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Improving written responses through the use of subject-wide literacy conventions

Author: Jacob Robson

In his case study, Jacob looks at identifying literacy conventions that students can utilise and teachers assess as a means of encouraging strong communication skills in extended written response, and improving assessment consistency.

Context

…quality assessments can arise only from a clear vision of the achievement to be mastered. We cannot dependably assess targets we have not completely defined and mastered ourselves. Neither can we communicate them clearly to students.

- Stiggins and Chappuis 2006, p12

This case study focuses on the practices of several 10-12 year level teachers at an R-12 Catholic school in the South Australian metropolitan region with a current enrolment of just under 1,000 students.

Significantly, the college practices a three-year SACE program, where students complete Stage One of their SACE across Years 10 and 11, focusing on Stage Two in Year 12. This design allows several Year 11 students to complete Stage Two subjects each year without jeopardising their Stage One SACE credits. Stage One classes are a mix of Year 10 and 11 students. The greater range of student age and maturity in a Year 10 and 11 class suggests a greater diversity in student ability in comparison to a 'standard' year level class.

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Current assessment practices

All Stage One classes are currently designed to run for one semester, utilising the guidance of a 10-credit Learning and Assessment Plan (LAP) teachers develop at the beginning of each semester. Team planning is encouraged, demonstrating elements of the learning teams approach outlined by Stiggins and Chappuis (2006, p14), although this is not possible in subjects that only have one teacher.

Each teacher also plans their semester of pedagogy through a Learning and Accountability Plan (L&A Plan), which some teachers co-create, although a high number of staff develop their own L&A Plan, as they present a means of exhibiting the minute processes and pedagogical activities that they plan to embed throughout the semester.

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Focus group

Members of the focus group were selected from across subjects within humanities and social sciences, each with several semesters experience within their subject area, making it likely that assessment choices would be made intentionally, and with strategic purpose. Focus group members would also be able to comment on student achievement both before and after implementation of the action plan. The diversity amongst the subjects group members teach will give a clear indication of assessment practices across Stage One. As such, any findings from this case study should be a valid representation of the assessment practices that exist in humanities and social science subjects at Stage One of the SACE.

It is pertinent to note that while resources will be targeted at teachers of these subjects, they will be made available to all teachers and students.

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Focus

This report aims to support teachers in defining targets within extended written response by requiring them to clearly communicate to students the importance of structuring a logical and sequential paragraph that utilises evidence and analyses.

Evidence suggests that while most teachers include activities in their L&A Plans which relate to building literacy skills that are relevant to assessment tasks, these activities are not coordinated with other subject areas, and specific skills and techniques that are vital in achieving an 'A' in most 'communication' performance standards (regardless of subject differences) are not mentioned.

One example is the Stage One History: Inter-War L&A Plan, which mentions literacy-related activities, although without details on specific skills and techniques in focus: In each section write paragraphs of approx. 300 words to develop essay writing skills and share with peers to discern subject specific language required' (Appendix 1).

Review of written response assessment task sheets:

All members of the selected focus group take pedagogical steps to identify and outline many key skills that students are required to demonstrate in order to enable high-level achievement in writing extended response answers.

Despite this, many task sheets do not clearly identify the techniques and conventions that the assessor will be judging when evaluating achievement against the 'communication' performance standards; a key element in enabling student achievement.

Review of classroom pedagogy relating to essay conventions and techniques:

Several staff members have commented that they do devote teaching time to explaining the expectations of essay-based tasks. Others however have identified the teaching of essay-specific techniques and conventions as an area in which they would appreciate support, and would like to develop their knowledge and understanding.

Review of Learning and Accountability plans in relation to essay conventions and techniques:

After reviewing the L&A Plans of the focus group, it became evident that there was an explicit focus on developing the literacy skills of students in terms of constructing answers and communicating understanding through essay-related contexts, In each section write paragraphs of approx. 300 words to develop essay writing skills and share with peers to discern subject specific language required' (Appendix 1). While this indicates that a pedagogical emphasis is placed upon developing essay writing skills, exercises and activities such as this focus on developing structural conventions, without focusing on specific language techniques and grammatical features.

