The exams and tests where students have a prompt to respond to, either a text statement or an image, and have to produce an extended piece of original writing (like the NAPLAN Writing Test, the GAT Writing Task and Module C of HSC Advanced English) can often have students struggling to come up with an idea on the spot or agonising over things that, in terms of the mark scheme, don't matter.
Writing tests are simply vehicles for your teen to show their writing skill and level.
The actual topic or storyline they choose is not important overall.
Join me behind the scenes of these types of exams and tests to discover:
what is most important in them,
the specific TEN criteria your teen will be marked on, one way of another,
why your teen should select an idea that allows them to showcase all ten elements to the highest level.
You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 40 - and today we’re talking about what writing tests really want from your teen. Specifically, writing tests where your teen has to write in response to a prompt or image. I know some students find it really challenging to come up with something on the spot for those, but I want everyone to know, that coming up with a great idea to write about is not the most important thing. So if you’d like to get behind the scenes of these types of exams and tests, and know what IS most important in them, then let’s go.
Hey VIPs! How are you? I hope you are doing brilliantly. I am doing really well!
Thank you for the well wishes and comments since I mentioned that I’d been getting out of chairs like I’m 90 years old as I’d strained my back. I usually record these podcasts a week or so in advance - because - you know me by now, I’m a planner and an organiser. So I’m just getting those through now, and yes, it is definitely getting better. I’m just trying to be patient as my usual downfall when I have a bit of an injury is to go back to doing everything too soon. At the first sign of recovery. But I am definitely on the mend for sure.
I really wanted to get this podcast out there right now as I know that a lot of you in Australia have teens sitting NAPLAN tests very soon. These are literacy and numeracy national tests, like the SATs tests we used to have in the UK. They’ve brought them forward in the year for a reason that actually I think makes sense. So that schools can sooner make use of the results to inform the teaching and learning in their school and better know their students. Not that these tests of course give a holistic view of that. I know that there is are a lot of reasons to stop this sort of testing, I know some people don’t agree with them. I can see the pros and the cons and I’m not here to debate their usefulness.
Because this is not just about NAPLAN. Examples of the types of writing tests I’m talking about here also include the Writing task in the GAT, and the HSC Module C creative writing response and I know there are more like this in other states and countries too. The exams and tests where they have a prompt to respond to, either a text statement or an image, or both and they have to produce an extended piece of original writing. So this is more coming from the view that, we do currently have these types of tests, I don’t see them going anywhere soon.
I did actually read an article just yesterday saying how AI - Artificial Intelligence - is making the NAPLAN Writing Test redundant - and that has inspired me to do a future podcast on the topic of AI and how it relates to our education system - so look out for that - it won’t be for a while, but I’m keen to look more into it and share my thoughts with you. But, on the flip side, I’ve also seen information about how the Australian curriculum authority are expanding the National tests. When I looked recently, there are plans for schools to opt in for NAP Sample Assessments in Science, Civics and Citizenship and IT in Years 6 and 10 going forwards, so although things may change slightly. For example, with the current tests now being done online, it doesn’t look like they are going away any time soon.
Which is why I want to share my experiences and insider info with you! So, even if your teen isn’t doing NAPLAN, I still want you to stay tuned in here, because, having marked for the NAPLAN Writing Test AND for Y12 Writing Tests… as a non- English specialist, (English is NOT one of my teaching subjects, so I’ll tell you how I came to be marking for these exams in a moment) what I want to really share is what I learned about the one commonality I see and how therefore your teen can view these tests and tackle them successfully, whether they are a lover of English - or NOT.
Here’s the key: In my experience, as an external marker for the NAPLAN Writing Test for two years and as a contract marker for Y12 trials for the QCS Writing Test for another two years after that, and having covered lessons and coached students on many different types of writing assessments, that experience has shown me that really the task - when it comes to the more creative tasks, like a narrative, a short story, a speech, a piece of persuasive writing, a letter… the task is simply the vehicle, the conduit for the marker to judge your teen’s specific writing skills, techniques and level of writing.
It is just a way to judge things like how many literary techniques do they know, and can they use them appropriately. Can they divide their writing into paragraphs, can they use a range of sentence structures, how good is their spelling. Those are the things being judged. They could ask them as an exam series of questions, like come up with one metaphor for an old lady sitting on a bench, or identify an example of alliteration in this text. But instead, they get them to show all of those things and make sure they can use and apply them appropriately by making them write a full piece.
Here’s what that means. It means that it’s NOT so much what the letter is about, not what the story line is, not how worth the topic of the persuasive speech is. It’s about the skills and application of them that are shown withIN those texts.
