New South Wales, Australia
The Australian Curriculum: English (AC:E) (ACARA, 2015) was established in 2012 with an update in 2015. The AC:E includes three strands of language, literacy, and literature organised according to grade, from foundation (kindergarten) through year 10. Within each of the strands, there are sub-strands with content descriptions which are identified as W (writing), R (reading), T (talking), or L (listening). In the language strand, the five sub-strands are language variation and change, language for interaction, text structure and organisation, expressing and developing ideas, and phonics and word knowledge. In the literacy strand, the four sub-strands are texts in context, interacting with others, interpreting, analysing, and evaluating, and creating texts. In the literature strand, the four sub-strands are literature and context, responding to literature, examining literature, and creating literature. Content descriptions for writing occur across all three strands of the AC:E.
The NSW English Syllabus (NSW Board of Studies, 2012) includes content descriptions from the AC:E but also additional content descriptions. It is organised around strands based on modes which are connected to specific outcomes and objectives. The strands in the NSW English Syllabus are speaking and listening 1; writing and representing 1; handwriting and using digital tools; reading and viewing 1; spelling; speaking and listening 2; writing and representing 2 (kindergarten to year 4)/responding and composing (years 5 and 6); reading and viewing 2; grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary; thinking imaginatively and creatively (kindergarten–year 2)/thinking imaginatively, creatively, and interpretively (years 3 to 6); expressing themselves; and reflecting on learning. Each strand is further categorised into the threads of ‘develop and apply contextual knowledge’, ‘understand and apply knowledge of language forms and features’, and ‘respond to and compose texts’. The recontextualisation of the AC:E content descriptions into different strands and threads shifts the connection from the broad strands of language, literacy, and literature to more specific isolated modes even though it could be argued that many of the AC:E content descriptions are relevant to more than one mode.
In addition, the NSW English Syllabus presents content in stages not according to year level. Early stage 1 is interpreted as foundation/kindergarten, and stage 1 is associated with years 1 and 2, with years 3 and 4 aligned to stage 2 and years 5 and 6 aligned with stage 3. While stages are associated with years, it is anticipated that students in a class could be working at or towards a number of different stages and differentiation of instruction would be expected to meet the learning needs of all students.
In the NSW English Syllabus from kindergarten (early stage 1) to year 6 (stage 3), we identified a total of 226 content descriptions related to writing in the seven strands of writing and representing 1; spelling; writing and representing 2/responding and composing; grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary; thinking imaginatively and creatively/thinking imaginatively, creatively, and interpretively; and expressing themselves.
Across the seven strands, skills-based approach had the largest number of content descriptions accounting for 38% (n = 87) of the total, genre approach accounted for 29% (n = 66), creativity approach for 13% (n = 30), with critical approach associated with 11% (n = 25), and process approach with 8% (n = 18) (Table 2).
Skills-based content descriptions, including skills in context, were focused in the spelling strand (98% of total for strand) and the grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary strand (56% of total for strand). Genre-based content descriptions were also highly represented in the grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary strand (32% of total for strand), with no process-based approach present in this strand. The writing and representing 2, responding and composing, thinking imaginatively and creatively + interpretively, and expressing themselves strands had minimal or no skills-based content descriptions. Examples of skills-based standards include the following:
Early Stage 1 (ES1) Writing and representing: identify and use words around the classroom and in books during writing.
ES1 Spelling: know how to use onset and rime to spell words (also AC:E).
Stage 2 Spelling: use a variety of spelling strategies to spell high-frequency words correctly when composing imaginative and other texts.
Stage 2 Grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary: identify and use grammatical features, e.g. pronouns, conjunctions, and connectives, to accurately link ideas and information.
Content descriptions reflecting a creativity approach were present predominantly in the thinking imaginatively and creatively + interpretively strand (69% of total for strand) and writing and representing 1 strand (10% of total for strand). Examples of standards reflecting the creativity approach include the following:
Stage 1 Thinking imaginatively and creatively: recreate texts imaginatively using drawing, writing, performance, and digital forms of communication (also AC:E).
Stage 1 Writing and representing 1: experiment with publishing using different modes and media to enhance planned presentations.
