Learning how to be a confident and communicative writer is one of the most important skills students learn at school.
But NAPLAN results show a significant decline in Australian students’ writing performance. Research for the period to 2018, shows year nine students performed nearly 1.5 years behind the average student in 2011.
International studies have also raised concerns about students’ writing performance, stressing the need to learn more about how writing is taught in primary schools.
So, what is happening in Australian primary classrooms? And what can parents do to help their children learn to write at home?
Our new research
In 2020, we surveyed 310 primary teachers around Australia. Through an online questionnaire, we asked teachers about the time children spent writing in their classrooms and what types of activities they did to teach writing.
While this has been studied at the state level, this is the first national survey in Australia about the teaching of writing to primary students.
While no classroom is the same, the Australian Education Research Organisation recommends primary students should spend at least one hour per day – or 300 minutes (five hours) a week – doing writing activities and being taught writing.
Most teachers in our survey said their students usually spent about three hours a week on writing activities in their classrooms. But responses varied considerably, with some teachers reporting only 15 minutes of writing practice per week and others reporting 7.5 hours per week.
Most teachers spent more time teaching spelling (about 88 minutes) than any other writing skill. They spent an average of 34 minutes teaching handwriting, 11 minutes teaching typing, 35 minutes teaching planning strategies, and 42 minutes teaching children strategies to revise their texts.
While the development of spelling skills is obviously important, the lack of attention given to planning and reviewing a piece of writing is concerning.
Research shows children who plan and revise their texts end up writing much higher quality pieces of writing. However, studies also show that unless children are taught how to do this, they rarely do it.
How much are families asked to help?
In our survey, we asked teachers about the use of 20 different strategies for teaching writing. But strategies to promote writing at home with parental support were the least reported.
Almost 65% of teachers we surveyed never asked students to write at home with the support of a family member. Meanwhile about 77% said they rarely (once a year) or never asked parents or carers to read their children’s written work.
This is concerning as research shows parental involvement helps children build their writing skills.
So, our findings show a need for teachers and families to work together more. As well as the need to provide families with more guidance about what they can do to support children as developing writers.
What can families do?
If you want to do more to help your child learn to write and write well, there are many things you can do in your every day life at home. Here are some recommendations to consider:
1. Get your kids to write for a reason
It doesn’t matter how small the task is. Encouraging children to write for a clear purpose is key. It can be a simple reminder note, a message to go in someone’s lunch box, a shopping list or a birthday card.
2. Write together for fun
Encourage family activities that make writing fun. Create jokes, riddles, stories, rhyming lists, and anything else you can think of!
3. Display writing done in the family
Use the fridge, family noticeboard or calendar. This shows children how writing works in our lives and how important it is and how it is valued.
4. Get your kids to read you their writing
Ask children to read their writing aloud. This shows your kids you are interested in what they are doing. Also, when children read their written work aloud, they will inevitably notice some mistakes (so it’s like revising their work).
5. Be encouraging
When working on writing skills with your child, make sure you are positive. You could say things such as, “I noticed that you really focused on your writing” or “I really like how you used [that word]”. Also recognise any progress in their writing efforts, “I noticed that you checked your capital letters”.
6. Take the initiative at school
Talk to your child’s teacher about what you are doing at home and ask for suggestions about what your child needs to further develop their writing skills.
Author Bios: Anabela Malpique is a Senior Lecturer at Edith Cowan University, Deborah Pino Pasternak is Associate Professor in early Childhood Education and Community at the University of Canberra, Debora Valcan is at Murdoch University and Susan Ledger is Professor Susan Ledger, Head of School – Dean of Education at the University of Newcastle, NSW.