Writing instruction and Data Walls: Focusing on ALL students at The Grove

In the third of my series of blog posts about writing, and working on helping all students to become better writers, I want to move away from individual writing development to a wider view of writing by talking about the benefits of a writing data wall.

Over the last few years I’ve become a huge fan of data walls.  When I first heard about using them I was sceptical.  What difference could it make to “put faces on the data?”.  However, I was very lucky when a few schools (who knew better than I) went ahead and made data walls – and I immediately started to see the benefits.

A data wall can be focused on any group within a school or on the whole school student body.   Many of the schools I work with are using whole school data walls.  Some of the many advantages I have seen are:

  • Data walls provide a quick visual reference for all students and for each student’s growth and achievement which is very helpful in supporting discussions around planning and intervention;
  • Data walls help shift the focus from an individual student’s progress within a year or a classroom, to progress over time and across classrooms. This then shifts the focus to all staff working together over time to create progress for all students over the long term;
  • Data walls can help educators articulate what they do and why it is the most effective strategy for a student;
  • Data walls help a school to determine if a strategy they are using is helping the majority of the students to progress to the next level;
  • Data walls provide support for discussions around progress over the long term – both individually and for the student body as a whole;
  • Data walls help everyone to move towards a whole school approach, recognising that high amounts of repetition enable all children to further develop their literacy skills.

Most importantly, my experience is that data walls also help us all to move away from “yeah, but” discussions!  When interviewed most teachers say that they have high expectations for their students, but as Fullan, Hill & Crevola (2006) report “in initial discussions with school staff, this notion (all students can achieve high standards given sufficient time and support) is rarely rejected, but it was frequently qualified by all sorts of “Yes but….” excuses as to why such a notion was generally true but didn’t apply to some or even all their students”.

As data walls help us move as a school community to a model where all teachers are responsible for all students, the “yeah but” discussions become less and less frequent – and instead move to “but how could we…..”.

And so, it turns out that “putting faces on the data” actually has a huge effect!

(For more information, there is a great handout on data walls from the Victorian Department of Education and an internet search will reveal a large number of other links and resources.)

Through my consultancy work I am lucky enough to work with a number of schools on implementing literacy best practice for all students.  These schools are often special schools or mainstream schools with a number of students with complex communication needs who often need significant support in both language and literacy development.

The Grove Education Centre is a school in Adelaide that I work with regularly.  They have a fabulous group of students and staff and are one of my favourite schools to work with.  Three years ago, the Grove entered on a process of annual writing moderation and, as a follow up to this, establishing their writing data wall.

Writing Moderation and Data Wall 2016

In term 3 of 2016 each teacher submitted one or two writing samples for each student in their classroom for whole school moderation.  We had already had a couple of years of working on writing instruction (and learning) as part of implementing comprehensive literacy instruction throughout the school.  In 2014 and 2015 the writing assessment was done by each teacher for their own classroom, but a decision was made by the principal, Ms Niki Takos, to move to moderation for writing in 2016.

The tool used for the writing moderation was the Developmental Writing Scale (Sturm et al, 2012). We picked this tool because it is a comprehensive scale that goes from emergent writing to conventional writing and includes information about using alternative pencils. It was a great advantage to us to be able to track the whole school with one tool and to have a tool that recognised not all of the students in the school were best assessed on handwriting – and this was the only writing scale that we know of that recognised this.  Before the moderation commenced, we reviewed the scale and looked at examples at each level.

All teachers attended moderation, as well as the school Executive and some School Support Officers.  Each sample was displayed, and the group agreed on a level for each sample.  If there was some dispute, the student was given the lower level under discussion.

After moderation was completed, the samples were then fixed on a wall in the meeting room.  The students’ samples each had a post-it note with the level of their sample on it and the samples were arranged in columns from 1 – 14 to represent each level of the Developmental Writing Scale.  As you can see, there are a large number of samples under 1 and 3, a smaller number from 4 to 8, and very few samples at the high end of the scale.  Level 1 is, in fact, so large that is has to wrap around the corner.

The data wall then promoted a lot of discussion about how to move students further along the Developmental Writing Scale. Looking at the data, some of the samples were from February even though moderation was conducted in August.  Some samples looked as if students had done copying rather than authentic writing, even though we had had numerous discussions about the lack of progress achieved through copying (and tracing).  These discussions led to changes in practice around the frequency of writing – it happened more – and around improving the quality of writing practice.  It also led to further discussions around using alternative pencils versus handwriting.  For those students who had samples with both, generally their samples with an alternative pencil were at a higher level than their handwriting samples.

