Teaching approaches and strategies that work

Keeping children engaged and achieving in writing

This Education Review Office (ERO) report is one of a series of reports on teaching strategies that work. It features strategies  and approaches that we observed in 40 primary schools selected from across New Zealand. These schools came from a database of 129 schools, all with rolls of 200 or more, in which the proportion of students in the upper primary years (Years 5 to 8) achieving at or above the expected standard had increased. In each case achievement levels were also above average for the decile.

We asked leaders in each school what they saw as the reasons for their school’s positive achievement trajectory and then investigated the teaching strategies that had been implemented, and the outcomes.

This report shares some of the strategies and approaches used by schools who had focused on improving achievement in writing. It also shares some simple strategies used in classrooms where achievement in writing had been accelerated.

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.

The 2012 National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) study, English: Writing1 reported many more Year 4 than Year 8 students are achieving at the expected curriculum level. That NMSSA report found 65 percent of Year 4 students achieved at or above the expected curriculum level (Level 2). However in Year 8, 65 percent of students were achieving below curriculum expectations (Level 4).

Results showed that, on average, achievement varied by gender, ethnicity and school decile. For both year levels and both measures of writing, average achievement was higher for girls than boys, lower for Māori and Pasifika students than for non-Māori and non-Pasifika students respectively, and was lower for students from lower decile schools. Findings reported by the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) in 1998, 2002 and 2006 indicate ongoing disparities between subgroups over this period. NMSSA indicates that the differences continue and are statistically significant.

The table below shows the percentage of students achieving within the different levels of The New Zealand Curriculum in writing. The shaded cells indicate the expected curriculum level. These results were very similar regardless of gender, ethnicity, decile or type of school attended.

Curriculum level Year 4 percentage Year 8 percentage
Level 5 8
Level 4 2 27
Level 3 18 37
Level 2 45 23
Level 1 35 5

The NMSSA study showed student attitudes to writing decline between Year 4 and Year 8 as illustrated below. Girls were generally more positive than boys at both year levels, and the difference was similar at both year levels. These disparities were previously also found in the NEMP studies from 1998 to 2006.

This is a graph called Attitude to writing scale score. The Y axis starts at 20 and goes to 180 in jumps of 40.  The X axis has two points, Year 4 and Year eight.  There is a line on Year 4 from 50 - 130 and two boxes sit on this line the first a green box sits at 80-90. The black box sits at 90-100. The line on Year 8 goes from 30 - 120 and two boxes sit on this line the first a green box sits at 70-80. The black box sits at 80-90.

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 inidcated over 80 percent of Year 8 teachers were involved in professional development and learning focused on writing in the previous 12 months.

What ERO already knows about improving writing in primary schools

Reading and writing in Years 1 and 2 (2009)

Effective teachers inquired into ways of improving their teaching, and worked collaboratively with other staff to share good practice. Effective teachers gave children a purpose for writing and encouraged them to write about things and experiences they were likely to be familiar with. Their teaching was evidence based, deliberate and gave children opportunities to practise new skills and knowledge during the instructional classroom programme. These teachers were adept at using a variety of assessment sources to make judgements about children’s literacy progress and achievement. They also applied a ‘teaching as inquiry’ process to find out what children had already learnt and what changes to make to their teaching, based on what children needed to learn next.

Raising achievement in primary schools: Accelerating Learning in Mathematics (ALiM) and Accelerating Literacy Learning (ALL) (2014)

In schools where teachers’ involvement in the ALiM and ALL project had accelerated children’s progress:

  • students were active partners in designing their learning plans; they were supported to monitor their own progress; knew what they needed to learn next; and were able to provide feedback about the teaching actions that worked for them
  • parents and whānau were formally invited to be part of the process and were involved in workshops to develop home activities and frequent, regular three- way conferencing in which teachers emphasised progress and success
  • teachers involved knew they were expected to critique the effectiveness of their practice and to make changes; had a willingness to seek both positive and negative evidence of progress; and were open to new practices that would make a difference.

Raising achievement in primary schools (2014)

Successful schools have a long-term strategic commitment to improvement through deliberate, planned actions to accelerate student progress. These effective schools were highly strategic and evaluative when trialling new approaches and innovations. Five capabilities that made a difference in their effectiveness in accelerating student progress were:

  • leadership capability
  • teaching capability
  • assessment and evaluative capability of leaders and teachers
  • leaders’ capability to develop relationships with students, parents, whānau, trustees, school leaders and other teaching professionals
  • leaders’ and teachers’ capability to design and implement a school curriculum that engaged students.

These schools also had a focus on equity and excellence.