The process approach was the least represented across all strands, with the majority clustered in the writing and representing 1 strand (16 of the 18 content descriptions). For example:
Genre-related content descriptions were present in six of the seven strands with the largest representation in writing and representing 2/responding and composing (65% of total for strand), as well as being the highest for writing and representing 1 strand (35% of total for strand) and second for grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary strand (32% of total for strand). Genre descriptions include the following:
ES1 Writing and representing 2: compose texts for known audience, e.g. self, class, other classes, and parents.
Stage 1 Writing and representing 1: compose a range of written forms of communication, including emails, greeting cards, and letters.
Stage 2 Grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary: compose a range of effective imaginative, informative, and persuasive texts using language appropriate to purpose and audience.
Stage 3 Responding and composing: compose more complex texts using a variety of forms appropriate to purpose and audience.
Content descriptions reflecting a critical approach, while not large in number, were present primarily in the three strands of expressing themselves (57% of total for strand), writing and representing 2/responding and composing (30% of total for strand), and writing and representing 1 (10% of total for strand). For example:
ES1 Expressing themselves: compose simple written and visual texts that include aspects of home, personal, and local community life.
Stage 3 Expressing themselves: compose a variety of texts, e.g. poetry, that reflect their understanding of the world around them.
Stage 2 Writing and representing 2: make constructive statements that agree/disagree with an issue argument.
Stage 3 Responding and composing: identify and use a variety of strategies to present information and opinions across a range of texts.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were established in the USA to address the demand for high levels of literacy knowledge required in the world outside of school (Common Core State Initiatives, 2018/2021). In order to best prepare students for life, the CCSS provides an outline of literacy skills and content in six language arts areas: reading: literature, reading: informational text, reading: foundation skills, writing, speaking and listening, and language. The CCSS academic standards outline learning goals for each grade level including grades kindergarten through grade 12. According to the CCSS website (2018/2021), most states and territories have voluntarily chosen to adopt these standards and participate in this national effort (41 states and most territories). The standards include literacy in a variety of forms and seek to support learners to become better prepared for life beyond high school. The CCSS website notes that students are required to:
read stories and literature, as well as more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students will be challenged and asked questions that push them to refer back to what they have read. This stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life.
Although many states in the USA have adopted the national standards, the Commonwealth of Virginia has not ad`opted them. Virginia’s curriculum standards, the Virginia English SOL, are comparable to the CCSS and set learning goals for students in grades kindergarten through grade 12 covering four key strands: communication and multimodal literacy, reading, writing (including writing/grammar), and research (VDOE, 2018). They also align with the goals of the Commonwealth of Virginia College and Career Readiness Initiative (2011) by defining ‘the content and level of achievement students must reach to be academically prepared for success in entry-level, credit-bearing English courses in college or career training’ (p.1).
In 2016, the Virginia Legislature considered the adoption of the national standards. However, the Virginia Board of Education unanimously voiced opposition to the CCSS indicating they would be a step backward from the Virginia SOL that had been in place in the Commonwealth since 1995 (Virginia Board of Education, 2013). In his veto, Governor Terry McAuliffe opposed both the adoption of the CCSS as well as usurping the Virginia Board of Education’s authority by adding unnecessary legislation noting that:
The Commonwealth led the nation nearly two decades ago in the development of state-wide educational standards. Virginia’s education system is one of the best in the world because of this innovative work. Currently, our state standards meet or exceed the rigor of the Common Core State Standards, while maintaining our independence.
(Virginia’s Legislative Information System, 2016, p.1)
The current study focused its analysis on the writing content descriptions in the curriculum progression charts standards and full Virginia English SOL which was adopted in 2017, with training during 2018–2019, and fully enacted in 2019–2020 academic year. In addition to the standards, teachers utilise a curriculum framework that further outlines instruction related to each standard, a crosswalk between the previous and newly adopted standards, and progression charts that show the literacy standards taught at each grade level across the entire curriculum (Nogueras, 2018).
The initial analysis of the curriculum strands in the progression charts showed that the skills-based approach and process approach were utilised most frequently in grades K through six. There was a notable absence of writing-related content descriptions in the reading strand, which was unanticipated because of the expectation that teachers provide integrated instruction across all areas of literacy instruction.
