01 Transforming teaching to introduce skills for current and future writing success

ERO’s 2014 report Raising achievement in primary schools highlighted the following important capabilities that made a difference in schools’ effectiveness to respond to underachievement:

  • the leadership capability to design and implement a coherent whole-school plan focused on targeted support for students and teachers for equitable outcomes
  • the teaching capability to find and trial responses to individual student strengths and needs that engaged and supported students to accelerate their progress in reading, writing and mathematics
  • the assessment and evaluative capability of leaders and teachers to understand and use data, and know what works, when and why for different students.

Leaders and teachers at NORTHCROSS INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL effectively managed all three capabilities to improve writing achievement for many students.

Although students at Northcross Intermediate School generally achieved well in reading and mathematics, leaders and teachers had been concerned about writing achievement for some time. Teachers had attempted to improve children’s writing by giving them skills to better manage the identified aspects that needed to improve. However, ongoing assessments showed progress was not as rapid as hoped. Many children still had difficulty with sentence and paragraph construction, and other surface features. Teachers knew they needed to do something different.

In 2014, the board of trustees funded 0.5 FTE release for a leader responsible for teaching English (literacy leader) to find ways to accelerate progress in writing. That leader and others facilitated some professional learning and development (PLD) as part of the Ministry of Education’s Accelerating Literacy Learning (ALL) project and took the opportunity to take a fresh look at the issue. The literacy leader actively searched for strategies that would improve writing across the school.

This narrative shares the successful strategies and approaches they subsequently discovered, trialled and implemented.

Literacy leaders attended a variety of PLD focused on different writing genre and engaging students in writing. They recognised much of what was suggested was already evident in the school. Through assessment information they identified achievement gaps with surface features, and sentence and paragraph stucture. They needed to add new components to their writing progammes.

During their search for such new components, a Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) told them of a programme that appeared to focus on what their children needed. Although the programme, Write that Essay (WTE), was designed for secondary school students, the leader and teachers saw that it could easily be adapted to make improvements for Years 7 and 8 children. Dr Ian Hunter, the programme author, was invited to speak with all the literacy leaders and the senior management team before the board of trustees made the decision to invest in whole-school PLD from the beginning of 2016.

Before finding ‘Write that Essay’ we were already focused on upskilling teachers in writing. We were moving away from a focus on genre and had interventions in place for learners below expectation. We had recognised that our focus on genre, frequent asTTle testing, and a lack of a clear direction about writing for teachers was not giving us the desired outcomes. We were almost overwhelmed with a huge amount about pedagogy, but [we] had little idea of all the actual nuts and bolts needed for children to become a good writer, or what teachers needed to improve their practice.

It was hoped WTE would provide transferable writing skills to better prepare students for secondary schooling and beyond. The programme’s focus on sentence and paragraph structure fitted well with the problem areas the school had identified. The programme focused on:

  • structure
  • sentence style
  • coherence
  • fluency
  • logic
  • analysis
  • precision
  • clarity
  • focus
  • argumentation
  • conciseness.

Professional development and support for teachers

The WTE writing PLD began at the beginning of the school year when Dr Hunter worked with the whole staff. Teachers wrote for short periods and then critiqued their work using some new criteria. By having teachers behave as students, they readily identified their own strengths and misunderstandings. Teachers initally found this quite confronting, but the PLD facilitator quickly provided them with practices to use in the classroom to overcome any misunderstandings.

In one of the PLD activities, the teachers were asked to plan for their writing and then write about their chosen topics. Most planned by recording their ideas on different ‘mind maps’. A few wrote a short list of possible content related to their topic.

At the end of the activity, it was determined the teachers who had written short lists had covered considerably more in the time allowed those who had used mind maps.

The facilitator pointed out that often children had too many ideas in their planning phase. If they were already used to planning using formats like mind maps, they shouldn’t necessarily abandon something they may have done for years. Instead they should be encouraged to select only their three best ideas, concentrate on those and save the others for another time. It was explained that when children had too many ideas they could often find it difficult to start writing or develop their thinking logically.