Educationally powerful connections with parents and whānau (2015)

In the best instances, teachers involved most parents in setting goals and agreeing on next learning steps with their child. Teachers responded quickly to information obtained from tracking and monitoring student progress and persisted in finding ways to involve all parents of students who were at risk of underachieving, and in finding ways for students to succeed. During conversations with parents and whānau, teachers aimed to learn more about each student in the wider context of school and home, to develop holistic and authentic learning goals and contexts for learning.

Continuity of learning transitions from early childhood services to schools (2015)

Effective transition into school is critical for a child’s development of self-worth, confidence, resilience, and ongoing success at school. Schools that were very responsive to making sure children successfully transitioned demonstrated real knowledge about their newly-enrolled children. They took care to translate that knowledge into providing the best possible environment and education for each and every child. Leaders made sure transitions were flexible and tailored to the individual child.

Raising student achievement through targeted actions (2015)

Students benefit from schools identifying their specific needs and creating a plan based on those needs to raise student achievement for all. The most effective schools had a clear understanding which students needed targeted actions to accelerate progress. Teachers’ trialled new teaching strategies and monitored their actions to determine if these resulted in positive outcomes for children.

A strong commitment to excellence and equity; high quality leadership; the quality of teamwork and professional learning conversations when taking actions; and building school capacity to sustain improvement into the future also contributed to success.

Extending their language – expanding their world: Children’s oral language (birth-8 years) (2017)

Supporting oral language learning and development from a very early age is crucial children’s literacy learning at school. Early learning services and schools need to position oral language as a formal and intentional part of their curriculum and teaching programmes. Oral language interactions build children’s understanding of the meaning of a larger number of words, and of the world around them. Early language skills also predict later academic achievement and success in adult life.

Managing professional learning and development in primary schools (2009)

The extent to which teachers’ knowledge and practice improved depended to a large extent on how well the school managed its professional learning and development (PLD) programme. Three of the key features identified in schools where PLD was well managed included:

  • having a good mix of school-led and facilitated professional learning targeted at identified school priorities
  • using observation and feedback effectively to support changes to teacher practice
  • aligning their PLD programmes with school priorities that were informed by analysed student achievement information, and information about teachers’ professional needs.

Boards of trustees, principals, senior managers and teachers each have a role in making sure the school’s PLD programme successfully effects change in teachers’ practice and improves outcomes for students.

Accelerating the progress of priority learners in primary schools (2013)

Highly effective schools demonstrate a well-considered commitment and implement highly effective practices, particularly in classrooms, to accelerate learning. For teachers in these schools ‘business as usual’ was no longer good enough. Teachers were reflective practitioners who were constantly looking for better ways to improve their student achievement. They understood that when a student was not progressing well, their teaching approaches needed to change.

The report concluded that a system-wide emphasis on the strategies teachers can use to accelerate progress is needed. All teachers have an ethical responsibility to help those students that need to catch up to their peers. This is essential if we are to raise the achievement of New Zealand students relative to their international counterparts.

What we found in the schools focused on writing improvements

Improving achievement

The schools with the greatest improvements in writing achievement in the upper primary school had actively sought professional learning and development (PLD) that specifically targeted the writing aspects they wanted to improve. These schools had a clear understanding of what was already working for their children, what they should retain, and what needed to change. In some cases detailed analysis of writing samples and observations of current teaching practice preceded the selection of the PLD. Literacy leaders had rejected PLD focused on strategies already evident in the school, and instead sought PLD that provided new strategies, and evidence, that children would make accelerated progress.

In some schools, writing improvements began when teachers joined the Ministry of Education’s Acceleration Literacy Learning (ALL) project or undertook individual teacher inquiry projects. In these schools teachers trialled new strategies with small groups of children before implementing them more widely across the syndicate or school. Teachers observed practices implemented by literacy leaders before applying them in their own writing programme.

The PLD approaches across the schools varied depending on the needs of the teachers. Some schools catered for teachers’ individual needs through a combination of whole-school PLD and flexible workshops and modelling, and made sure every teacher developed confidence with new strategies. Some leaders undertook additional PLD to support them to sustain new practices across the school. Leaders carefully monitored and modelled effective practice in every classroom to support teachers’ confidence to implement the new strategies.

Leaders and teachers collaboratively identified new writing strategies and approaches to apply. Leaders recognised the value of every teacher developing an understanding of the progressions children moved through as successful writers. Teachers contributed to agreed goals for improving writing and collaboratively analysed children’s writing samples, before developing and following clearly outlined teaching approaches. In many cases, children knew about and regularly referred to the agreed goals and/or progressions. Shared understanding of the writing progressions helped children and teachers know about individuals’ writing achievement, progress and next steps.

