Wednesday 28 June 2017

The Principal’s written report card: in plain language

Principal of Newmarket School Wendy Kofoed identified the need to review her school’s practice on reporting to parents, leading to positive communication between whānau and teachers.

Written reporting in plain language helps parents and whānau to be well informed, to make sense of their child’s progress and achievement, and means they are better able to support learning at home. Providing a twice-yearly written report of information in easy to understand plain language – free from education language or jargon – is a very important aspect of student learning support. It clarifies student achievement (what students know), their progress (what improvements students have made), what they still need to learn, and any future help they need.
Reporting in plain language can be challenging for teachers as they use complex education language routinely. In addition, as students progress through school, the learning with which they engage becomes more complex, as does the terminology. Technical education language, whether in charts, tables, bullet points, or narrative, is often difficult for those outside education to understand. What is common-place language for teachers – for example text levels; decoding; encoding; inference; partitioning; stages; part-whole – can all be very confusing for parents.
Wendy Kofoed, principal at Newmarket School in Auckland, has a keen interest in how teachers report to parents, and how parents understand the information. She says Newmarket teachers moderate written reports before they are issued to parents to ensure that the language used is not overly complex. Wendy says that this has been a useful strategy for several years, and has led to teachers developing a common understanding of written reporting at Newmarket School.
However the moderators were teachers. Wendy realised that a better test of plain language written reporting might be parents themselves. Wendy developed examples of plain language report comments or bullet points and decided to put these to the ‘plain language parent test’.
The panel of ‘experts’ assembled by Wendy included parents, support staff, and a board member. Each person was given a copy of plain language comments in reading, writing, maths, and a mid-year and end-of-year report. For the first ten minutes, the ‘experts’ highlighted aspects of the reports that they considered overly complex, too wordy, or jargon-heavy. Wendy was surprised at the amount highlighted, as she had tried to keep these examples free of jargon.
The best feedback came when the group started talking. The feedback was particularly useful for Wendy to gain others’ viewpoints. It emerged that her use of language was aimed at highly literate parents, and her narrative was too long and dense to be helpful in supporting her family/whānau knowledge. Comments from the discussion included:
  • “Use everyday language – especially for families of students who are English language learners.”
  • “Keep the information in the written reports positive, encouraging, and honest – always give next steps to help the child’s learning.”
  • “It is good to put parents at ease through the language used in the written reports – if their child is struggling, they will want to know what help is needed. Also, be honest with parents and write about any problems.”
  • “Although it might be stated that the child is below expectation in the written report – I like how the teacher has gone on to mention the positive gains made with home support and the teacher’s work, as this is encouraging.”
The discussion also highlighted that parents wanted to understand achievement gains across the curriculum. Parents wanted teachers to be clear about how their child was progressing and details as to any learning support the teacher had employed. Parents wanted to be clear on these things so they could have meaningful discussions on gaps in their child’s learning and strategies to fill these.
The group were particularly mindful of how teachers report the achievement of students who are achieving below expectations, and the importance for these students of seeing that they are making progress, so motivation is sustained and confidence increases. The group valued the work of teachers and appreciated the way information about students was provided in a positive and sensitive manner. For example, it became clear that using terms such as ‘well below’ in written reports wasn’t appropriate. Parents/whānau of students who are ‘well below’ would already be aware of this as a result of regular liaison with the school.
“The panel of ‘experts’ enjoyed giving me feedback on the written reporting comments I developed”, says Wendy. “They sent me back to put in a little more effort!”
Wendy’s ‘work in progress’ written reporting plain language comment examples can be found on the newly updated Assessment Online website:
The challenges for teachers on reporting in plain language were also described in the National Standards: School Sample Monitoring and Evaluation Project 2010-2012: