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Improving literacy through backward design and differentiation

Author: Mandy Loveder

Mandy looked at improving literacy through backward design and differentiation, highlighting the importance of implementing a whole school approach by providing a cohesive methodology across curriculum and year levels.


The school in focus for this case study is a Year 8-12, co-educational college in the Adelaide metropolitan area, which caters for families from a wide range of backgrounds. The college has a strong focus on providing the educational pathways desired by its students and their families.

A distinctive feature of this college community is our highly multi‐cultural composition made up from 52 different countries of origin. In addition, the school has a number of students with diagnosed learning difficulties whose literacy and numeracy levels are considered low by NAPLAN standards. These factors, coupled with the issue of students' varied ability to 'write well' within the parameters of subject genres and a mixed teacher capacity regarding literacy, differentiation, assessment literacy and task design, have an effect on the amount of college students achieving 'A' band Stage Two SACE (South Australian Certificate of Education) results.

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In 2015, it was decided that all teachers would work on building student written literacy capacity through a writing project that would begin at Year Eight and progressively move through the year levels so that by the time students reached the senior years they would be able to more successfully achieve the outcomes for the assessment pieces required to excel in their SACE. It was planned that this whole school approach would emphasise the need for all teachers in all subject areas to take responsibility for the teaching of written literacy, and the evaluation of current assessment tasks, including the scaffolding and differentiation of these tasks in their subject areas, as success is dependent on the 'commitment to plan for students' differing needs' (Moon 2005, p 227).

Generally, the majority of staff were very conscious of the tasks they were setting in the senior years, but not all had given thought to the relationship of what was being presented as assessment tasks, particularly those requiring extended writing at Years eight to 10, compared to those required at stage one and two. Consequently, the junior school tasks, in some cases, were not setting up the students for success in their later years as there was no emphasis on the need to teach and assess literacy and to scaffold assessment pieces for students to meet their zone of proximal development. It is essential to understand the concepts of accessibility and differentiated instruction for success (Tomlinson 2005).

By using backward design regarding stage two genres and incorporating learnings from our whole school professional development on 'Literacy in the SACE' in 2015 and the Assessment for Educators (AES) modules in 2016, teachers now have the tools to develop the assessment pieces. In addition, the college will continue to provide professional development time to incorporate these learnings at individual, faculty and whole school levels in 2017. The idea is to ensure the embedding of good practice and for everyone to be on the same page regarding literacy and assessment.

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Action Plan

I formed a Writing Project Reference Group in 2015 comprised of teachers who were literacy specialists. For example, our CEO, EAL consultant, our Literacy Focus Person, English Faculty Co‐ordinator and staff were willing to become Writing Project Mentors for their faculty areas. The faculties involved at Year Eight were: English, Mathematics, Science, Religious Education, History, Geography, Physical Education, The Arts, Home Economics, Design and Technology and Languages. The idea was that the reference group would drive the activities required to gather the necessary data and provide the support needed for faculties to achieve the eventual outcome of the production of a scaffolded piece of extended writing for assessment, which supported a genre required in each subject at stage one and two per semester at Year Eight. Our group has continued to meet once a term over 2016 and will continue into 2017 and beyond.

In partnership with the group, I wrote a strategic plan for the project. In the strategic plan the stated challenges were: skilling teachers, increasing engagement and skills of students and the creation of a sustainable written literacy program which would support our students' achievement in assessment. The introductory writing project presentation to staff was based on one given at another college within the sector where great success had been obtained in regards to SACE results using this approach and highlighted the need for scaffolding.

The next step involved gathering data on what was required in each faculty at Year 12 and mapping that back to what was done at Year Eight, creating a gap analysis table and an awareness of backwards design for success. From this, faculties were asked to select, with the help of their writing project mentor, a genre for a common assessment focus in Year Eight. To help faculties see what each was working on, a summary table was produced for discussion at our meeting and at a Curriculum Committee meeting for all faculty leaders. In addition, all staff were asked to complete a needs analysis table so that we could correlate the level of staff comfort and the need for professional development with the genre chosen.

Once the assessment piece and genre were chosen, the writing project mentor then worked with Year Eight teachers in the faculty to critically analyse the assessment piece to check the appropriateness of the piece for the purpose and genre, and scaffolding for success in literacy and differentiation. Amendments were then made to make the piece more user friendly using our 2015 literacy in the SACE professional development. The finished item needed to be ready for use where appropriate, in timing within Semester one of 2016. The AES whole school professional development was then used to drive the critical evaluation of this work over the year. Non‐Year Eight teachers were to contribute through construction and evaluation of the tasks at faculty meetings. Completed items were brought back to the writing project reference group for discussion and feedback.

