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Sharing our progress: Writing

It was a pleasure to collaborate with Jeanette Breen on this blog post. Jeanette is a learning specialist and educator at Templestowe Heights Primary School. She is also Head of Global Partnerships at No More Marking and chairs the Think Forward Educators Writing Network with Nathaniel Swain. Jeanette has been a passionate advocate for/driver of change when it comes to writing assessment and instruction in Australia over the last few years. Jeanette and I share our experiences in our own primary schools below, 12 months into the No More Marking Australian Writing Project.

Docklands Primary School (Emina McLean: English & Literacy Leader)

Docklands Primary School is a new primary school in inner-city Melbourne. Our school is on Wurundjeri country, part of the Kulin nation. We strive to provide an outstanding education for every student in our care, and to grow great teachers. We invest heavily in our people, because we know that no single asset or resource matters more to our aims. Our teachers are united in their commitment to practice excellence and driven by the pursuit of improvement in all we do. Our work is informed by the best available evidence, and we set high expectations for behavioural and academic outcomes for all students.

We are in our second year of operation. We have a diverse, warm, and vibrant school community. We have a close to average ICSEA value. More than 70% of our students speak English as an additional language. We have just over 400 students now, with more than half of those students in Foundation and Grade 1 (the first two years of school).

We participated in the first No More Marking Australian Writing Project in our first year (February/March 2021). One year later, we get to see how far we’ve come. I'm thrilled with the progress our teachers and students have made in writing in this 12-month period, particularly given:

  • 2021 was our first year of operation.

  • We had multiple remote learning periods.

  • Our curriculum and pedagogy were new to most staff.

  • In 2021, the bulk of our professional learning, planning, instruction, and coaching. focus was early reading instruction and implementing our knowledge, language, and text rich curriculum across the school.

In 2021 we implemented The Writing Revolution (TWR) sentence-level and planning instructional techniques. All educators were given the book to read, and some staff completed the formal training through the Clarendon District. All educators accessed at least two in-house professional learning sessions that were focused on the what, why and how of TWR instructional techniques. We ensured writing was embedded in content daily across English, Humanities & Science, but we didn't get much further than that. 2022 was bookmarked as our big writing focus year, but excitingly it looks like we've already shifted the needle.

Grade 3 (March 2021)

Based on No More Marking (NMM) comparative judgement data, our 2021 Grade 3 cohort was below the national average scaled score and writing age.

Average scaled score

Average writing age

All schools


7 years 8 months

Docklands PS


7 years 4 months

Grade 3 (March 2022)

Now, we can compare our 2021 and 2022 NMM data. Our Grade 3 cohort this year is above the national average scaled score, and 2 years and 5 months ahead of the 2021 cohort.

Average scaled score

Average writing age

All schools


8 years 0 months

Docklands PS


9 years 9 months

Grade 4 (March 2022)

We can also follow the 2021 Grade 3 cohort into Grade 4 in 2022. This cohort has increased their average scaled score to almost equal to the national average, and the average writing age has increased from 7 years 4 months in 2021 to 9 years 4 months in 2022. That’s two years growth in one year, a year ahead of the 12 months of growth we’d hoped for.

Average scaled score

Average writing age

All schools


9 years 5 months

Docklands PS


9 years 4 months

We did not take part in the October 2021 assessment period, so we only have year on year comparisons. From now on we are assessing twice per year. Obviously, we need to dig deeper than scaled scores and writing ages, so we've developed our own writing sample evaluation checklists for each grade. These are based on/matched to our detailed writing scope and sequence, so we're clear on the grade-level knowledge and skill expectations and have solid information for reporting and feedback purposes.

While our significant grade and cohort growth is really pleasing, we need to work hard to close the achievement gap between girls and boys, and lift the students at the lower end of achievement. Our spread of scores is still too wide. In Grade 3, the average scaled scores range from 482-597 and the average writing ages range from 7 years 6 months to 14 years 1 month. In Grade 4, the average scaled scores range from 448-607 and the average writing ages range from 6 years 8 months to 14 years 1 month. Our gender gap is greater than the national average in Grade 3 (girls are ahead of boys by 23 months in our school compared to 7 months nationally) and Grade 4 (girls are ahead of boys 13 months in our school compared to 10 months nationally).

We have already commenced our 2022 professional learning focus on writing development and instruction, but perhaps it's useful to outline our 2021-22 plans.

2021 writing focus areas

  • Implement and embed high-quality spelling instruction (Sounds-Write and Spelling Mastery)

  • Implement and embed high-quality handwriting instruction

  • Implement and embed explicit Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary instruction

  • Implement and embed sentence-level writing instruction (including punctuation) across English, Humanities and Science

  • Implement and embed planning instruction (paragraph planning) from the end of Grade 1 in English, Humanities and Science and trial across genres

  • Ensure students write in every English, Humanities and Science lesson about what they read about and learn about

  • Ensure students spend 5 hours per week writing or receiving writing instruction

  • Teach summarisation and note-taking across subjects (3-6)

  • Pilot oral and written narrative language program in Prep

  • Pilot Comparative Judgement

2022 writing focus areas

  • Monitor quality of/further refine all 2021 efforts

  • Implement and embed oral and written narrative language program in Prep-2

  • Implement and embed genre macrostructure instruction (informational, narrative and persuasive)

  • Implement and embed genre microstructure instruction (functional grammar and linguistic devices)

  • Implement and embed NMM Comparative Judgement across the school to ensure more reliable and useful moderation practices

  • Implement and embed sentence-level knowledge assessments in 2-6 via the NMM Writing Hub

  • Implement and embed consistent formative assessment practices across the school

  • Implement and embed consistent whole class feedback practices across the school

  • Targeted attention - gender achievement gap

  • Targeted attention - lowest achievement group

We're grateful to NMM and TWR for providing some of the foundational tools for our writing assessment and instruction. Our results are well ahead of where we thought we’d be by now. We're so proud of our impactful and responsive teaching team and we're fortunate to have such expert and passionate educators. The teachers who have contributed to this student growth are Amber, Shevani, Dan, and Leah. Well done to you and your students!