Data analysed across the four strands and one sub-strand (writing grammar) of the Virginia English SOL showed that the skills-based approach had the largest number of content descriptions accounting for 57% (n = 110) of all writing content descriptions, followed by the process approach with 21% (n = 40). Both the critical and creative approaches were associated with 9% (n = 17) of the content descriptions. The genre approach accounted for only 3% (n = 6) (Table 3).
Skills-based content descriptions were focused in both the writing (41% of total for strand) and the writing (grammar) strands (91% of total for strand). Process-based content descriptions were concentrated in both the writing (25% of total for strand) and research strands (41% of total for strand). The creative and critical approaches’ content descriptions were both centred in the writing strand representing 14% and 13%, respectively, of the content descriptions. Genre-based content descriptions were found only in the writing strand.
Analysis of the Virginia English SOL indicates variability between the content descriptions in the full standards document and those listed in the progression charts. The progression charts provide an overview of the total curriculum but do not include the complete range of descriptions present in the Virginia English SOL. The full document includes standards related to letter formation in print and cursive handwriting, expectations for accurate spelling of words, phonics, vocabulary, and some grammar elements that are not included in the progression charts.
Unlike the progression chart analysis, the analysis of the full Virginia English SOL indicates that writing is definitely represented within the reading strand. Content descriptions in this area included standards related to phonics and vocabulary instruction, such as:
2.4 The student will use phonetic strategies when reading and spelling.
a) Use knowledge of consonants, consonant blends, and consonant digraphs to decode and spell words.
b) Use knowledge of short, long, and r-controlled vowel patterns to decode and spell words.
4.4 The student will expand vocabulary when reading.
e) Develop and use general and specialised vocabulary through speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
6.4 The student will read and determine the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases within authentic texts.
f) Extend general and cross-curricular vocabulary through speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
The analysis of the content descriptions in the communication and multimodal literacies strand also presented a challenge because the creation of multimodal presentations is placed under oral language development, when they actually also encompass writing tasks. For example, in second grade the standard states,
As the document clearly expects the presentation to address oral language development, the creative approach is not evident in the communication and multimodal literacies strand (Table 3). One might argue, however, that the standard be moved to another strand to capture the skill development in the area of writing accomplished during the development of multimodal presentations.
The same situation was evident when considering the skills approach in the communication and multimodal literacies strand where the progression chart content descriptions did not specify that the ‘use of specific vocabulary to communicate ideas’ and ‘organize ideas sequentially or around major points of information using appropriate facts and relevant details’ would only apply to oral language instruction. Therefore, the skills approach was also not represented even though written skills are taught related to multimodal presentations. There is only one writing content description in the communication and multimodal literacy strand, which relates to a critical approach:
The writing strand and sub-strand and research strand clearly reflect the use of a process approach to writing instruction with 21% of content descriptions falling in this category. The Virginia Department of Education (2017) notes in the introduction to the Virginia English SOL that students become increasingly aware of the writing process across the grade levels. Teachers are expected to provide daily writing experiences, so students have frequent opportunities to apply knowledge of the process approach, represented by content descriptions such as:
K.11 The student will write in a variety of forms to include narrative and descriptive.
1.6 The student will write in a variety of forms to include narrative, descriptive, and opinion.
3.8 The student will write in a variety of forms to include narrative, descriptive, opinion, and expository.
Comparison of the international standards
After examining both the New South Wales Syllabus and the Virginia SOL documents, similarities and differences across the two countries were noted. Both countries had an extensive focus on the skills of writing which included an emphasis on grammar and teaching the mechanics of composing a written text. Skills were represented 87 times (38% of total items) in the NSW English syllabus and 110 times (58% of total items) in the Virginia English SOL. We noted that the curricular categories often separated writing from the other language modes rather than integrating writing. In the US, there tended to be more emphasis on the process of writing (21% of total) whereas in Australia the other main approach was writing in different genres (29%). Both countries focused least on creativity (Virginia, 9%; NSW, 13%) and critical approaches (Virginia, 9%; NSW, 7%) with few opportunities for learners to write on topics of their own interest or use writing to improve or make an impact on the community.