When they generated a lot of ideas they also felt compelled to use all those ideas in their writing. This resulted in writing that lacked depth and only touched the surface of their many ideas due to their attempts to include everything. This was particularly evident during timed writing samples and assessments.

By the end of the PLD day, teachers realised they needed to change the way they taught writing. Each committed to their own personal plan for improvement. Teachers told ERO that during the PLD they were given teaching strategies to improve sentence and paragraph structure they could use straight away in their class from the beginning of the new school year. Teachers immediately used some of the mini lessons they had participated in themselves. One teacher told ERO some children had said “Wow, why didn’t someone teach me that before”.

Teachers were provided with short assessments to quickly identify which aspects their students had mastered or needed to improve. The assessment tool (the Writer’s Scorecard) designed by WTE provided an overall snapshot of children’s strengths and weaknesses over time. Leaders felt the visual tool was quicker and easier to interpret than the asTTle writing rubric they used for more formal assessments. Teachers were able to investigate the causes of each student’s gaps and the aspects they had already mastered.

Teachers appreciated they didn’t have to completely reinvent their writing programmes to make a difference. Along with their students, they had the skills to decide on the writing contexts, and they were able to adapt some motivation and engagement processes the children were already familiar with.

Trialing and early implementation

Leaders used a variety of strategies to support teachers to implement the new writing programme. Before beginning the PLD, leaders had begun increasing learning conversations and relationships with teachers by mentoring and modelling practices in each classroom. During the early implementation phase they separated mentoring, modelling and observation of writing programmes from appraisal activities. Leaders wanted to make it clear observations of writing lessons were entirely for mentoring and support.

The support provided for teachers was differentiated to cater for their different needs. Some teachers only needed the WTE resource book and software resources to understand and implement new practices. Others wanted workshops and opportunities to observe other teachers’ practices. Leaders surveyed teachers and ran targeted workshops teachers could opt into. Leaders worked across the teaching teams to help improve their practice, and check the impact of the new teaching.

Collaboration across the school increased. One team gave 30 percent of their writing samples to another team to remoderate their marking to check their judgement about achievement. Leaders shared planning for school-wide activities. For example, they prepared a module for teachers to use when students were writing and presenting speeches.

During early implemetation, the literacy leader also sought greater leadership collaboration. The leader recognised working alone as a leader might not have been the best model. The board then allocated funding for another teacher to have one day’s release each week to work with the literacy leader.

Having a job share was so much more productive. We challenged each other to new ways of supporting teachers. The teacher was also able to trial things in her classroom. Other teachers were then able to observe her practice and extend the teaching strategies in their own classes.

Literacy leader

Co-leadership also increased the sustainability of practices. For example, if one teacher left for study or another teaching position, the other leader could continue with the agreed direction.

Each stage of the implementation was carefully planned and guided by literacy leaders from each teaching team. Examples of part of the PLD and guidance and review for each team’s literacy leader are shown below.

February

Over the next few weeks we ask that you go back to your team and show them the following:

  • how to log in as a teacher
  • how to get their students to log in
  • hand out teacher and student user manuals
  • brief overview of the dashboard and help
  • explore the modules and have a look at what is available.

See below for the modules that you will use lesson plans over the next few weeks explore the activities function and teach the sentence activity below. 

We acknowledge that most of you will be capable (on a personal basis) of using many more of the website functions-you are very welcome to do this on an individual basis. However, your main focus is to get your team members up and running with the basics mentioned above.

Suggested modules:

  • Basics-Sentence Design – The Sentence as a Train
  • Developing-Sentence Design – Simple Sentence
  • Proficient-Sentence Design – Red, White and Blue
  • Proficient-Sentence Design – Very short
  • Proficient-Sentence Design – W-start

May

Progress so far for each teaching team was shared. In the first 3 weeks of Term 2, we ask that you go back to your team and show them the following:

  • how to preview, draft, assign, and send an assignment.

Know where to find the video and PDF which supports this (HELP section), should you or any of your team require further assistance in sending an assignment

  • how to share an assignment with colleagues within NX

The best way to get good at creating assignments is to practice. With this in mind, we are asking that every classroom teacher create and share an assignment in Write that Essay. This will provide a bank of resources that we can all benefit from.

