The ability to write effectively is a fundamental life skill. Irrespective of your purpose, profession or area of interest, it’s a skill that few of us can afford to lack. Writing has often been pigeonholed as one of the “creative arts” or “humanities”: a warm and fuzzy activity from which those with “mathematical” or “scientific” minds can be excused. But this is a mistake.
The essence of good writing is knowing who you’re writing for, and why you’re writing in the first place. That’s why teaching writing skills in the classroom is not necessarily about producing prize-winning novelists. It’s about teaching students how to effectively and purposefully communicate their ideas.
The digital age makes writing competence even more critical to life success. Most of the activity undertaken online involves the written word. Before the internet and email, few of us wrote very much beyond our school or university assignments, and unless we pursued a career in the likes of media, law or academia, it’s unlikely we have needed to worry much about our paragraph construction or syntax ever since.
But young people today actually write far more than any other generation before them — and they almost always have an audience, too, according to Andrea Lunsford, Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University.
“I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilisation,” she says.
Education ministers are recognising the need to equip students across the board with a toolbox of writing techniques that will carry them throughout their education and beyond. But despite this renewed focus on the need for writing ability, recent reports suggest that Australian schools do not feel properly enabled to teach it.
A report by the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) highlights a decline in the writing abilities of Year 7 and 9 students over the last decade. It also notes no improvement in Year 3 and 5 students during the same period. Citing the NAPLAN 2020 Review, it states that 30% of Year 7 students and 40% of Year 9 students score at or below the national minimum benchmark. Add to this the fact that students’ results in NAPLAN writing tests are actually a better indicator of their overall HSC outcome than numeracy or reading, it seems that we are putting students at a disadvantage by not explicitly teaching them to write.
Failure to address this issue early on could have a significant impact on future exam results as well as career prospects. And addressing it is something teachers and schools are keen to do.
Why is writing back under the education spotlight?
Kerry Tremaine, Head of Assessment Content – Educational Assessments at Janison, which runs ICAS, believes it’s an issue that has existed for a long time.
“I don’t think explicitly teaching writing is any more or less important than it ever was, but it is more readily being recognised as such because national testing is revealing that there’s a deficit that needs to be made up,” she says.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, there was a very strong focus on literacy across the curriculum, not just as a part of English; and over time, that went out of favour.
“At some point we lost the idea that literacy, including writing skills, is something that needs to be taught in every subject.”
Growing evidence of this deficit over the past few years from bodies such as AERO, The Centre for Independent Studies and the NSW Education Standards Authority has prompted a shift in thinking. And, with pressure from media outlets and both public and selective schools noting that students need help with writing, it’s clear that writing needs to take centre stage in Australian education once more.
Writing is key to success at school and opens the door to education opportunity beyond
Creative writing is only a small component of writing skills. Teaching writing is in fact more pragmatic and mechanical: knowing your audience, establishing your purpose, constructing an argument, clarifying complicated ideas and engaging your readers’ curiosity and interest.
From grammar and structure to vocabulary and figurative language, this forms a writing toolbox that enables students to lay out their ideas in a clear way that their audience — whether that’s a teacher, their peers, an employer, or a sports club — can understand. Without this skill, they won’t be able to communicate their understanding of certain topics and, regardless of their talents in other areas, their results for later assessments that depend on essay or longer-form answers, such as the HSC, will suffer.
This in turn could have a direct impact on their eligibility for scholarships or university admissions. It could affect their future employment as well as long term career plans and, particularly for gifted students, it could prevent them from achieving their true potential.
Debunking the myth of “she’s got a science brain” or “he only speaks maths”
Many parents and teachers rationalise their children’s or students’ lack of writing skills by focusing on their talents in other subjects. Why worry about “creative” endeavours such as writing, when your child is going to be an engineer or scientist? But, according to Kerry and her colleague at Janison, Senior Test Development Manager Chelsea Bernal, these can be precisely the areas on which to place even more, and not less, importance on writing.
Kerry and Chelsea believe that technical writing such as that used in medicine, science, engineering or economics often involves an even higher level of difficulty than writing within the humanities. So, if your child wants to focus on STEM subjects and build a career in any of those fields, they will actually need a better grasp on writing skills. The ability to clearly explain a theory can be just as critical as the theory itself.
