teachers and 75 percent of Year 8 teachers were involved in professional development and learning focused on writing in the previous 12 months.

This narrative shares the successful strategies and approaches one school discovered, trialled and implemented that improve children’s writing in the upper primary years.

Exemplar: Understanding writing progressions across the school

Before starting their writing development almost three years earlier, variability in the quality of teaching in writing was evident, and may have resulted in some children missing or repeating key learnings about writing. Leaders wanted teachers to fully understand and respond to the different stages children move through as they become confident writers. Leaders had also recognised progress often plateaued around Years 4 and 5 if children weren’t confident enough with basic writing skills and structures so they could succeed with more complex writing in the senior school.

Professional development

Leaders decided to focus on whole‑school development of writing to improve the quality and consistency of writing programmes. Initally the professional learning and development (PLD) leaders and teachers engaged in wasn’t successful. The whole‑school provision meant the approaches were too complex for some teachers and not challenging enough for others. Leaders then sought, and partially funded, a new PLD provider to facilitate improvements by focusing on both school‑wide and individual teachers’ strengths and needs.

The approach concentrated on developing the senior leaders first. This approach was favoured as it was more likely to continue to sustain progress once the external facilitator had left the school.  The senior leaders worked with the facilitator to:

  • update their understandings about the teaching of writing
  • learn more about how to mentor other teachers
  • introduce ways to monitor how well teachers were introducing new strategies.

Writing developments were then extended by leaders modelling and observing the teaching of writing in every classroom.  Eventually, the in‑class observations were replaced with teachers videoing some of their writing lessons before undertaking self reflection. The teachers’ self reflections involved formally:

  • identifying their successes, challenges and progress by viewing the video
  • engaging in a post‑video relfection conference with a senior leader
  • setting next step goals for themselves.

Writing Progressions

A key activity to help teachers understand the writing stages children move through involved leaders and teachers working together to develop writing progressions across the curriculum levels. Such collaboration was used to make sure teachers understood what each child had been taught previously and how they could extend more able writers. Leaders also wanted the progressions written in plain language so students and parents could use them. The progressions were written as I can statements for children. They explained both what the child was able to do, and the sources of evidence of achievement for teachers to use. The progressions outlined what a child should be able to do after each year at school in relation to audience, purpose and voice; structure; and proof‑reading and editing. Teachers used the progressions to set specific success criteria that children used for self assessment. Teachers also regularly referred to the success criteria during writing conferences with children.

Below is an example of the Audience, Purpose and Voice part of their writing progression for After One Year at School.

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
  • try to write the words I say in my story

The child is able to…

  • explain what they are writing and why they are writing it
  • use personal voice ‑ write as they speak conveying how they are feeling and their opinion
  • write with a clear sequence of events
  • write several sentences or record several ideas on paper
  • begin to articulate their learning intentions, show an awareness of success criteria and how well they have met this

Sources of evidence

  • Teacher modelling book
  • Anecdotal notes
  • Published work
  • Writing books
  • Self assessment
  • Writing samples
  • Six Year Observational Survey

Leaders believed doing this work together gave teachers more clarity about both deliberate teaching steps and assessments to help monitor progress.

Leaders also introduced exemplars and teacher reflection records, used to moderate judgements about children’s writing. The exemplars showed a piece of writing at each curriculum sub level (i.e. each level basic, proficient and advanced). Teachers used the reflection records when formally assessing a sample of each child’s writing. They made a judgement about the child’s level of achievement using the progressions and recorded their answers to the following questions.

  • What evidence (in the writing) do you have that justifies the judgement about the level?
  • What are the strengths of this piece of writing?
  • What are the next learning steps for this child?
  • What is the learning conversation you should have with this child?

Other instructional writing strategies

Some of the strategies they introduced as part of their PLD included the following.

Teachers used Think Alouds when modelling writing to the children to show what the teacher thought and did when starting and completing some writing. ‘Oh I wonder what I could write about…I saw a big balloon the other day. I’ll write, I saw an enormous balloon.’ 