Leaders continued to trial further changes. All teachers had both hardcopy and online resources that outlined the new approaches in detail. However, teachers in 12 classrooms were also chosen to access the online tools that came with the programme. Leaders trialed this approach as they wanted to check whether students benefitted from the online tools before committing to additional financial costs. The overwhelmingly positive responses from teachers and students resulted in online access for every classroom.

Leaders also organised and ran a well-attended parent evening about the changes. A person from Write that Essay spoke about its benefits and how it could be used at home to advance children’s writing skills. A leader from each teaching team showed how children could use online learning modules to focus on individual learning gaps. The parent evening was designed to show the changes as a whole- school approach to improving children’s composition skills to meet the demands of the curriculum at Years 7 and 8 and in the future.

The programme in action

The leaders and teachers developed a two-year plan to introduce writing skills progressively to children. They also taught children to use the online resources and module independently and in groups. Most teams offered targeted workshops students opted into depending on the skills they needed to develop next. In some cases students were guided by teachers to attend a particular workshop. Children were then given lots of opportunities to use their writing skills across the curriculum, both within their class and in extension activities.

ERO visited three classrooms to see the progammes in action. In each classroom, the children were highly engaged and enthusiastic about their progress.

In the first classroom, the children showed ERO a few of the warm-up activities they did before writing each day to help them recall the strategies they should use. They usually did one warm-up activity each day but demonstrated more for ERO.

A Year 7 class had many writing strategies displayed around the room. Children also used a large variety of charts, cards, and pictures to support their writing. The teacher told ERO he was considerably more confident teaching writing now. The PLD, resources for children and texts for teachers had made it really clear what children needed. He had learnt lots about the nuts and bolts of writing and had really enjoyed seeing the children make such great progress.

In the first activity, each group of children raced to write down as many different sentence types as they could recall. Children worked together in groups of four to try to recall the 12 different sentence types they had learnt.

They then played adverb dominoes where everyone in the class stood and was randomly selected to say an adverb. The first child said an adverb and pointed to another child and then sat down. They achieved their goal to have everyone contribute a different adverb in less than one minute.

Next a leader from each group of four (tribal captains) had 10 seconds to pick a photograph from a selection of photos displayed on a table. They then had a short timeframe to write three sentences using adverbs related to the context of the picture. Later they shared their best sentence with their group and the best sentence from each group was shared and critiqued by the whole class.

two children are sitting at a table using charts and lists and various photos to write sentences using words related to the material.

In the final warm up, the teachers read out sentences and the groups had to locate the prepositions. The children did this as a quiz activity. When they shared their answers they fully discussed any contradictions or the reasons for their selections.

At the end of the warm ups, the teacher asked the children to decide what they had trouble with as a class and what they should work on tomorrow.

The children quickly engaged in all the activities. They seemed to enjoy writing tasks with short time frames and specified word limits. The children ERO spoke to were enthusiastic about their improvements.

I wasn’t a good writer last year. This year I have a lot of knowledge about good sentences, paragraphs and writing and that has made me a good writer.

I was always an okay writer but now I am much better. Our teacher gives us challenging things to do with words and has helped us know when we can do things to make writing better. I still have a lot to improve though.

Students

Children in another class were participating in a workshop focused on writing great paragraphs. They were using knowledge they had gained about godwits while working with ecology experts on a recent camp. Many of the class had been reluctant writers.

The children working with the teacher started by writing one paragraph together. They used a structure where they had to share different features in each of the four sentences. For example, they focused on the first sentence as the topic sentences and revised how the third sentence needed evidence to support what their earlier sentences were saying. Children were asked to recall what the scientists had shared with them previously to contribute to the paragraph.

one male teacher and three students, one boy and two girls are focused on writing a paragraph on a whiteboard.

After completing the paragraph, the children were asked to decide if they were confident to do the next paragraph. The teacher continued to work with those who were unsure, while the rest of the groups worked with a peer, or independently to either improve the paragraph written by the group or write a next paragraph.

The other children in the class that were not in the workshops practised what they had learnt in a recent workshop or did writing of their own choice. Children ERO spoke with had selected a variety of writing activities including:

  • a scary story
  • a recipe with all the steps to follow
  • a script.

