Improving student writing skills and ensuring consistent grading at a school is not something that should be limited to mainstream language teachers within the same grade level; it is a process that involves commitment from an entire school – something which I came to learn while Language Coordinator at the Netherlands Inter-community School (NIS). Part of my responsibility was to unite the way language was being approached between the Dutch and the English streams from the Early Years through the Primary Years; however, this ended up being extended into the Modern Foreign Language (MFL) department as well.
Before I could work on improving student writing in either stream, I first had to investigate the Dutch National Curriculum, the Cambridge Curriculum, and the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) – what were the commonalities and the differences? I also needed to observe classes and understand how the writing process was being approached across the two streams and in each grade level. What I came to realize early on was that the Dutch teaching methods focused heavily on conventions, while the English methods focused more on the expression of ideas, which would play to our advantage when bringing the two streams together for collaboration.
With the investigation complete, it was time to work with the Dutch Stream Coordinator, the English Stream Coordinator, the EAL Coordinator and the Early Years Coordinator to develop a plan of action, and we decided on the following:
1. Both streams would use the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing when evaluating student writing.
2. We would use moderated writing - a process in which the staff would come together at certain points during the year to share, work through and agree on expected levels of student achievement and progress.
The 6 + 1 Traits of Writing were introduced to the staff at the beginning of the school year so that both streams could begin using common terminology and rubrics. Moderated writing sessions were held on a quarterly basis, and we collected one formative and one summative assessment per semester – one semester focused on fiction writing, the other non-fiction. During these sessions, staff were required to work in teams and look at both Dutch and English writing samples, and not only discuss how they would evaluate the writing using the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing, but also come up with student writing goals in each IPC milepost for the next quarter. Staff not only examined work in their own grade level, but had the chance to see the continuum of writing throughout the school to gain a better understanding of where we were at as a whole. At the first moderated writing session, staff were initially surprised at being asked to look at student writing in another language, but were quickly amazed at how easy it was to assess certain areas. Both streams drew the same conclusion that I initially had – the Dutch focused on conventions while the English stream placed more emphasis on the expression of ideas. When a Dutch student’s sample was put next to an English stream student’s sample of the same grade level, it was obvious – a Dutch student’s sample would be shorter but technically superior and contain less spelling errors, while the English sample would be longer and more creative but contain increased errors with regards to punctuation, capitalization and spelling. The discussion and sharing of ideas to improve student writing started flowing, and once goals were set for the next quarter, teachers across streams and grade levels began to collaborate on teaching strategies and methods – exchanging best practices in their areas of strength. It is worth mentioning that although some of the samples in the Early Years only contained drawings – some with letters, some without, it was still helpful to have included them because it was important to see where students started in the learning process and where they ended up in Primary 6. It was also beneficial to include all levels of samples to see if we as a staff could evaluate student writing in a consistent manner across all the grades.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, the MFL team also became a part of this process. The 6+1 Traits of Writing were introduced to the team, and became incorporated in how we evaluated student writing. Because we had an increased understanding of the differences that existed between the Dutch and the English stream, and the writing goals set out by each of the mileposts, we were better able to guide and improve our students’ writing in a foreign language. We also collected our own quarterly writing samples to see if we as a team were able to consistently evaluate writing and to set our own MFL goals.
By working as a united staff, we were not only able to ensure consistent grading, but could also help students improve their writing in both their native tongue and in foreign languages!