A whole-school approach to moderating student writing

Working with colleagues to moderate student work enables teachers to make consistent judgements of achievement and progress. In our latest reader submission, Learning Specialist Jeanette Breen shares how Templestowe Heights Primary School (THPS) in Victoria has improved its writing moderation process and five tips for a more successful experience.

Writing proficiency is a predictor for academic and professional success. Prioritising the instruction and assessment of student writing became an inquiry journey for THPS in response to our 2018 NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) results showing we were ‘below like schools’. A shift was needed to alter attitudes and beliefs held by teachers and students, as well as outcomes linked to teacher practice and efficacy.

Research has shown that, overall, students struggle to write quality texts and lack motivation to write outside classroom settings (Turkay, 2018). And within schools, there is a huge variation from classroom to classroom (Coker Jr et al, 2018).

When teachers at THPS were surveyed, they did not feel equipped with the necessary understanding to scaffold students in the developmental writing process. Having a strong and effective moderation process can improve student learning outcomes (Victorian Department of Education and Training, 2019). Before we embarked on our inquiry, moderating led to many inconsistencies in the measure of student progress at our school. Our question was – how could we ensure moderation was a valuable and relevant form of professional development?

An investment from leadership in professional support, time to build consistent practice and clearing the decks to focus on just one thing at a time has helped THPS to align instruction, assessment and student engagement in writing. We measured our positive shifts through a series of surveys and data sets to investigate change in attitude and behaviours of both teachers and students.

Another aspect that contributed to a successful inquiry was a measurement tool, built collaboratively through an Assessment PLC (Professional Learning Community) and aligning our agreed writing essential learnings with the Victorian Curriculum achievements. This framework, known as the THPS Writing Progression, was intended to pull together the gaps in the moderation process. However, just creating a progression does not assume that teachers will be able to use it with integrity. Therefore, a clear process for moderating has been trialled and revised over the last two years. Here are five tips from our experience.

1. Breaking down complex skills

‘The foundation of any assessment system is … the model of progression, which makes clear not just the starting point and end goal but the steps along the way.’ (Christodoulou, 2016)

Writing is a big idea; it transfers across curriculum areas and is traditionally measured through large scale external methods like NAPLAN. Creating our own writing progression has provided conditions for teachers to grow, learn and understand writing in bite-sized chunks that run along a continuum from Foundation to Year 6. We learnt that, for the moderation experience to be successful, we needed a narrow focus of what we wanted teachers to assess. In the current context after two terms of remote learning, we have honed in on all levels using the sentence as a building block.

[THPS writing progression indicators for Foundation level – using the sentence as a building block].

Moderating against teaching the foundational learning of sentence construction provides the groundwork to the (often missing) key to quality written expression (Lemov, 2015). Using a more specific scale has provided a great deal of information for teachers in addressing instructional needs using the synthesis of sentence structure as the building block to writing (Hochman & Wexley, 2017).

2. Integrating theory and practice

The integration of theory and practice is an important key to the instruction of writing (Timperley, 2008). Time and support in developing a culture of empowerment and moving teaching teams toward rigorous PLCs was a strategic part of our school’s success. Coaching, time for collaboration, peer observation and a focus on growth and building trust has created capacity and reduced variance from classroom to classroom.

3. Deciding how and what to moderate

Maintaining interest in professional development sessions means ensuring teachers find the content relevant. We begin our term whole-school-moderation sessions with one piece of student writing – de-identified and non-visible to teachers. It is read aloud: we find that teachers assign a very different rating on the progression when listening to the writing than they do once it is revealed. This highlights that assessing writing goes beyond the structures of conventions and demonstrates the bias that we all have when judging students, particularly if they have poor handwriting, spelling or punctuation.

We then break teachers up into strategic, cross-level teams, creating the conditions for rich discussion over two more student samples relevant to their level. Teams debate and agree on how they would compare these against the progression and are then asked to share the reasoning of their discussion group. This sets up the process that we expect to be occurring weekly within PLC team meetings. Moderating often provides opportunities for teachers to collaborate and become familiar with the standards that are informing learning and assessment.