Children were sharing what they had done through Google Docs. They talked about how sometimes they changed their writing to fit in other children’s advice and ideas. The children enthusiastically explained how much they had progressed that year.

At the end of Year 7, I was 3a [asTTLe] and now near the end of Year 8, I am 4a. I am enjoying writing more as I know more about writing skills. I also like writing about what I want to write about.

I was 3a but now I am 3p. I am working harder and I know more about things like introductions and how to expand paragraphs.

Year 8 Students

ERO observed a group of children in a modern learning environment, involved in a writing workshop targeted at Level 5 of The New Zealand Curriculum.

The Years 7 and 8 children all had detailed I can sheets they used to understand the writing strategies they needed to master and record when and how they had successfully used a strategy in their writing. Children inserted the actual sentence or piece of writing as evidence of their mastery. The sheets differed to match each child’s writing levels. 

The children and their teacher were using the software purchased as part of the programme. It monitored and differentiated the writing programme depending on each child’s strengths and needs.

The teacher can see what we need to learn next. She sets the tasks and workshops different lessons kids need by looking at gaps in the ‘I can’ sheets. We then book a workshop and the teacher sends us the task we will cover in the workshop. We open the task when we go to the workshop.

Year 7 Student

The children used devices linked to the smartboard and the teacher’s laptop. The teacher was able to see moment-by-moment what the children were writing. 

The lesson was highly focused and concentrated on children crafting their writing by reducing the use of pronouns to better engage the reader. Initially the children shared their most powerful sentence from the previous day’s work before looking at a pronoun chart to make sure they all fully understood what a pronoun was. The teacher displayed seven key words or phrases they had to use in a paragraph and they discussed some possibilities to include in the next writing task. Children were given 10 minutes for the task and were able to work with a peer if they wished. Most chose to write independently.

The teacher used a laptop to see what each child was writing, the edits they made, and how confident they were with the current learning intention. She was able to give real-time written feedback to children as they worked.

Later the children shared some sentences orally. As the teacher had already seen what some of the children were writing, she was able to prompt individuals to share particular high-quality examples. Any sentences that still contained a pronoun were displayed on the smartboard and children suggested new ways to construct them. The children also considered whether the new way had caused a change in tense. The group was then given two minutes to finish the task.

At the end of the lesson, the group reflected on the ways that eliminating the pronoun improved their writing. The children all received a follow-up task digitally that allowed them to practise that learning intention independently the next day.

I am now more cautious about how I write because I know what is expected. I get good feedback that tells me my next steps.

I like booking workshops and having the lessons tailored to what I need.

Student

The teacher explained that a lot of the writing modules have videos and quizzes the students could use. This allowed for flipped learning where the students could learn a new strategy before attending a workshop with the teacher.

Other changes were made across the school as the new teaching approaches were implemented. These included:

  • bringing the extension and many of the remedial writing programmes back into the classroom
  • changing the writing focus to audience and purpose
  • increasing opportunities for children to recognise different types of writing as part of their reading programmes
  • reducing the number of writing reflections children did from daily to weekly to allow more time for the actual writing and crafting.

Focusing on outcomes and improvements

Before and during the changes, leaders used achievement data and information from student and teacher surveys to determine the impact of the changes.

In one teaching team, students’ surveys identified over 70 percent of children in the team believed their writing had improved that year. A further 27 percent were not sure about their progress. The children in the team identified the writing workshops had helped their writing the most.

Before the changes, teacher responses to survey questions highlighted an overwhelming need for help with their writing programmes. At the end of the first year of the new programme, leaders gained teachers’ perspectives about their confidence with teaching writing by designing a short online survey. They were interested in the following:

  • how they felt about teaching writing
  • the tools they used
  • the perceived progress of their learners.

Some of the positives teachers identified were:

  • increased confidence with, and a renewed interest in, the teaching of writing
  • a greater understanding of using writing skills more widely across the curriculum
  • support for the more positive focus on high quality writing expectations
  • the benefits of having a common language to use when teaching and critiquing writing
  • the focus on targeted individual children’s writing needs.