Templestowe Heights Primary School (Jeanette Breen: Learning Specialist and 3/4 Team Leader)

Templestowe Heights PS, in the inner east of Melbourne just celebrated 50 years open. It has undergone many changes over its history. The last 5 years of strong leadership has resulted in a simple, yet powerful phrase - to be the school of choice in our local community. With this goal, THPS has invested in staff with a view to an impact on teacher knowledge and student outcomes. We have seen a great deal of growth, many challenges and identified several factors as making a difference:

  • Consistency - minimising variance between teachers and students

  • Maintaining high expectations - not placing a ceiling on a child’s capability

  • Commitment to gathering and using various forms of data - ensuring we are vulnerable and fluid in using the evidence of research

Our student population is just below 500 and growing all the time. The THPS response to online learning during the Victorian Covid lockdowns was efficient and demonstrated a connection to not just engagement and wellbeing, but to learning and instruction where we attempted to influence these in responsive and visible ways.

The understandings gained over this time about how learning works was instrumental thinking in the decision to overhaul our approach to Writing. Leading to the exploration of a Comparative Judgement (CJ) project with No More Marking (NMM). Responding to the need to minimise time wasted, and focus on essential skills drove us to several key changes:

1. A deeper understanding of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and its effect on young writers

2. Dissection of Rosenshine’s Principles

  • retrieval and review of writing scaffolds

  • sequencing writing into small steps with opportunities for repeated practice

  • models and exemplars that provide visibility to sentence level work and assessment loops to measure whether these are embedding

  • closer look at feedback

  • less focus on extended writing

  • more efficient feedback that incorporates whole class, yet leads to greater impact for individuals

3. A development of the 5 pillars for Writing that scaffold our overarching approach bringing much writing research together in one framework

If you can, picture a school landscape at the cusp of these writing changes undergoing the first touchpoint of the CJ data. Our Year 3 cohort had the following:

Time 1 – March 2021

Average scaled score

Average writing age

All schools


7 years 8 months

Templestowe Heights PS


7 years 8 months

Based on the NMM data, our 2021 Year 3 cohort was consistent with the average when rated against 1,265 students from 25 schools in the first project.

If you can then imagine that for the rest of 2021, despite repeated lockdowns and school closure, we continued to implement our Writing changes. This took particular innovation throughout online learning, but in essence we were able to map writing skills in a more effective way, using what minimal time we had and armed with the framework described earlier.

In continuing to follow the Year 3 cohort:

Time 2 – October 2021

Average scaled score

Average writing age

All schools


8 years 3 months

Templestowe Heights PS


9 years 6 months

It is pleasing to see the growth particularly when we are measured against schools nationally (by this time we had 33 schools), who did not endure the same level of online learning as Victoria. Our students have grown by almost 2 years in a period of 8 months while the overall growth for schools in the project is consistent with time – 7 months. We can only surmise that our approach to writing is having an impact.

When the Year 3 cohort, now as Year 4s undergo CJ again in Feb 2022, this time against 42 schools and 1,975 students:

Time 3 – February 2022

Average scaled score

Average writing age

All schools


9 years 5 months

Templestowe Heights PS


11 years 11 months

We see the growth continue by over 2 years – however a caveat here. The writing age is a way to provide understanding to the scaled score and NMM have shared how this has looked across much larger sample sizes than the Australian one at present. It is enough to know that our students are performing well within their age group. We then layer this with our curriculum, we use the writing samples and exemplars to pull apart exactly how students are or are not, demonstrating their learning.

Furthermore, their writing samples and individual stories play a huge part in our dissection of the data. Tracking individual students over time and the gender gap (written about here), show us that while growth is to be celebrated there is still work to be done.

Our professional development is mapped to the continuing CJ data (projects will include Year 2, 4, 6, 8 & 10 in writing data) and will continue to focus on student learning linked to the 5 pillars. However, these are a general overview and we must dig deeper.

The challenge is the CLT for teachers and doing fewer things in greater depth, as Mary Myatt puts it - with clarity around the purpose.

However, the data is affirming evidence of purposeful work that is proving useful, which is the reason we began the search for a more effective way to measure writing in the first place.

Like DPS we have several writing goals aligned to our professional learning. These are linked to restructuring our assessment schedule. Like many educators I am hugely influenced by experts like Emina who generously share their resources.

  • Embedding teacher knowledge of the Science of Language

  • Tiering an intervention approach linked to phonological awareness

  • Aligning teacher moderation linked to CJ assessment data

  • Embedding of lesson structures that support Vocabulary instruction and background knowledge

Specifically, for writing this entails:

  • dedicated time to writing instruction across all curriculum areas

  • writing mechanics including handwriting

  • note-taking and paragraph outlining

  • building a scope and sequence that maps our instruction and assessment with research based tools (The Writing Revolution, DIBELS, Comparative Judgement)

As we continue this journey that began with curiosity about how we could better understand and influence our students as writers, the NMM data has played a key part. A scaled score or writing age is more meaningful when we are tracking an intentional approach versus the open-ended method left to student choice that we have moved away from. Looking beyond Australia to evidence of what is working globally is an exciting initiative that I hope can build our knowledge as educators here on our island. We look forward to sharing further insights as we seek to improve writing for all Australian students.

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Kiri Cowell
Kiri Cowell
2 days ago

This is very interesting, and you're a very good writer. I've subscribed to your feed and look forward to reading more of your great posts age of war


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