What's happening to writing in Science?

NAPLAN results have demonstrated a consistent decline in student writing performance in secondary school ACARA Reports: Moderate statistically significant decreases in Years 7 and 9 persuasive writing relative to 2011: there has been a moderate decrease in persuasive writing achievement relative to 2011 for Years 7 and 9 students. (ACARA Update extra, 2 December 2015)

Has there been a similar decline in written responses to the Statewide Year 8 Assessment?

SMART data analysis from the 2015 VALID Science assessment Extended Writing Tasks shows a clear trend over three years of fewer students demonstrating performance in the highest level.

Nevertheless, Science is a core subject and, as such, science teachers have a greater opportunity than other KLA teachers to develop the literacy skills of their students.

Literacy is subject-specific

Peter Freebody (2009) rails against the myth that literacy is a fixed, bounded set of skills related to code-breaking and that once the student can break the codes of English, the rest of the school years simply become a matter of reading and automatically understanding all the rest.Freebody claims that many mistakenly believe that specialised textual formations in Physics or Mathematics, History, English, Biology, literary criticism, and all the rest, are basically just talk written down, conceptually and linguistically transparent, commonsensical and the equivalent of a Year 3 storybook.

On the contrary, academic development is dependent on the specific ways in which content knowledge is developed through language both written and visual. Accessing those kinds of texts is the ongoing literacy challenge for schools.

Teachers can begin a process of pointing out to students the different ways in which different texts build knowledge; how language and visual information work together in different ways in different curriculum areas.

The Semantic Wave

Karl Maton (2011) claims that the academic/technical language of subject disciplines has semantic density built up by specialist noun groups (amongst other grammatical features). Maton acknowledges that subject-specialist teachers are experts in breaking down the technical language of their subjects to a less semantically dense, less powerful commonsense language for students. However, students require opportunities to rebuild the semantically dense texts that are characteristic of the subject disciplines if they are to master subject-specific literacy.

Could inexperience in building semantically dense written texts be a cause of the disappointing inability for students to demonstrate their high-order understanding of concepts being assessed in the VALID Science assessment?

Critical Literacy

Today’s science students need to do more than accept information at face value, they need to be able to understand, use and critically analyse texts validity and underpinning points of view. In many ways the NSW HSC challenges students' understanding of the use of models in science and the contestability of science knowledge. Critical literacy skills will empower students provide appropriate responses to HSC questions.

Knapp (2014) asserts that teaching writing is teaching students how to think, to order and synthesise their thoughts, and gives them the skills to demonstrate what they know. Furthermore, schools that use a systematic and explicit approach to teaching writing ... give their students an unassailable advantage.

Analysis of VALID 2015 Science Assessment

This chart of student performance in the Year 8 VALID Science assessment shows compares the performance of three groups over three years. The three groups: a middle class inner west school; Similar schools group performance (based on the socioeconomic ICSEA) and State All students which includes all students (government and non-government) that sat the test shows two significant trends over three years:

  • The tail is diminishing. There are fewer students in the lower two performance bands (Levels 1 and 2)

  • There are fewer student performing at the highest level (Level 6)

VALID Science Written Response Analysis

The VALID Science test assessed three written tasks:

  1. Animal footprints

  2. Get out Jack! Time’s up.

  3. Perry’s party trick

Each of the three tasks has clear links to the syllabus. They have been developed as instruments of assessment to illicit best responses from students.

Each task is marked holistically using a SOLO assessment framework.

Yet the item analysis chart below shows that the majority of students do not respond well to these questions.

Scores of 1,2 and 3 in these marking schemes indicate a common sense response. Scores of 4,5 and 6 indicate the student has responded using knowledge gleaned from what they have been taught from the science syllabus over the past two years.

Appendix 1 Tasks

These written three tasks were used to assess student knowledge and understanding of aspects of the Science syllabus. These images were accessed from the School Measurement, Assessment & Reporting Toolkit (SMART).

Generalised SOLO marking Schema

Scoring for each extended response task is done holistically, with all information provided by the student being considered in an assessment of the extent to which the student demonstrates knowledge and understanding of a major concept. In this way, scoring provides a way to capture information about how well the concept is known, as well as finding out how much is known about the concept being tested.

Here is a simplified summary of the meaning of each score/code.


Freebody, Peter. "Literacy across the Curriculum." #1 (n.d.): n. pag. National Literacy and Numeracy Week 2009. National Literacy and Numeracy Week 2009, 2009. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. http://www.nlnw.nsw.edu.au/videos09/lo_Freebody_Literacy/documents/Freebody_literacy.pdf

Knapp, Peter quoted in - Ferrari, Justine. "Writing’s on the Wall: Kids failing Basic Literacy." The Australian. News Limited, 29 Nov. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.


Maton, K. (2011) Mastering semantic waves: A key to cumulative knowledge and social justice,Australian Systemic Functional Linguistics Association Annual Conference, University of New England, Armidale, Sept. http://www.legitimationcodetheory.com/pdf/2011_09ASFLAkeynote.pdf

"ACARA Update Extra, 2 December 20152." ACARA Update Extra, 2 December 2015. ACARA, 2 Dec. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.


"Overview of Marking Rubrics." ESSA Curriculum Links 2013. NSW Department of Education and Communities, Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.


School Measurement, Assessment & Reporting Toolkit ELearning. NSW Department of Education, Feb. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.


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