Writing skills worry for keyboard generation
Writing is not an easy process. It has taken me several hours to try to pummel this piece into shape and I am still not happy with it — and I do this for a living.
But being able to clearly convey an opinion in writing is an essential life skill.
So it is worrying to see that concerns about Year 12 students’ poor writing emerged as a common theme in recently released reports into last year’s WA Certificate of Education exams.
Whether they were essays or “extended responses” (which are shorter than essays and do not require an introduction and conclusion), many students struggled to write coherently, back up their opinions with evidence or show they understood the question in the first place.
School Curriculum and Standards Authority Allan Blagaich picked up on this theme when he analysed reports on more than 70 exams last year, noting that 58 per cent of the documents highlighted concerns that students were not reading the questions properly.
Mr Blagaich also noted that 25 per cent of the reports commented that far too many students had tried to “retrofit” pre-prepared answers, appearing to lack the confidence to use their knowledge to answer the specific question being asked.
“It’s predominantly the humanities subjects where there’s a sense that the kids are coming in with something they’ve fairly well shaped up before, and then they’re trying to retrofit it to the question, rather than answer the question as it is, ” he says.
One example was the report on the modern history exam, which said it was “disappointing” that markers saw little evidence of high-order analysis.
“There did seem to be a higher percentage of pre-prepared essays being ‘fitted’ into questions, and fitted in poorly at that, ” it said.
And the report on applied information technology said: “Many of the problems identified in the answers could be attributed to an inability to address what the question asks of the candidates.”
In biological sciences, markers noted: “Explanations were often superficial and even the more substantive answers typically did not draw different points together to illustrate cause and effect. Also, answers were often given in very vague, imprecise and/or informal language.”
Many reports also referred to students’ failure to pick up on the subtle differences between key words such as “state” (express main points) and “explain” (relate cause and effect), which were meant to guide them on how to write their answer.
A glossary of definitions of key words used across all courses is provided to schools and is published in course handbooks.
Asked whether the problem is that teachers are not highlighting the glossary’s existence, or that students are not bothering to study it, Mr Blagaich says it could be a bit of both.
He says it’s also possible that some students have not received the grounding in expository writing they should have in primary school and the lower secondary years. This is surprising, given that persuasive writing has been a big focus of national literacy and numeracy testing.
Some educators argue the problem could have more to do with the ambiguity of some questions, instead of being the result of insufficient preparation by teachers or students.
Another reason many students are unable to write fluently in an exam situation could be because they are so much more used to writing on a computer than using pen and paper.
Anyone who is accustomed to being able to edit their thoughts as they type — which includes almost everyone in the modern workplace — would find it difficult to go back to writing longhand without frequently scribbling out sentences or scrawling arrows to show where a paragraph should be moved to make the piece flow better. Yet that is exactly what we expect of school students.
Even though many schools encourage students to practise writing with pen and paper in Years 11 and 12, by the time teenagers get to that age the skills for composing paragraphs on a keyboard are already ingrained.
Interestingly, the tests which Year 10 students sat last month, was to show they have met WA’s minimum literacy and numeracy standards were completely computer-based.
Even the written section of the Online Literacy and Numeracy Assessment is typed on a computer, with students given an hour to write up to 600 words.
Inevitably, all exams will go online and it will be intriguing to see if that leads to higher-quality essays.
Of course, there have always been a proportion of students who have not developed the writing and critical reading skills expected at Year 12 level. And it would be difficult to claim that proportion is on the rise based on anecdotal reports.
But the frequency of the comments by Year 12 examiners should raise more than a few eyebrows and prompt us to ask why — after 13 years at school — so many pupils still struggle to string together coherent written answers.
© The West Australian
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