Teachers in the junior school introduced to all children some of the writing strategies used in Reading Recovery. They regularly tested children to see how many words they could write correctly. Children enjoyed seeing their progress and the teacher saw that many could correctly write well over 50 words by the time they were six years old.

Oral language testing had determined that many of the children were well below their chronological age in oral language. Teachers in the junior school therefore placed considerable emphasis on building children’s oral language. They read and discussed many stories and had children explain what some words were describing. They were attuned to occasions when some children did not understand some words, and questioned children to encourage peers to explain new vocabulary.

During shared reading, teachers introduced a range of books about the same topic to help children develop and use prior knowledge. Children discussed and then extended the ideas from one book when reading the next. They could also use the information they gained when writing about that or a similar topic. 

Teachers used newspaper clippings, video clips, artefacts and pictures extensively as part of pre‑writing discussions. 

High quality pieces of writing were published, laminated and sent home to the child’s whānau. On other occasions the child took the writing to their previous teacher or another teacher for positive and specific feedback.

Outcomes

Leaders saw many improvements. The biggest gains were evident in Years 4 and 5 where children were able to consolidate previous learning and develop their confidence in more complex writing. Seeing the recent progress they had made also motivated the children.

ERO spoke with a parent of a six‑year‑old boy who had progressed two writing levels in one year. The parent told us that one of his goals was ‘to stretch out the words to hear all the sounds’. Her son knew how much he had progressed and had a strong desire to improve even more.

“When we get home we do reading and try and follow through at home. He loves to write stories. He has really thrived with his writing this year. Once he knew his sounds he was away. He loves being able to spell big words. He is listening to what he is saying. He writes and writes. We need to reinforce things at home. You can’t just leave it up to the teachers.

He knows when he has gone up a level. He just wants to go up and up. He says, “I want to be at a senior level before I am a senior.”

Parent

Next steps

Although leaders had seen improvements for some individual children, and at particular year levels, they still sought further improvements. They had identified the following professional development areas to focus on the next year to increase the gains already made:

  • oral language across the school to help children more confidently share their ideas and opinions before writing
  • cultural competencies to make sure teachers fully understand the home cultures and interests that would help engage children in writing
  • collaborative inquiries for teachers to research and trial futher successful writing appraches and strategies.

Why is this exemplar important?

It is vital all schools have organisational structures, processes and practices that enable and sustain collaborative learning and decision making designed to continuously improve student achievement. ERO found that in some schools, despite leaders and teachers focusing on improving writing for considerable time, progress was minimal or not sustained. Leaders in those schools acknowledged the PLD had encouraged teachers to concentrate on improving their own practice when children were not achieving well. However, their literacy leaders were unable to find and implement strategies that made significant improvements for children below or well below expectations in writing. 

Leaders and teachers at Fairfield Primary School had a clear understanding of what was already working for their children and what needed to change. Detailed analysis of writing samples and observations of current teaching practice preceded the selection of the PLD. Literacy leaders had rejected PLD that didn’t result in improvements in teaching and introduced PLD that catered for teachers individual strengths and needs progress instead. Leaders undertook additional PLD to support them to sustain new practices across the school.

Developing high quality writing programmes across all levels of the school was a priority. Leaders wanted to make sure all teachers understood and were able to respond to the different stages children move through to become successful writers. Teachers collaboratively analysed children’s writing samples, before developing and following clearly outlined teaching approaches. Children knew about and regularly referred to the agreed progressions. Shared understanding of the writing progressions helped children and teachers know about individuals’ writing achievement, progress and next steps.

Recommendations for system improvement

ERO recommends that school leaders continue their improvements and share with other schools their approaches related to: 

  • leadership for excellence and equity
  • responsive curriculum, effective teaching and opportunities to learn
  • professional capability and collective capacity

ERO also recommends that school advisers and PLD providers share this exemplar with other schools to improve their performance.

Diana Anderson

Deputy Chief Executive Review and Improvement

On behalf of the Chief Executive/ Chief Review Officer

May 2019