The older we get, the worse we write. Why?
I was the primary school kid who borrowed approximately eight books from the library each week and devoured every single one of them (most under the covers with a torch after dark). By the age of thirteen, I think I’d read a good third of my country school library, and a decent percentage of the public one. From the very moment I picked up my first novel, I knew all I wanted to do was write my own.
As someone who now makes a living as a writer (albeit not yet in the form of a novel), it greatly concerns me that the writing standard in schools is experiencing such a significant decline, particularly as students progress through the year levels.
In the 2019 written section of the NAPLAN, 95% of Year Three students scored at or above national minimum standard. This was exclusive of the Northern Territory, with 72% of students scoring at or above national minimum standard.
The 2019 Year Nine results for the written section of the NAPLAN tell a different story. No state had more than 86% of students at or above national minimum standard, and the Northern Territory’s results dropped to 49.1%.
These results were actually an improvement on the previous years but still signify an evident discrepancy between initial written skills in primary school, and the lack of progression of these skills in high school.
So, why such a decline in performance from Year Three to Year Nine?
The easy answer, in the minds of many, is likely social media. Blame the lack of digital detox, the epidemic of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok. So, people blame.
Blame is a complicated concept at the best of times, even more so when it’s directed at the digital landscape. There’s no denying the lives of current school students are saturated with the online but that also means exposure to more. More information, more words, more knowledge. You would think that this could only assist in an academic foundation, and perhaps it does. What it does not seem to assist in, as evidenced by the NAPLAN results, is an improvement in the written skillset.
In my personal experience, and the experience of many writers I know, reading is how we became better writers, and how we continue to improve our craft. We’ve discussed it many a time, over coffee, over wine, how many of us hungrily consumed the entirety of the Deltora Quest series, which Harry Potter book sits above the rest, and whether or not it’s important for journalists to have a vested interest in biographical novels. There’s a constant stack of novels at my bedside, and if you give me a bookshop voucher as a gift, you’ll be dubbed one of my absolute favorite people.
Throughout both university and my time in the workforce, I’ve seen a lot of written content come across my computer screen. This is often content written by graduates of degrees heavily focused on writing, by graduates who intend to work as writers in the future.
Rather concerningly, a number of these writers lack the fundamental skills of grammar and sentence structure necessary to succeed in the field they wish to work in. It would seem just as base written skills appear to decline from Year Three to Year Nine, this may continue into university, and indeed, into the workforce.
Could it be that the students of today, and indeed, of the past, are not effectively taught these integral written skills during schooling? Is there a decrease in the emphasis placed on this imperative foundational knowledge between the ages of nine and fifteen?
My mother is a primary school teacher, and I’ve grown up seeing her frustrations and joys at the children she’s taught. I also know the time she took teaching me in my younger years. I can only be grateful for and acknowledge my privilege in this regard. I have no doubt that having parents who emphasized the importance of books and stories has worked in my favor as a writer.
I was encouraged to read and to write, and I practiced. A love was instilled for the craftmanship of words. I wonder if a further focus was placed on this love, this craft, the beauty words hold, there would be more of a vested student interest in learning how to write, and how to write well.
This is, without a doubt, my privilege. If schools intend to improve the writing skillsets of students, there potentially needs to be a greater focus on honing this love, honing this craftsmanship.
Could the decline in written skills as students age also be attributed to aging itself? Writing is generally deeply integrated with imagination, which may be more accessible, more important to us at the age of nine, as opposed to fifteen. In the primary years of schooling, an emphasis is placed on writing workshop, on making sure students are engaging their skills as writers. Perhaps if a greater focus was placed on this sort of workshopping in the middle years, students would be able to strengthen this writing muscle.
The Year 9 NAPLAN writing section expects students to perform in both narrative writing and persuasive writing. Students are assessed on their ability to engage and persuade the reader, to create, select, and craft ideas. Evidently, given the recent results, the current curriculum is not best suited to crafting these skills. Do teachers also need to be further educated on teaching writing skills?
The focus may need to shift, to be less on blame and more on foundational skills, less on molding curriculums to tests, and more on the importance of writing as a craft in itself.