Evaluate strengths and areas for improvement in current assessment practices:

While many teachers do emphasise various skills, techniques and conventions that relate to conducting written extended response, it is clear that there is no concerted, uniform approach to developing student understanding of key conventional elements, such as structure across Stage One. As such, improving the consistency in this area of pedagogy and assessment will be the key focus of my report.

Justify the focus area of the CEA course that you used in supporting the development of assessment practices for the focus group:

The key elements of the CEA course that underpin the actions that have been taken and are planned for the focus group are:

  • developing the capacity of staff to convey knowledge and understanding of assessment to students
  • building aptitude in constructing, developing and evaluating the validity and reliability of assessment tasks
  • utilising accessible language that supports student learning across Stage One.

These three elements were focused on throughout Module One of the CEA course.

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Action plan

The following actions aim to avoid a 'misalignment' (as Moon 2005 describes it) between an instructional unit's learning goals and summative assessment in the form of written response. In brief, this action plan aims to prompt staff to discuss communication and literacy-based skills in class, allow students to identify the practices that will enable them to reach the highest standard, as well as aid moderators in understanding how teachers have determined the standard of student achievement.

Design strategies to support the capacity building of the selected focus group in the identified focus areas.

  • Work with the focus group and the wider school community to agree on consistent terminology regarding paragraph structure and expectation. For example, which acronym best encourages students to meet the performance standards outlined across subjects?
    • Topic sentence. Evidence. Analysis. Link to question.
    • Topic sentence. Evidence. Evaluate. Link to question.
    • Main idea. Evidence. Analysis. Link to question.
    • Point. Evidence. Evaluate. Last thought.
  • Utilise Stiggins and Chappuis' (2006, p14) concept of 'learning teams' to encourage collaboration and develop the specific pedagogical knowledge and skills within the focus group that will cause each team member to transform assessment ideas into actual classroom practices, and ideally change classroom assessment practices in specific ways that benefit students.
  • Teachers to meet and plan to teach an extended, written response throughout their coming semester, agreeing to language techniques, conventions and skills to assess students on, that also logically meet the 'communication' strand of all performance standards. The focus group will aim to experiment by utilising new resources, explicitly teaching new content, evaluating their own practice and student achievement (and ultimately the success of the action plan) through benchmarking at the end of the term.

Document evidence of the strategies, processes and procedures for the implementation and evaluation of the action plan.

In implementing the action plan, the following processes will be followed:

Step one: Meet as a group and discuss ideas for improving our teaching and assessment of communication strand of the SACE performance standard; what do focus group members feel comfortable in teaching? What skills and conventions of written response do we need to support each other to know and understand?

  1. Document strategies for supporting each member in their growth, and key outcomes that they would like to achieve.
  2. We discussed whether outside support and professional development is required, but thought it would be best to attempt in-house changes first.
  3. After discussions, it was agreed upon that at senior school level, the acronym 'TEAL' would be most effective in enabling student achievement, and meeting most assessment expectations, due to the presence of 'analyse', rather than 'evaluate' (Appendix 2).

Step two: Focus group members implement strategies.

Step three: Discuss initial feedback – do focus group members feel comfortable and confident with using the language of TEAL?

After implementing the consistent language of TEAL, all staff reported that they felt that the posters were useful, and most agreed that they enabled students to write in accordance with essay and extended response conventions,. Some members of the focus group felt that they still preferred to use their individual acronyms, however, when teaching the conventions of extended written response they were supportive of the TEAL concept as an example, but not an expectation. Further to this, one focus group member noted that the resource allowed them to spend more time discussing literacy and communication expectations:

  • As the area of assessment that I am least qualified and confident in teaching, the TEAL poster enabled me to move away from assuming my students had a knowledge of communication and literacy conventions, and pinpoint some of the things that I would be looking for when marking their work.

All focus group members noted that other strategies would be necessary to fully support students in meeting the criteria of the 'communication' performance standards in their subject.

Step four: Assess student development – do focus group members feel confident that they are supporting students in reaching the 'communication' performance standards?

As a result of simply creating and employing consistent language around paragraph structure, most focus group members have indicated that they feel confident in supporting students to reach the 'communication' performance standards, although …it will take some time for them [students] to use them consistently. Other focus group members found that using common language was helpful in validating their existing knowledge of some of the literacy conventions regarding extended response.