4. Make shared understandings visible

[Student scaffolds are made visible to demonstrate criteria for levels of quality and create opportunities for peer and self-assessment. Image: Supplied]

Having some protocols around shared vocabulary and thinking that is understood by both teachers and students is an important part of our inquiry into improved practice. Moderating regularly has brought about some minimum expectations around what scaffolds will be visible to students and used by teachers in the focus on writing.

Defining, whole school, what a sentence, punctuation, grammar, voice, technical or tiered vocabulary is, ensures that we all provide feedback and offer scaffolds relevant to these terms. Offering students exemplars displayed as visual performance walls and linked to shared understandings assists teachers to communicate high expectations. This builds capacity for students to peer and self-assess, giving them the means to reflect on and improve their writing (Sharratt, 2019)

Work samples used in moderation directly reflect a student’s ability to re-read, edit and revise their sentences because this expectation has been part of instruction and made visible to students in lessons. This provides an interesting addition to the discussion between teachers and reflections within PLCs. What in the writing process, for any given level, can students explain verbally, revise independently and demonstrate as consistent behaviours? What feedback are we receiving on what we need to focus on next in instruction and learning?

5. The role of leadership

An investment from leadership into writing inquiry means that our Principal Rhys Coulson and members of the leadership team never miss a moderation PD, attend PLC meetings and are part of the peer observations that occur during classroom writing sessions. They model their support and enabling of teachers having ownership over assessment practice (Griffin, 2014). They are part of the rigorous discussions when judging samples and are continually monitoring the conditions for success they are creating.

Where to from here?

Our inquiry into writing assessment at THPS is not over. Bridging the gaps that still exist with moderation includes the challenge of two teachers evaluating a piece of writing in two different ways due to their own bias. Our next exploration is an assessment process known as comparative judgement (Wheadon et al, 2020). The idea being that accuracy is more likely when comparing more than one writing sample to create anchor points, than it is when we examine one isolated writing piece.

Writing instruction and assessment is a continually evolving space as THPS seeks to deepen it’s inquiry. In 2021 we hope to create a writing network bringing together schools to empower staff and give them the confidence and capacity needed to drive student learning and produce the quality writers we are all invested in.


Christodoulou, D. (2016). Making good progress? The future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford University Press.

Coker Jr, D. L., Jennings, A. S., Farley-Ripple, E., & MacArthur, C. A. (2018). When the type of practice matters: The relationship between typical writing instruction, student practice, and writing achievement in first grade. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 54, 235-246. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2018.06.013

Griffin, P. (2014). Assessment for teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Hochman, J. C., & Wexler, N. (2017). The Writing Revolution: A guide to advancing thinking through writing in all subjects and grades. Jossey-Bass.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion (Second Edition). Jossey-Bass.

Sharratt, L. (2019). Clarity: What matters most in learning, teaching, and leading. Corwin.

Timperley, H. (2008). Teacher Professional Learning and Development. Educational Practices Series-18. UNESCO International Bureau of Education.

Turkay, S. S. (2018). Itero: A Revision History Analytics Tool for Exploring Writing Behaviour and Reflection. CHI 2018 Late-Breaking Abstract, (p. 6).

Victorian Department of Education and Training. (2019). Professional Practice: Assessment Moderation, Professional Practice Note 15. https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/school/teachers/teachingresources/practice/professionalpracticenote15.pdf (423KB)

Wheadon, C., Barmby, P., Christodoulou, D., & Henderson, B. (2020). A comparative judgement approach to the large-scale assessment of primary writing in England. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 27(1), 46-64. https://doi.org/10.1080/0969594X.2019.1700212

At your school, how often do teachers come together to discuss and moderate student work? How do ensure consistency in your judgements?

Jeanette Breen says, at whole-school moderation sessions, student work is read aloud to begin with to ensure teachers make judgements about the content, rather than things such as handwriting neatness. Is this something you could introduce in your own school?