Lifting writing achievement in the upper primary

The flattened trajectory of achievement in the upper primary has been a concern for New Zealand educators for a long time. While children achieve well in their first four years of primary school, this slows from Year 5. Over the past few years, ERO has focussed its Teaching Strategies that Work series on this problem.

In 2016 ERO visited 40 primary schools that had students achieving above expectation in the upper primary, or had significantly lifted the achievement of their students in the previous few years. This was a deep dive into the dynamic of lifting achievement for Years 5-8, and ERO has spent the past few years analysing the data and publishing six reports focused on effective teaching strategies for different areas of concern.  The final report, Keeping Children Engaged and Achieving in Writing, has just been published.

“While each report is focussed on specific strategies for reading, writing, maths and so forth, there are common threads through school culture and relationships,” says ERO Group Manager Evaluation and Policy Deirdre Shaw.

“The schools that were succeeding had a strong collegial ethos, making time and space for information sharing and peer support both within the school and with neighbouring schools.”

“Another common thread was very careful collection and analysis of achievement data. The children were judiciously tested rather than often, and the teachers’ qualitative, observational evaluations were valued and considered alongside more formal data.  This enabled the schools to really target their external professional learning and development (PLD), which was the third common thread across schools which were succeeding.”

“It’s been clearly established that levels of achievement vary from classroom to classroom, not just from school to school.  That’s not surprising because teachers have strengths and weaknesses, areas of interest and areas where they’re less engaged just like everybody else. Specifically targeted PLD can help teachers fill their gaps and nourish an interest in topics which they may have struggled to get engaged in. It also enables teachers to develop their existing specialist interests and upskill their colleagues.”

In successful schools, leaders and teachers carefully designed the curriculum to make sure core reading, writing and mathematics was integrated across learning areas. This meant children could develop their literacy and numeracy skills by engaging in activities that interested them. Consistent approaches and a common language of learning meant children did not have to work out what their teachers expected of them when they moved to a new class. Children experienced established, high expectations and knew what they had to do to achieve success.

Many schools were successfully giving students greater opportunities to work in multilevel groups and to make choices about their learning.

“Multiple studies show that mixed-age and ability groupings lift achievement for all, including high achievers. In this study our evaluators noticed children who had been working in a bottom group or even independently with a teacher made considerable gains when put into a multilevel group – they no longer felt designated as failures and enjoyed being supported by, and learning from, their peers.”

In some less successful schools leaders assumed – wrongly – that measures introduced as a consequence of PLD were being implemented as agreed and were working for the children. Through classroom observations and by talking to children, ERO found that agreed strategies had sometimes not been implemented, or that the children were unaware of them or how they might benefit from them. Without ongoing monitoring, worthwhile strategies may be abandoned, not because they did not work, but because they were never properly implemented.

You can view each report in the Teaching approaches and strategies that work report series by clicking on the links below:

Teaching approaches and strategies that work – main report

Keeping children engaged and achieving in mathematics

Keeping children engaged and achieving in reading

Building genuine learning partnerships with parents

Keeping children engaged and achieving through rich curriculum inquiries

Keeping children engaged and achieving in writing