Sunday, August 23, 2015


For those parents who aren't aware, in Western Australia, students are now required to achieve Band 8 on the Year 9 Naplan to satisfy the literacy and numeracy requirements for graduation.  If they don't achieve Band 8 they have six opportunities to sit the OLNA (Online Literacy and Numeracy Assessment) during Years 10 and 11. On the basis of Naplan and OLNA results, students are placed in one of three categories: Category 1 requiring specific learning interventions to assist them to meet the standard in the future; Category 2 expected to meet the minimum standard before the end of Year 12, and; Category 3 who have demonstrated the minimum standard and recommended to enrol in ATAR or General courses.
As a parent I have gone to the My School website and checked out the Year 9 Naplan results of high schools I considered for my daughter.  All one has to do is go to the Naplan results for a school and look at the percentages that pass each band.  For graduation purposes students need to achieve Band 8 or above.  This means that for all those students who achieved Bands 5, 6 and 7, they will be offered the OLNA test in Years 10 and 11.  Of the 5 or 6 schools that I looked at, I would say that approximately half of the students in Year 9 don't achieve Band 8.  Of course, there is considerable variation, but considering that in the latest international data approximately 52% of Year 9 Australian students don't achieve 'functional literacy' standards, then the Naplan results resemble this finding.
I am working with students in High School.  I have had the opportunity to read information available on government websites about the OLNA test and have worked with a practice test.  On the basis of what I have seen here are my recommendations for parents of students with reading difficulties who wish to best support their child so that they pass if and when the time comes.
Ensure your child has evidence based reading instruction.  The Reading Component of the OLNA requires that students read and interpret paragraphs of information and local signs/tables eg. hazard signs that might be found in workplaces, bus and train timetables, road directory maps.  Students must read ACCURATELY if they are to glean information from the written material provided.  If students have been taught using whole language or balanced literacy methods and have a tendency to guess words, they will not read accurately and will not understand what they are reading which will reduce their chances of answering the questions accurately.  The test is timed.  Most of the students I work with read slower than most.  But for my money it is far better to read accurately and get the questions that are answered correct, than for a student to read using their usual practices of guessing and omitting many words at a faster pace.  The latter may finish the test but get most of the questions wrong, whilst the former may not finish but get more correct.
Incorporated within the first point students need to be able to decode unknown words, particularly those of more than one syllable.  Evidence based instruction should include polysyllabic word attack skills.  Even if the student hasn't seen the word before, if they are able to decode it accurately and subvocalize the syllables, the student will increase their chances of recognising the word even if they aren't 100% sure of its meaning.  And if they are accurately reading unfamiliar polysyllabic words, they also have a better chance of gleaning meaning of the word from the context of the sentence.  Instead, if a student only focuses on the first few letters, and slots in the first word their brain offers, and if they have become so habituated to this approach that they are used to sentences not making sense then their chances of gleaning accurate meaning are severely compromised.
The reading test is timed.  Students need to be very practiced in reading.  Even though fluent reading may be difficult and they may not like reading, students must be reading every day in the years leading up to these tests, i.e. in all their Primary and Secondary School years.  And if you want to prepare your child for the Writing element of the OLNA, they should be reading narrative and informative texts on social issues.  The writing element requires a 600 word typed piece.  Examples of topics included in the OLNA Writing Guide include 'Don't judge a book by its cover.', 'Television has negative effects on the viewer.', 'Who would you invite to address the graduating students of their final assembly?'  Students need to be exposed to written pieces and conversations about social issues through their formative years so that they think about the social issues underpinning these types of questions.  Students can only write what they can say, they can only say what they think.  They need to be reading and talking to expand on their thinking so that they can bring this to their writing in these types of tests.  Teachers obviously cover these issues in schools but what students produce can only be the result of the attention and effort that goes in.  What is done in the home can make a big difference.
The aim of literacy and numeracy in education is something called functional literacy i.e. the ability to read written material and be able to write correspondence necessary for day to day functioning.  Signs, in hospitals, around hazards, in buildings, on trucks, around gas lines, road signs, warning signs, all those signs we need to be able to read so that we don't put ourselves or others at risk.  Timetables, road maps, movie schedules, sources of information for transport, directions and events we may need for everyday functioning.  Students need to be able to read and interpret these.  Get children involved in reading and understanding these types of documents when you are out and about, they are used in assessments.
Writing.  The writing element of the OLNA is also timed.  Students must be able to follow a simple essay structure and write about social issues.  Any parent of a student struggling with literacy who wishes their child to achieve the literacy requirement for graduation must seek additional tuition in essay writing. 
Whilst it is in High School that students' performance on Naplan and perhaps OLNA has consequences it is in Primary School that the skills so necessary to engaging with these tests are taught.  And if your child is in a Whole Language School or Balanced Literacy school then they are not receiving the type of instruction we know from evidence and science is so necessary to many children if they are to read.  Accurate reading through knowledge and skill with the alphabet code, awareness of social issues, interaction with everyday sources of information, and internalisation of essay structure are skill areas parents can influence and support.  Unlike those current students who are the first to encounter this shift in policy the rest of us have more time to put in place the work needed to avoid the stress of an unknown outcome to 12 years of schooling.

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