Now, the topic, the storyline, they aren’t totally irrelevant. But, from my experience, from a marker’s perspective, their main relevance is in terms of the degree to which they provide the opportunities for your teen to showcase those skills.
So, let me back track a little here and explain before I get hate mail from authors or creatives or English teachers.
Like I said, I am not an English teacher, so I am purely sharing this from the perspective of an examiner, an assessment marker, and as a study coach. So I’m considering, what will get marks, what won’t, where to put in effort for maximum pay off and what doesn’t really matter when it comes to the result. I’m not considering the value of creativity, which of course has value in itself. I’m not considering the depth of understanding your teen may get from researching a controversial issue to write about and how that influences their own personal development, and I’m not taking account of the enjoyment they may get from using their imagination for a short story. Those can all be valuable. So, I’m not in any way trying to dismiss those. They just aren’t my area of expertise. And for those students who find some of that stuff more challenging, I want them to know that that doesn’t mean it has to affect their performance in these types of assessments.
So, how then, did I come to be marking for these types of tests and exams?
Well, back in 2014, I was given a Y11 Functional English class on my timetable. In Australia, things seem to be a lot more flexible in terms of what you teach compared to what you actually trained for and qualified for, compared to the UK. So, having moved from Sydney to Brisbane as a Geography specialist, I did my best to teach the content and skills I needed to, but as you can imagine, did not feel especially confident in it. So, I sought out opportunities to become a better English teacher for that year and one of those was me applying to be a NAPLAN Writing Test Marker. And because I’d had experience of external assessment and showed willing, I got accepted. And it really was super-helpful - both to my teaching for that class AND for my experience as an examiner and for my future study coaching.
I learnt about sentence structures and how different sentence lengths are used to create different types of effects or moods. And I learnt that if a student was to get a high mark, they had to show evidence of a range of sentence structures and use a variety of sentence lengths for effect. I learnt about how important it is to use a variety of punctuation and use it accurately. Not just to enhance the way a piece reads, but also to achieve the highest marking criteria.
I re-learnt all of the different literary devices for creative writing and all of the different persuasive techniques. I say re-learnt, because I recalled most of these from when I did all that back in high school myself as a teenager, but definitely needed the recap and reminders. And I learnt that incorporating a huge number of them in a piece of writing accurately was critical to getting a high mark. AND I realised that the same marking criteria were applied whether the student was in Y3 5 7 or 9. And that makes sense as the NAPLAN tests are there to monitor progress. It makes sense that there has to be the same criteria each time.
So here’s where this gets really interesting. If you’ve got a teen in a higher year group, stay tuned here, because a few years later, I also marked the Y12 Writing Tests for the QCS trials. Now, the last QCS tests were run in 2019 and are now replaced with the ATAR examination system, but I can tell you, having now also used the marking criteria for those as well, they are very similar. Because now, at this point in my career, I’d been doing some work with a school to help them improve their students’ QCS performance and they contracted me to mark all of their students Y12 trial exams.
So, I marked hundreds, maybe over a thousand of those papers too. This included yes, persuasive and creative genres, but also analytical essays, and feature articles. And the mark scheme was the SAME no matter which genre was being written.
AND the mark scheme was testing the same things as the NAPLAN Writing Test, just requiring the writing to be at a higher standard. And having spent more years since getting into all this, I can tell you it is the same for the GAT, for Module C in the HSC Advanced English exam and really, for all of these types of writing assessments I’ve seen nationally and internationally from the UK to New Zealand.
In fact, I even realised that when I had to do a writing test as part of getting my skilled migration visa to Australia, that was the same as well!
As part of the IELTS tests for that, one of the tests was to write a letter. My prompt was that I had to write to a council to make a complaint. I can’t remember if they told me what the complaint was, or I had to come up with it, but I remember writing about a noise complaint. And here’s what I was told before the test, in not quite these words, but that’s how I interpret it now when I think back: They don’t care what you write about, they just want you to be able to show the extent of your vocabulary, that you can use a range of sentence styles, that you can structure an argument or your points, that you have accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar. So I did exactly that. I chose to write about something that allowed me to do all of that at a high level AND, not that this is any sort of boast, because of course my first, in fact my only language, is English!... I got the highest score and full marks.
It would honestly be more of a talking point if I didn’t. But that does prove the point. Because I could’ve still been a fluent english speaker and writer, but if I hadn’t known what they were looking for, I could’ve easily missed showcasing certain things in my writing.
And this brings me back to my key point. These types of tasks are about your teen showcasing their skills and knowledge. They are a vehicle for them to do that.
