NAPLAN literacy testing: what’s wrong with it?

October 31, 2008

Close up of colourful alphabet

Preamble

The following is written by a Year 3 student. While there are lots of positives about the piece, I want you to read it carefully and think about what follow-up is required to help the student to write (even?) more effectively.

FROGS

Frogs jump and croke a lot. Ther skin is slippery and wet. They hide sometimes and ther big eyes blink. I no some poepel who are scerd of them. I am not scerd of them. I think they are vere cute. Thats what I think.

So, what did you think?

Spelling is an obvious area of continuing need – and we could identify some possible patterns in the misspellings. For example, while there seems to be a fairly good awareness of sound-letter relationships, the student does not always make the correct choices (e.g. croke instead of croak, vere instead of very, scerd instead of scared). Use of apostrophes is another immediately identifiable area of possible need – see ‘Thats’ in the last sentence.

However, as important as these aspects of language might be, they are surface errors easily fixed. More significantly, the student appears uncertain about his purpose in writing about frogs: is it to inform readers about ‘the facts’ or to reflect on how he feels about them? Consequently, he is uncertain about the genre in which he should be writing, and subject matter is chosen and organized seemingly randomly. Additionally, at a more micro-level, the student has difficulty in choosing the appropriate person (first or third?) and with patterning his sentence beginnings (Theme) and endings (Rheme). The result is a piece that demonstrates competent control of basic sentence structure, but a need to develop competence in stringing sentences together so that they create a cohesive, coherent text.

This brief example illustrates two important points about teaching grammar in schools. Firstly, while it is important for student to get ‘the basics’ of spelling and punctuation right, it is not sufficient to enable students to become competent writers. Secondly, teachers require a deep understanding of language and how it functions within particular contexts in order to help students reach their potential – as readers, as well as writers.

So, what’s wrong with NAPLAN?

In the preamble, I indicated that, while the student did indeed have some problems with spelling and punctuation which require some improvement, these were not the main problems with the piece. Rather, the student really needs explicit help in identifying the purpose of his writing and then choosing appropriate genre, structure and language features in order to achieve that purpose.

It is an issue that Dr Lenore Ferguson (2001) has raised in her analysis of 700 samples of the work produced as part of the Queensland Core Skills Test Writing Task. Although she was examining work produced by Year 12 students, she discovered that many students still needed help (after twelve years of schooling) in the ‘matching of micro-text features with the socio-cultural elements of a discourse’ (p277). Furthermore, a recent research-based policy on writing commissioned by the National Council for Teachers of English (2008, p4) declares that: ‘Students need to understand how language works in order to become effective writers, and this is best accomplished by instruction that focuses on a context based functional approach that illustrates how parts of language work together to create meaning.’

It is disappointing then to turn to the NAPLAN Language Conventions Test (2008) and find that of the 50 multiple choice questions:

  • 28 focus on spelling
  • 9 on punctuation
  • and only 6 on matters that are properly grammatical.

(The other questions are focused on a strange mix of identifying poetic devices, graphic elements in text and vocabulary choice).

The six grammar questions ask students to simply identify:

  • tense
  • first, second or third person
  • and word class (verb, noun, adverb, adjective).

While students should be able to identify these aspects of grammar, with enough time you could probably train a monkey to answer most of the grammar questions on the paper. A token gesture is made towards contextualizing the questions by relating them to a short piece of text. The real problem here is that students (and teachers preparing students for the test) are encouraged to believe that labeling and identifying a few, isolated and basic grammatical concepts is enough. At no point are students asked to consider why particular features are being used or how they are functioning within the text.

That has not stopped the media becoming hysterical about student results on the test, with at least one commentator devoting almost an entire article to bemoaning the inability of people she knows to identify a noun! No doubt a shared language about language between teachers and their students is important. However, as Ilana Snyder (2008, p32) points out: “even though there exists a substantial body of experimental research evidence demonstrating that there is little value in the formal teaching of grammar as a mean of improving students’ writing, many people continue to believe that knowledge of traditional grammar is essential to becoming a good writer.’  And this is the real problem in the current public debate – a debate which has the potential to encourage teachers to return to a superficial and largely discredited approach to teaching grammar. We need to remember that, actually, the NAPLAN language conventions test doesn’t tell us much at all and it probably masks what may be a bigger problem: can students use a wide variety of language features in a range of contexts in order to achieve particular purposes and effects.

Note: This is an extract of a much longer article to be published by the Queensland branch of the Australian Literacy Educators Association. (Click here to read more: down-and-dirty-with-grammar).

References

Curriculum Corporation (2008). National assessment program literacy and numeracy: language coventions Year 9 2008. Australia: Curriculum Corporation.

Ferguson, L. (2001). Revealing knowledge in Year 12 writing: an archaeological exploration. [Unpublished Ph. D. thesis]

National Council of Teachers of English (2008). Writing now. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English

Snyder, I. (2008). The literacy wars: why teaching children to read and write is a battleground in Australia. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

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