Rubrics for both the subject specific task using the ACARA Achievement Standards and literacy achievement were developed to aid judgment, discourage bias and to guide student achievement and aid feedback on their work. Faculty moderation of the common assessment task was also made easier. Discussion and tweaking then occurred for semester two. Whole year subjects created a second piece for semester two. A follow‐up sheet for the students was encouraged to collect data on how well they had assimilated their literacy learning.

The plan for 2017 is to continue into Year Nine so that both Years eight and nine will have scaffolded pieces for extended writing and to spend our whole school professional development time to further embed our AES learnings from last year as the feedback was positive but a lack of time meant less uptake regarding further staff reflection on non‐common assessment pieces.

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The anecdotal responses from staff, who felt that the quality of answers being provided in Year eight in 2016 were better in many subject areas, were reinforced by the resulting grades. However, the cohort is different each year, making it difficult to assess ultimate success and showing the need for the use of reliable rubrics. Those with year‐long subjects were in a better position to judge the impact. The results within classes when comparing the marked rubrics did show a correlation between the quality of the piece, the subject and the literacy rubric in some subjects. This has encouraged staff to continue with the work being done regarding the writing project. However, there was evidence that competence in the use of the rubrics still needs development.

The common assessment tasks produced have more rigour in terms of what is to be assessed (the outcome), how the piece should be produced (purposefulness), what scaffolding can be used and how this allows for differentiation (zone of proximal development). In addition, there is more ownership of the rubrics making the assessment criteria clear and coherent, that is readable, so that they can be used to explain different levels of thinking to the students, guide formative and give transparent summative feedback (Sadler 2009); and their use which as mentioned above eliminates bias and assists moderation. Common assessment tasks more easily lead to social moderation, however, there needs to be programmed time (intentionality) made available to make this happen. There is also still the issue of getting all faculties and teachers on board to the same level of intensity, but the fact that most are enthusiastic about the results is encouraging.

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Where to from here?

In 2017, in addition to the continuation of the writing project, to firmly embed the AES module principles and develop our AITSL Teacher Performance Standards teachers will:

  1. annotate a selected assessment piece and rubric showing the relevance and method of arriving at the performance standards on the rubric using the language of the AES Modules: Principles and Language, Purpose and Design, Judgment, Feedback and Moderation, of Assessment
  2. provide evidence of scaffolding for students to achieve the task and how they would differentiate for a student needing adjustment that they currently have in the class or what they would do if they did. They should then show its links to the rubric, moving from a Proficient to a Highly Accomplished level on AITSL Standards one and five
  3. share pieces with faculties and across faculties via faculty meetings in the same rotation who use similar skills, developing a common language around types of assessment; for example reports, evaluations etc.
  4. use their Classroom Climate Questionnaire data to assess where their students are at in terms of understanding the assessment requirements
  5. get detailed one-on-one feedback and support from Learning Area Co‐ordinators regarding exploration on possible predictions of future directions.

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Awareness is such an important thing. Teachers are sometimes completely oblivious to the fact that they have not provided the students with the skills or the recipe for success. An example we had was asking Year Eight students to write a letter on an environmental issue to a politician stating the issue and what they felt needed to be done to solve the problem. Deconstructing this, the students needed to: 1) be aware of how to write a formal letter; 2) have research skills good enough to find enough information on their topic to write as an expert; and 3) knowledge of what a politician does. This was an attempt at providing a creative assessment vehicle instead of a report, and even though it could have been fit for purpose with the right set‐up, it backfired as the expertise needed had not been gained by the students. This awareness is now alive in our staff.

In addition, we have a metalanguage that we all share and can converse about around a common project. The response to the AES professional development has been very positive and there are posters of Bloom's Taxonomy and Costa's Levels of Questioning triangle (AES module one) up in many classrooms meaning that staff have shared their learnings on this with the students. We will work more on this in 2017 in regards to differentiation for extension.

The imperative now is to make sure that we do not lose the momentum 'as assessment literate teachers will typically make better decisions' (Popham 2009, p 6). In looking at our SACE results we have come to the conclusion that in order to create a band shift to more As, we need to improve three things:

  • student written literacy
  • ability to perform in exams which is linked to literacy
  • task design

and this is why I have put in place the plan detailed in the where to from here section above.

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Reference List

Moon, T (2005, 'The Role of Assessment in Differentiation', in Theory into Practice, vol. 44 no. 3), pp 226‐233

Popham, W 2009, 'Assessment Literacy for Teachers: Faddish or Fundamental', in Theory into Practice, vol. 48 no.1, pp 4‐11

Sadler, D 2009, 'Transforming Holistic Assessment and Grading into a Vehicle for Complex Learning', in Loughlin, G, Assessment, Learning and Judgement in Higher Education, Springer, Queensland

Tomlinson, C 2005, 'Grading and Differentiation: Paradox or Good Practice?', in Theory into Practice, vol. 44 no. 3, pp 262‐269

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