So, whenever I’m giving a student feedback on a task like this, I always do it with reference to the NAPLAN writing test marking guide. Because it gives the 10 criteria and gives really clear explanations and examples of they mean. And the best news is that this is published online for everyone to see. In fact you can download the whole PDF. I’ll include the link with the show notes of this episode - just go to www.rocksolidstudy.com/40 to get the direct link.
So, with that said, I thought I’d share with you here those exact 10 criteria because in my experience, these are the same things that are tested even in the senior years, it’s just the quality and level of sophistication is higher. And I just really like how much more clearly the criteria are worded in the NAPLAN marking guide compared to some of the senior exams.
So, here they are:
Number one is audience. How well the language or style of writing is adapted to the intended audience.
Number two is text structure: Do they have all of the structural components for their genre? For example orientation, rising action, climax and resolution for a narrative, a hook and intro, body paragraphs and a conclusion with a call to action for a persuasive piece.
Three is ideas: Have they got three key points to back up their persuasive argument, do they have a clear message or storyline for their piece? Note though, this does not say complicated, it does not say totally unique. They just need these to be clear and effective.
Okay, number four is devices or techniques - so the use of literary techniques like similes and metaphors, emotive language or adjectives in the portrayal or development of a character, or, the use of specific and fitting persuasive techniques to enhance their argument.
Five is vocabulary: how sophisticated and accurate and appropriate is their vocab. And personal note here - accurate and appropriate is always better than sophisticated. I’ve seen too many wordy pieces that are trying too hard to sound ultra-intelligent and just end up not really making sense or just not being very clear. Clarity over fancy always, please.
Number six is cohesion. How well the points and ideas flow.
Number seven is paragraphing. And yes, there is a little bit of overlap here with number two - text structure. There will be some instances of a little overlap between some of these. Which is why it’s so important to nail them if your teen’s aiming for high results.
Eight is sentence structure. A range of correct sentence structures. Simple, compound, complex, etc. used to good effect.
Nine is punctuation. They need more than just commas and full stops.
And ten is spelling. Which includes spelling of simple and difficult words, so again, some overlap here with vocab in number five.
Notice that only the third criterion out of all ten is actually about the idea for their story or topic.
Which is why, when I see students agonising over what to write about, it makes me want to share this information as far and wide as possible.
Now little side-note here. The topic or idea they choose can impact the opportunities they give themselves for the other criteria - I talked a bit about this in episode 18 of the podcast, where I talked about choosing topics in creative and open tasks. But in writing tasks, there are no marks given for things like a great title. That was something I saw a student spending ages on deciding before they would even get started on their writing recently. Or what the character’s names are. Another thing I see students spending ages on deciding. Unless of course, the name has some clear meaning or link, in which case, that will count as a device or idea.
But, there are no marks for having the most original idea.
Because, the writing task, whatever it is, is the vehicle for your teen to display and show the skills they have in relation to that type of writing.
Can they use a variety of sentence structures and actually tailor them for effect? Like a short impactful sentence to close a persuasive speech.
Can they incorporate a wide range of devices - and as a guide - what I consider to be a wide range for students in Y9 upwards, I’d say at least 15. I know that sounds like a LOT. But, if they have 5 paragraphs - an intro, 3 body paragraphs and a conclusion - that’s only 3 per paragraph. And often two devices can be used in one sentence. For example a rhetorical question might also include some emotive language. So at least 15. Not all different, but probably at least 7 or 8 different techniques. At least.
So, whether or not you agree with NAPLAN, whether or not your teen is a lover of writing or English, I hope you can see the importance of knowing the criteria they’re being judged against in order for your teen to focus on the things that will get them most reward, and that this is the case across all year groups and assessments.
Like I said, if you’d like to support your teen with these types of assessments, I highly recommend you go and download the two NAPLAN writing test marking criteria - for the narrative and persuasive writing tests. They are exactly the same except for that third criteria - whether they are persuasive devices or literary techniques. Use them for your own insider info, or hand them over to your teen to use as a checklist. Go to the show notes in your podcast app, or go to www.rocksolidstudy.com/40 and grab it to refer to any time your teen is completing or prepping for any kind of writing test.
If your teen is sitting their NAPLAN tests this week, then I hope this is helpful. And a reminder that we have the Get Your Busy Teen Organised and Efficient - Parent and Student Webinar - coming up on 30th March. It’s free and invites will be sent out on the Facebook page and to those on my email list about a week before. So put that into your diary and get ready to save your seat!
I’ll see you back here next week, have a wonderful week, bye!