Step five: Interview students regarding their understanding of what they are expected to create when they are asked to complete an extended written response.

After conducting several student interviews, it is evident that students found one aspect of the TEAL posters useful; they helped to guide and refresh knowledge and understanding of extended response conventions, but did not provide the micro-level literacy guidance that was needed for improving the sophistication of sentence structures or demonstrating clear analytical skill. Evidently, students found the posters useful as an initial tool in constructing an answer, but not in reaching the 'A' standard that some students sought.

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Findings and recommendations

Evaluate the Action Plan and review the key findings:

While I feel that my action plan was quite simple in its focus and 'action', I do believe that it has been effective in encouraging clear expectation amongst staff and students in relation to teaching the conventions of extended written response. The key motivator in this action plan has been Stiggins and Chappuis' statement that: 'We cannot dependably assess targets we have not completely defined... Neither can we communicate them clearly to students' (2006, p 12). This action plan has effectively supported teachers in defining targets within extended written response by requiring them to clearly communicate to students the importance of structuring a logical and sequential paragraph, which utilises evidence and analyses.

Recommendations for further development:

There is significant room to improve upon the few steps that have been taken so far in this process; much of the initial action plan has remained unfulfilled due to time constraints. The two key developments that have not been reached at this point in time are listed below.

  • Utilise Stiggins and Chappuis' (2006, p14) concept of 'learning teams' to encourage collaboration and develop the specific pedagogical knowledge and skills within the focus group that will cause each team member to transform assessment ideas into actual classroom practices, and ideally change classroom assessment practices in specific ways that benefit students.
  • Teachers to meet and plan to teach an extended, written response throughout their coming semester, agreeing to language techniques, conventions and skills to assess students on, that also logically meet the 'communication' strand of all performance standards. The focus group will aim to experiment by utilising new resources, explicitly teaching new content, evaluating their own practice and student achievement, (and ultimately the success of the action plan) through benchmarking at the end of the term.

Further to this, there is also an opportunity to improve student agency in the process of consultation, and the development of new teaching resources. One key objective during this process would be the 'demystifying' of performance standards; remedying the 'jargonitis' and liberating student understanding of their assessment criteria (Sword 2012).

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Evaluation

Assessment, without due preparation and collaboration, circumvents the role and purpose of educators. By developing a professional understanding of assessment, including different functions of assessment, it is far more likely that students will develop as learners.

The collaboration instigated by this report has already created greater communication between Stage One teachers, and it is predicted that (if the recommendations of the report are followed), greater consistency and quality in assessment will be achieved, as targets will have been defined and mastered by staff, and communicated to students (Stiggins & Chappius 2006, p12).

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Reference list

Earl, L 2006, 'Assessment – A powerful Lever for Learning' Brock Education, vol. 16 , no. 11), p 13

Klenowski, V & Wyatt-Smith, C 2010, 'Standards, teacher judgement and moderation in contexts of national curriculum and assessment reform', Assessment Matters, 2014, p 107-131

Masters, G 2014, 'Assessment: Getting to the Essence', Designing the future, Australian Council for Education Research, no. 1, 2014

Maxwell, GS 2009, 'Defining Standards for the 21st Century', in Wyatt-Smith, c & Cumming, JJ (eds), Educational Assessment in the 21st Century: Connecting Theory and Practice, Springer, Dordrecht, p 263-286

Moon, TR 2005, 'The role of assessment in differentiation', Theory into Practice, vol. 44, no. 3, p 226-233

Stiggins, R & Chappuis, J 2006, 'What a difference a word makes: Assessment FOR learning rather than assessment OF learning helps students succeed', Journal of Staff Development, vol. 27, no. 1, p 10-14

Sword, H 2012, Stylish Academic Writing, Harvard University Press, Cambridge

Wilhelm, JD 2007, Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry, Scholastic Inc, Scholastic

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Appendix 1

Excerpt from Stage One History: Inter-War L&A Plan

Appendix 1 - Excerpt from Stage One History (Jacob Robson)

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Appendix 2

TEAL poster

Appendix 2 - TEAL thumbnail (Jacob Robson).png

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