A report of a review of NAPLAN released in recent days cited the writing part of the test to be the most problematic. The report noted the NAPLAN
[…] has led to formulaic writing in students’ responses to the prompt and, as a further unintended consequence, to formulaic teaching of writing in some schools as they seek to prepare students for the NAPLAN writing test.
My research looked at how the pressure of teaching to the test affects teaching of writing. Teachers told me formulaic approaches to teaching writing could harm students’ capacity to express themselves.
Too many adjectives
My kids come home from school with more and more rules for writing. These include: “don’t change tense”, “stay in the third person” and “end with a clear resolution”.
Yet stories by professional authors do change tense, deliberately use different voices and have complicated conclusions.
I find it increasingly harder to match what my kids do at school and what society understands to be good writing.
This isn’t only a problem in Australia. In March 2019, analysis from the UK highlighted how crude rules, such as “use lots of adjectives” have led to students producing poor writing. Using more adjectives can score highly on a test, because the adjectives can be counted.
However, the writing may be cluttered, vague, overwritten and unwieldy. The article uses the example of one student writing:
I raced buoyantly out of my house back into the caged domain.
As the author explains, this student has been taught that complex words earn extra marks, and that adjectives and adverbs should be used to create “colourful writing”.
Yet this sentence is clunky. It suffers from wordiness when it seeks to describe a simple action. Nor is it clear what “the caged domain” actually is. Sometimes a strong, simple verb or noun is better:
I raced out of my house back into the cage.
This is similar to what the NAPLAN review found. But even though formulas make marking easier, NAPLAN data actually shows a decade of teaching formulaic writing has not led to any improvement in students’ writing.
Telling, not showing
Australia’s problems are evident in NAPLAN’s marking guides and sample essays.
For example, a student’s statement “I stared in awe at the beauty”, to describe a pond, is rewarded as being a “precise phrase”. But this is a classic example of weak narrative writing, or what composition teachers would call “telling not showing”.
In telling, the student overwrites with lofty abstract nouns like “awe” and “beauty” rather than giving concrete details. Instead, they might describe the same scene by saying “I stared in awe as sparkles of light played on the water’s surface like fireflies”, to try to give the reader a sense of being there and show what it is like.
The student is also complying with pressure to use “nominalisation” to make their writing more sophisticated. This means making a word like “beautiful” into the noun, “beauty”. Nominalisation is not always appropriate. Writers need to be able to strategically use these devices, not use them because they must.
While nominalisations can readily be checked off on a tickbox, this does not necessarily lead to good writing, or to precision.
Research confirms NAPLAN testing has led to students being disadvantaged in their understanding of what a story can be — only one narrow form of narrative is valued. Interesting and original creative writing is being marked down.
A colleague told me the story of a child she knew who wanted to end his narrative with the main character being murdered mid-sentence, in the middle of a word. Alas, this creative ending was forbidden by the teacher because the assessment rubric required a full paragraph conclusion and “clear resolution”.
Predictable, easy endings
My research shows teachers feel the formulaic NAPLAN approach limits the quality of students’ independent thought. Students are also so drilled into formulaic writing they experience anxiety about whether every sentence fits the required template.
Here is what one teacher told me:
I loathe the NAPLAN writing assessment and the preparation that goes into that. I don’t like the disjointed marking rubric where spelling and sentence structure are ‘worth’ more than ideas.
At home, many parents want their kids to tick the NAPLAN boxes. The School Zone NAPLAN home drilling series, widely sold in newsagents, requires students to write narratives structured by the words “first”, “second”, “next”, “then”, “eventually” and “finally”. Imagine if all short stories were organised in this predictable way.
The series’ assessment grid requires persuasive writing to use words like “obviously”. This is what is known as a bullying word; it implies readers are foolish or ignorant if they do not agree. Yet it is flawed logic to assume what is obvious to the writer is also obvious to readers.
These kinds of words demonstrate poor writing, as the writer simply makes empty claims rather than using reason. If something is wrong, it is necessary to explain why it is wrong, rather than claim it is “obviously” so.
Essentially, students are not thinking of the best ideas, words or strategies to achieve their communication goals. They are thinking of what NAPLAN wants, even if this is bad writing.
This removes the learning that comes with the challenge of students working out what they want to say, and having the freedom to say it in a way they devise. Our kids deserve better than a system that hampers their efforts to become good writers. What NAPLAN values, and what genuine readers, not NAPLAN markers, value are two different things.
We need to call NAPLAN, and the government to account, and ask for an honest assessment of the expanding body of research that says NAPLAN is harming students’ capacity to write.