Teachers also identified further emphasis should be placed on working with parents. This had resulted in the parent evening held in the second year.

Successes and problems with the software also surfaced and were included in a ‘where to next’ plan for the following year.

Teaching teams experimented with different ways to monitor achievement trends. Below are the results for one teaching team in the second year of implementation. Teachers were able to identify where the biggest gains were occurring, where additional support was needed, and which practices resulted in the largest achievement gains.

One teaching team Y8 cohort (74 students) writing effect size 2017

This bar graph is called Room Cohort. The Y axis is called Effect size and starts at 0 and goes to 1.6 in jumps of .2.  The X axis is made up of 7 green bars which read from left to right. RM A 0.9, RM B 0.74, RM C 1.34, One teaching team 0.99, Male 0.92, Female 1.03 and Maori 1.03.

Teachers continued to do three moderated asTTle writing assessments during the first year and reduced it to two assessments in the following year. When ERO visited, leaders were considering how they could reduce these assessments further by using the information from the students’ I can sheets more in the future.

Considerable improvements in achievement were evident. In the first year the improvements across the school, when comparing beginning and end of year work samples, showed an 0.88 effect size. ERO was provided with a large number of writing samples showing these improvements.

At the beginning of the first year, about 58 percent of students were working below Level 4 of the curriculum. Forty percent were working at Level 3 and 19 percent were at Level 2.

At the end of the first year, three percent of students were working at Level 2.

Twenty two percent were achieving at Level 3 of the curriculum.

Twenty three percent were working at Level 5 or Level 6 of the curriculum.

Many children had made significant progress in writing. About 41 percent of the children had improved by three or more asTTle sublevels,2 or one level of the curriculum. Eleven percent had improved by more than five asTTle sublevels. However, about 16 percent of children didn’t progress two or more sublevels.

The school continued to fund release time for a literacy leader to promote ongoing improvements for all children.

Our emphasis is not on mediocrity. We want to produce outstanding writers. We have seen that our programme is now helping our reluctant writers, our English as a second and other languages students (ESOL), and our extension writers.

Principal

Working with another school to support students

Part of Northcross Intermediate’s review and development included a focus on students’ success in Year 9. During recent years, the school’s senior management team met with Year 9 students once they had settled into the local secondary school. As about 94 percent of their students went to that secondary school, they were able to track the progress of many of their students.

In 2016 the feedback from Year 9 former students’ identified that although some were able to write a comprehensive essay, most were not able to. This information was passed on to the literacy leaders at Northcross Intermediate. The head of junior English at the secondary school suggested teachers work together to better prepare Northcross Intermediate learners for the English and other curriculum demands at secondary school. At the first meeting a variety of specific areas to work on were determined by the literacy leaders from both schools. These included improving writing surface features and formal writing.

The head of department (HOD) responsible for English, and some other teachers of English joined a whole-school staff meeting of Northcross Intermediate teachers in the third term of 2017. The focus was on gaining a better understanding of National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) requirements, and a clearer picture of what children needed to be able to do before they arrived at secondary school. Literacy leaders at both schools also had further opportunities to meet and a teacher swap was planned for late 2017. Some of the intermediate’s teachers visited the secondary school for a morning, and observed and helped in teaching classes. Some of the secondary school teachers visited Northcross Intermediate and did the same. Both schools reported benefits from seeing children taught at another year level.

The benefits of the PLD and the links between the two schools were evident for the next group of Year 9 students. In early 2018, leaders at Northcross Intermediate received feedback on literacy achievement. The head of junior English commented on the Northcross Intermediate students’ literacy foundation. She had seen a marked improvement in writing skills over the past two years. Subsequently, the literacy leader from Northcross Intermediate has establised a similar collaboration with another secondary school in their area.

We believe that the links we have been able to make with our secondary schools, combined with the Write that Essay Programme, have been powerful levers of change for us.

Literacy leader

2   asTTle scores are calibrated to report against three sublevels of The New Zealand Curriculum (basic, proficient and advanced). It is reasonable for a student to progress through three sublevels in two years. However, when a student needs to accelerate progress it is realistic for teachers and students to set a goal to move up by two sublevels in a year.