Chelsea, whose postgraduate expertise area is Applied Linguistics, said: “If you want to be a scientist or a mathematician you’re going to have to go to university, you’re going to have to study a PhD, you’re going to have to write research articles. You’re going to have to do a lot of writing in your life to get that mathematics across,” says Chelsea.
In today’s workforce and business world, you are what you write
From writing resumes and cover letters to constructing courteous but assertive emails, setting out a business pitch or building your company’s case within a tender, the ability to share one’s thoughts clearly and effectively in writing is vital for any kind of career or business development.
“No matter what, there’s no job these days where you are not required to communicate,” says Chelsea. “Even for more hands-on specialisms such as carpentry, you need to be able to complete your TAFE qualifications, and once those are passed at some point you’re probably going to have to communicate with a customer through writing.”
Insufficient writing skills can also hamper career progression or business endeavours. For example, a software developer may be capable of typing code and securing a job in the first place, but without the ability to write a business case, give effective input producing marketing material or communicate to a broad audience how their product works and what problems it solves to a broad audience, they will struggle to move their career, and earning power, to the next level.
How to help build students’ writing muscles
The argument for developing writing skills is extensive but what exactly can parents and educators do to assist students in this area? As most professional wordsmiths will agree, getting “good at” writing is much like building muscles — and a healthy dose of variety and competition helps.
As a great start for your students, you could:
- Activate their curiosity about writing techniques by getting them to read a wide variety of types of writing – from critics’ reviews of a trending film or Netflix series, to instructions for yoga poses or gym exercises; from an explanation of the rules of soccer, to a news article about a complicated court case, or readers’ letters to the editor in printed versions of newspapers or magazines. These are usually concise, pithy and punchy – making entertaining and educational examples from which to learn.
- Encourage your students to collect the everyday examples of “good” and “bad” writing that they come across.
- Workshop what they think is “good” or “bad” about these writing examples.
- Expose your students to writing challenges regularly — especially against their peers.
One such challenge is the annual ICAS Writing competition, which is open to students from Year 3 to Year 12.
ICAS Writing has up to 12 marking criteria. It measures skills such as the ability to adapt tone and style according to the audience as well as more technical aspects such as textual grammar, syntax and punctuation.
It invites students to flex their muscles with two forms of writing: narrative or persuasive. Examples of persuasive tasks include reviews, advertisements, letters to a council, formal arguments (essays), opinion pieces for a newspaper, or a campaign manifesto. Examples of narrative tasks include the beginning, complication or conclusion of a narrative, or a description of setting or character.
Much like students who excel on the football field, athletics oval or basketball court, the students who enter ICAS Writing are mobilising their techniques and tactics — but their “field” is the page. And, like sport, this competition setting builds their “muscle memory” and adeptness – but with their writing muscle.
Some of the submissions from ICAS Writing over the years have dazzled our competition team with their out-of-the-box approach.
Janelle Ho, formerly Test Development Manager – Literacy, recalls: “Out of all the medal-winning scripts I’ve read over the years the one that stands out most is where a test asked the students to write a book review, and a girl from Tasmania wrote a review of a dictionary. I mean – how do you review a dictionary? It was such an amazing text, we pinned it up at the marking centre. It was very well-crafted and just the sheer imagination, it was amazing.”
A worthwhile investment
“ICAS is a low-risk opportunity for your child to explore different types of writing, address problematic areas and discover aspects that they enjoy or excel at. So it makes sense to give them that opportunity early, rather than wait until they struggle with their the demands of their HSC studies,” says Kerry.
“Much as the Australian education system is beginning to rethink the importance of teaching writing in all subjects, parents could consider a holistic approach when choosing their child’s ICAS subjects. ICAS Mathematics, Science and Digital Technologies assessments are great tools for identifying academic excellence. But ICAS Writing may well be the key to unlocking your child’s full potential across several fields,” she says.
This makes Writing a forward-thinking add-on to this year’s choice of ICAS subjects for students.
From improving overall results for the HSC and other end-of-school assessments, to enhancing their higher education prospects and equipping students with the tools they need to articulate their way through successful careers, taking early action and developing young people’s writing skills is a wise investment in their future.
Add ICAS Writing to your cart when you’re choosing this year’s subjects. Visit our online store today: https://www.icasassessments.com/shop/