Schools have ‘dropped the ball’ on literacy – expert

by Robert Ballantyne01 Sep 2017

Primary school children are leaving school without the handwriting and keyboarding skills to thrive in writing tasks, according to leading Australian literacy academic, Dr Noella Mackenzie.

Dr Mackenzie, from Charles Sturt University’s School of Education, said some children are unable to perform efficiently on tasks that require them to write – by hand or on keyboards – because they have not learned the skills or practised them enough.

“If our handwriting or keyboarding is automatic and fast, we can concentrate on other elements of writing, such as composing the message,” Dr Mackenzie said in a statement today.

“But handwriting and keyboarding skills both require complex sensory, motor, perceptual and cognitive skills and we are not giving students the instruction or the time to develop and practise these skills so they become efficient and automatic practitioners."

Dr Mackenzie said if a child is expected to produce a piece of writing, schools need to teach them how, so they can choose the best tools for the task and use them efficiently “so they don’t interfere with the task itself”.

 

Using laptop to take notes ‘less effective’

Dr Mackenzie said the Australian education system was “dropping the ball” in teaching handwriting skills, which remain essential for students at all levels of schooling and which support the development of reading, spelling, vocabulary and other cognitive abilities, as well as fine motor skills.

“Students continue to be required to write in all disciplines, with much of their school day involving writing of some kind,” she said.

“In addition, mounting evidence shows that taking notes with a laptop can be less effective in supporting learning and recall than taking notes by hand.”

Dr Mackenzie pointed out that today’s students are also expected to perform writing tasks on computers and other digital devices without targeted instruction and practice.

“The Australian curriculum has specific targets for children in using digital devices from the first year of schooling, but doesn’t outline how they are supposed to develop the skills to reach those levels of performance,” she said.

“As educators deal with an increasingly crowded curriculum and place more emphasis on NAPLAN and other testing, something has to give – and in some classrooms it seems to be teaching children the handwriting and keyboard skills they need.”

 

How principals can help

The Principals As Literacy Leaders (PALL) program, created in 2010 by Griffith University, Edith Cowan University and the Australian Catholic University, might offer a solution.

The core principle of the program argues that the responsibility for leading learning must be taken by the principal.

Through the program, participants develop an intervention plan that considers a particular aspect of reading improvement for a particular group/groups of students; for instance, improving oral language for junior school students. The intervention plan is then implemented in the subsequent year.

Professor Tony Townsend, from the Griffith Institute for Educational Research, told The Educator that the program is delivered in five modules with 10 hours of coaching provided throughout the year, as well as ongoing support and follow up activities after workshops.

The follow-up activities are undertaken by the principals with their communities supported by designated coaches.

After each of the module sessions the school leader is expected to take what was learned back to their school, work with staff and the school community and then bring what they have learned from this process back to share with others in the following module.

“It’s not a generic leadership program. It’s a leadership program for a very specific purpose – and that purpose is to improve reading,” he said.

“What we could say is that if you took out the reading content and put in mathematics content, you could run the same program for that subject. So we’re looking at leadership for a specific purpose.”

With Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education recognised as being crucial to students’ future job opportunities, Townsend pointed to the important role literacy plays in this learning area.

“We’re trying to bring literacy to STEM. What we’re discussing in this particular program are the literacy components,” he explained.

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