Developing high quality writing programmes across all levels of the school was a priority in these schools. 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 introduced deliberate teaching strategies for Year 1 children to make sure they were confident with foundation writing skills. A balance of formal and informal writing opportunities in Year 1 allowed young children to choose authentic writing activities, helped to develop their phonemic awareness, and provided opportunities to learn and write about a wide range of contexts. Children were well supported to master more complex writing tasks as they moved through the school.

In some of the schools, board trustees made well-informed decisions about actions to improve writing. Trustees received comprehensive information about writing programmes, successes, issues and the actions put in place to support children who were still below expectation. In some cases they met with and questioned a selected PLD provider before committing funds. Trustees also allocated additional resources to fund release time for literacy leaders to mentor teachers and model good practice. Trustees also received ongoing information about the leader’s role and outcomes of the actions they led.

Other approaches and strategies observed:

  • working closely with parents to help them understand what the child was learning at school and; to determine the child’s interests and achievements at home and how these interests could further contribute to the child’s writing
  • working with the secondary school most children went to next to find out how well writing programmes were preparing children for their next stage in learning. Sharing the teaching approaches between the primary and secondary schools to help teachers in each school understand what came before and what came next for children as they developed as confident writers
  • making clear for children the links between reading, speaking and writing.
  • In some cases, oral language had a significant focus during the writing programme. In other instances young children’s learning about letter formation, sounds and words were deliberately combined as part of early reading and writing teaching strategies
  • deliberately emphasising the craft of writing to help children better organise their ideas. Children made considerable progress through learning more about the structure of a sentence, a paragraph, and an essay
  • carefully planning learning activities across the breadth of the curriculum to reinforce new writing skills, and making sure children understood how to apply strategies learned during writing time to all writing activities across the school day.

In most of the schools, leaders and teachers recognised they already had some effective instructional teaching of writing strategies that worked for many of their children. They avoided abandoning things that already worked, and also added new things they wanted to trial. This meant reducing some activities, such as daily diaries, to allow time to teach the new strategies. In the schools where the most progress was made, teachers were energised by their students’ success and reported they enjoyed teaching writing more now than in previous years.

Challenges with writing achievement

In some schools, ERO found making and sustaining improvements in writing was extremely challenging. In these schools, despite leaders and teachers focusing on improving writing for consecutive years (or longer), progress was minimal or not sustained. Leaders in these schools acknowledged the ALL project had usefully increased their focus on target children in their school, and 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. One principal reported his teachers’ frustration levels were such they did not want to undertake further writing PLD until they could be shown strategies that worked for their children.

In some of the schools, teachers had implemented a considerable number of well-considered changes to their writing programmes that had made little difference for their target students. In a small number of these schools, ERO identified a mismatch between the writing issues the children identified and the programmes provided. For example, interviews with children below expectation identified difficulties with skills such as spelling, punctuation, using a dictionary, word choices, organising ideas and fixing mistakes. However, their teachers were encouraged to focus on different aspects of writing, such as understanding different genre; using similes, metaphor, and alliteration; and using increasingly complex language. The ALL project approach where teachers in each school were expected to do something different to accelerate students’ progress in writing had not worked in these schools. Teachers needed more support to access research, and PLD proven to work for children not achieving well in writing.

Some schools overly relied on normative writing assessments while ignoring the rich ongoing assessment information they collected. These teachers had established comprehensive self-assessment systems where children understood what they needed to work on and provided evidence of their mastery of the related skill multiple times. However, teachers still insisted on children undertaking regular asTTle assessments that require considerable teacher time to moderate and establish a perceived writing level. The information provided through children’s ongoing self assessment provided more accurate information about what the child could do as this information considered a variety of writing samples rather than a single writing task. Further unintended consequences from an over reliance on normative writing assessments were that:

  • the child’s involvement in the self-assessment process was devalued
  • the writing levels established from one moderated writing sample may indicate the child was working at a lower level than the evidence-based self-assessment information showed, which could demotivate children.

Leaders and teachers should recognise the value of and use the evidence from children’s self assessment to establish school-wide trends, their next teaching steps, and children’s progress and achievement in writing.

This report outlines how teachers in some schools changed their practices to use new teaching of writing strategies. They moved away from the focus on learning about different genre each time and emphasised the craft and structure of language and writing. In most cases this meant dropping some of their previous practices and assumptions, and learning more about what makes a successful writer. Leaders carefully made improvements across the year levels to make sure children were supported to enjoy and succeed in writing. It was not about doing more in writing; it was about evaluating what was working, and discarding things that demotivated children and got in the way of their learning.

1   NMSSA reports are based on a nationally representative sample of approximately 2000 students from each of Years 4 and 8.