Writing Moderation and Data Wall 2017

In term 3 of 2017 we repeated the writing moderation.  This time, each teacher was asked to submit an alternative pencil sample for every student, and a handwriting sample was optional.  In the lead up to the third term moderation we also had discussions about how to improve the quality and consistency of the samples and the current Acting Principal, Ms Nikola Haskell, asked for more specific instructions around this collection.  The following sheet is the result.

Writing Sample Collection (right click to download)

The 2017 Writing Moderation resulted in the 2017 Writing Data wall, as shown below

Apart from looking more organised than the 2016 wall, you can already see the samples have spread out a little, with a smaller group of samples at level 1.

The 2017 data wall led to even further discussion about handwriting and alternative pencils. It became clear that not only did some students do a “little better” with an alternative pencil in the assessment, but that for many students we are able to see their progress more clearly over time with an alternative pencil.  For some students the use of an alternative pencil allows them to demonstrate skills clearly that we are unable to see with handwriting because of their motor control – even to the point of helping inform us whether we use emergent or conventional writing intervention.

For example, the student below when using handwriting uses a mixture of letter and letter like shapes, some of them grouped into clusters.  This would be rated a 4 on the Developmental Writing Scale and would encourage us to believe the student is emergent.  After writing this, the student was unable to tell us what this meant. This might be because it was a motor pattern taking over or because she has learned that she doesn’t need to attribute meaning to handwriting – or because the handwriting used so much of her cognitive energy that she was unable to do the language planning.  It doesn’t really matter – but it clearly shows that we don’t get as much of a picture of what she knows with handwriting.

In the sample below, the same student shows us she is able to write whole words with an alternative pencil – she even writes a partial sentence.

The student told us that this said “I am throwing a ball” – and this second sample with an alternative pencil shows that she is clearly an early conventional writer rather than an emergent writer.  It would also be rated a 6 on the Developmental Writing Scale.  She was also able to clearly tell us what the sample meant when using an alternative pencil.

As a result of these discussions, some students now do all of their writing with alternative pencils.  Using an alternative pencil, they are writing more during their writing times each day, which means they are getting more practice and their writing is improving more.  A definite positive cycle!

Writing Moderation and Data Wall 2018

Last week we repeated the moderation for the third year, resulting in the 2018 writing data wall.

One of our excitements this year, is that the majority of students at level 1 are in the group who started school this year.  It is also very exciting for everyone to see the number of students who are moving further up the scale!

This year’s moderation and data wall promoted new discussions (of course). Firstly, concern about the students whose writing hasn’t progressed very much – these are all students whose writing continues to be very formulaic.  These are students who write about the same topic again and again.  Their writing was rated quite highly in 2016, but we have come to see clearly that they actually have a splinter skill of writing about one topic and if we move their writing away from that topic they write at a much earlier level.  This led to a discussion that for future years we would use three samples on different topics during the moderation.

This year all of the teachers were able to quickly and easily provide samples for each student – with a plethora to choose from.  Each student’s writing book was full of fabulous samples – although some teachers did choose to collect the samples for assessment separately to be very aware of any scaffolding or supports available.  This led to another discussion – which was that for all writing samples from now on, there will be standard record keeping in every classroom, every day to provide us with the oppprtunity to think and record the level of scaffolding and supports each day.  We have two drafts at the moment which are going to be trialled and evaluated.  These are below.  One is more of a “tick and flick” and the other is more open ended.  I’m looking forward to seeing which give us better information and which one everyone finds easier to use!

As I said at the beginning, I’ve become a really big fan of data walls over the last few years.  I really hope this post gives you a feeling of the power of data walls and how they might work in your school – as part of a comprehensive literacy program and high expectations.

I also really look forward to seeing what happens with writing at the Grove in the future!  And a huge thank-you to them for letting me share part of their journey in this blog post.


Fullan, M., Hill, P., & Crévola, C. (2006).Breakthrough. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sturm, J., Cali, K., Nelson, N.W., & Staskowski, M. (2012). The Developmental Writing Scale: A new progress monitoring tool for beginning writers. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(4), 297 – 318.





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Comments (6)

  1. Leanne Shane


    Great blog post. Awesome students doing great work and we can see developing and improving skills and areas to further develop. This motivates, provides focus and clarity for educators. Great stuff everyone!

    • jane


      Thanks Emily! Data walls are awesome – and it is so kind of the Grove to let me share 🙂

  2. Katherine


    Hi Jane, I’m interested in using an adaptation of the above checklists within my classroom, would that be okay?

  3. Pingback: Using the Developmental Writing Scale. #AGOSCI2019 | Jane Farrall Consulting

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