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Why Kids Can’t Write: Too Much Focus on Grammar Instruction, Poor Teacher Training
The following excerpt from the New York Times article, “Why Kids Can’t Write” by Dana Goldstein, discusses a big problem in writing instruction in the U.S.: children are graduating from high school without the writing skills they need to be successful. This article, which I’ve condensed and edited for clarity, explores a solution.
Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to successfully complete a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data. Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing—in 1874. But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing—argumentative, informational and narrative—the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum.
Writing Teachers Can’t Write Very Well
So far, however, six years after its rollout, the Core hasn’t led to much measurable improvement on the page. Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills. The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way. A separate 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers in grades three through eight across the country, found that fewer than half had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing, while fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. Unsurprisingly, given their lack of preparation, only 55 percent of respondents said they enjoyed teaching the subject.
Dr. Judith C. Hochman, founder of an organization called the Writing Revolution, has a strategy that teachers can use to help improve their students’ writing. Her approach is radically different: a return to the basics of sentence construction, from combining fragments to fixing punctuation errors to learning how to deploy the powerful conjunctive adverbs that are common in academic writing but uncommon in speech, words like therefore and nevertheless. While the Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, writing copious text messages and social media posts, when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.
Teaching the Teachers
To help teachers become more enthusiastic and comfortable teaching the subject of writing to their students, a summer-long workshop at Nassau Community College had teachers write and revise their own work. “I went to Catholic school and we did grammar workbooks and circled the subject and predicate,” said Kathleen Sokolowski, the Long Island program’s co-director and a third-grade teacher. She found it stultifying and believes she developed her writing skill in spite of such lessons, not because of them. When it comes to assessing student work, she said, “I had to teach myself to look beyond ‘There’s no capital, there’s no period’ to say, ‘By God, you wrote a gorgeous sentence.’” Mrs. Sokolowski is right that formal grammar instruction, like identifying parts of speech, doesn’t work well. In fact, research finds that students exposed to a glut of such instruction perform worse on writing assessments.
A Few Things That Do Work
Besides improving the writing skills of writing teachers, there are a few concrete strategies that help students perform better on writing tests. First, children need to learn how to transcribe both by hand and through typing on a computer. Quick communication on a smartphone almost requires writers to eschew rules of grammar and punctuation, exactly the opposite of what is wanted on the page. Before writing paragraphs—which is often now part of the kindergarten curriculum—children need to practice writing great sentences. At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing, and from seeing and trying to imitate what successful writing looks like. Some of the touchy-feel stuff matters, too. Students with higher confidence in their writing ability perform better.
- The word samba means “to rub navels together.”
- The glue on Israeli postage stamps is certified kosher.
- Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny) was allergic to carrots.
- The international telephone dialing code for Antarctica is 672.
- The little bags of netting for gas lanterns (called mantles) are radioactive—so much so that they will set off an alarm at a nuclear reactor.
- The primary source of the Earth’s oxygen is: plants, water, algae, carbon? (Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Word of the Month
de rigueur | duh-ree-GUR | adjective
1: proper; prescribed or required by fashion, etiquette, or custom
“In Keith’s mind, dressing in a suit and tie every day was de rigueur for people looking to advance their careers.”
Wacky & Wise Websites
Click here to see the seven fake words that made it into the dictionary.
Click here to read “The Lottery,” one of the most controversial short stories ever published in The New Yorker that became an instant classic.
American Express, Amgen, Cisco Systems, Department of the Navy, Fluor Corporation, General Electric, Motorola, The New York Public Library, Procter & Gamble, SEAL Team Six, State of Utah, Supreme Court of Virginia, United Way, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Food & Drug Administration
Writing Tips & More
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SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Choose the word combination that, when inserted in the sentence, best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole.
Because King Philip’s desire to make Spain the dominant power in sixteenth-century Europe ran counter to Queen Elizabeth’s insistence on autonomy for England, ____ was ____.
STATUE : SCULPTOR
- reconciliation . . . assured
- warfare . . . avoidable
- ruination . . . impossible
- conflict . . . inevitable
- diplomacy . . . simple
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Eavesdrop means to listen in on a conversation to which you are not a party. The word was originally eavesdrip, which is a noun referring to the water dripping off the eaves of a building or the ground on which such water would fall. From medieval times, laws were passed that set limits on how close one house could be to another, so the water falling from the eavesdrops would not damage a neighbor’s land. The word eavesdropper, meaning one who stands in the eavesdrop of a building and listens to conversations within, dates to 1487. The Nottingham Borough Records of that same year state that, “The court…was told…under oath that Henry Rowley…is a common eavesdropper and a prowler in the night.”
Answer: 4) conflict . . . inevitable.
Fun Facts Answer
Algae accounts for 50% of all oxygen production on Earth.