The third R

Schools stress reading and ‘rithmetic, but many students don’t learn to write, says this USA Today columnist. Even worse, they don’t learn to revise their writing.

As high school seniors race to meet December college-application deadlines, most face the oft-required “personal statement” with understandable dread. Only a quarter of America’s 12th-graders, the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress found, can write tolerable essays. Only about 2% create the kind of zesty prose that makes reading worthwhile.

No Child Left Behind “has held schools to strict reading and arithmetic standards. But the law is strangely quiet about the third “R” of the trio.”

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  1. You know… I love to write. I always have. Most agree that I do it well.

    Yet as a child in school I always hated most of my writing assignments.

    I don’t disagree that kids do need to learn to write. But I’ve always been mystified at how it is that you teach it to kids. To be blunt, I don’t feel my teachers ever taught me much at all about how to write well. Indeed, many of the standard rules of English that they teach in schools strike me as simply wrong–badly outdated and in need of updating with the help of linguists (who, I think, understand the language better than most people with degrees in English).

    Everything I know about writing, I learned from reading. Reading bad writers, reading good writers, and analyzing what I liked and disliked in other writers’ styles.

    But mostly, I got it from reading. Everything else after that was simply writing. I paid no attention to the rules the teachers taught me, and still don’t.

    What’s that mean? I have no conclusion. I just find myself wondering whether, other than encouraging kids to read, and read well, what exactly do you do to teach kids to write well?

  2. I agree with Dean that a big part of learning to write well is to be exposed to good writing – that is, to read widely and deeply (and to read “for fun” as well as “for grades”).

    I guess I was a weird kid – I generally liked writing assignments in school, especially ‘creative writing’ (but also enjoyed doing research papers – I suppose that’s partly why I became a scientist). I disliked revising, but that was in the days before cut-and-paste on computers (I remember in some of my grade-school writing assignments, I LITERALLY cut and pasted – or rather, cut and taped – to revise them before writing out the final copy).

    My suspicion that writing isn’t emphasized as much is because it’s grading-intensive (she says after spending the week grading 20-some student research papers). Also, I think many teachers have become so indoctrinated to the “don’t crush their creativity” school of thought that they don’t like to grade writing – because to some, correcting grammar or organizational problems with papers, or telling a student the topic they’ve chosen just isn’t very interesting, looks like squashing the kid’s creativity.

    I know I wrote my share of crap papers when I was in highschool – either the subject didn’t grab me, or I felt pressed for time. I knew the papers were cruddy. Fortunately, I had a teacher who wasn’t afraid of calling me on that, of saying “I know you can do better” or “This paper really doesn’t show much deep thought about the theme.”

  3. Tim from Texas says:

    Whenever the subject of writing comes up I feel compelled to mention the dictation and reproduction. These two teaching/learning tools are used extensively in other countries to teach all the aspects of writing including grammar with great success. Again I mention that certainly there are naturals and one could say they may not need such tools, but most students are not naturals.

    The manner in which writing is taught in our schools has not been successful and instills terrible writing habits. Why other writng curriculums are not considered is baffling.

  4. Mike in Texas says:

    Here in Texas, where NCLB was born, students are tested in writing in 3 different grades. It has led to the creation of an industry that pushes their writing programs to school. It has also created a generation of kids who can’t write anything unless it follows the script these programs push. In colleges across Texas they derisively refer to these kids as “TAAS writers”. TAAS was the old version of the state mandated tests.

    As with so many other things the federal govt should stay out of them

  5. Writing is an acquired skill that comes from experience and practice. Good writing can be taught, but there are so many types of writing–persuasive, fictional, poetic, informative, inspiring, demanding, etc.–that it’s probably pretty difficult to get a test that can see a student’s ability to write. Teaching good writing involves different goals: have students write a police report for a car accident the teacher describes, have them write a letter to a newspaper (or a blog comment section), devise a recipe, transcribe a speech, anything. I had a high school journalism teacher who had us finish sentences such as “He was so old, he _____.”

    As for a standardized tests for writing: I had one of those as an undergraduate. It was a writing proficiency exam to make sure I could write my way out of a paper bag by junior year. I took the test and decided to do a boring five-paragraph, dry-as-a-bone piece of dreck. I passed. I knew people who tried to impress the testmakers and received a remedial writing class for their efforts. I don’t know if that’s a warning against such tests, but I’d say it’s a warning against what they could become.

    (And yes, I do know that some of my fellows may have written like crap, and that some of those stories gain mythic status among the sad-sacks in remedial courses. But I did pass the exam with some of the most boring writing I ever made.)

  6. When it comes to writing, the best way to foster creativity is to teach the mechanics of writing, a.k.a. grammar and vocabulary. One a student is confident in his tools, he will be able to use them in new ways. Solid, mechanical writing has to become habitual before students can truly take off in expressing their own ideas. That way, students can think much more about what they’re saying instead of how they’re saying it.

  7. After law school I taught legal research and writing to undergraduates as an adjunct. I was dismayed at the utter lack of writing skills in the average undergraduate. No one can survive law school without much better writing skills than I saw in those “prelaw” students. With all the lawyer shows on TV, do any high school students have any idea at all of the level of writing skills they’ll have to achieve to join the real life Sam Waterstons and Elizabeth Rohms?

  8. Like others here pretty much everything I know about writing I learned from reading. And not just reading for school either. I’ve been seeing crapy writing in college students (from wet behind the ears freshman all the way up)for ten years now. I don’t think this is a problem we can blame on NCLB

  9. No, you can’t pin it on NCLB. Sorry. But you can pin it on the supreme unwillingness of many English educators to dirty themselves with the nuts and bolts of writing. This traps most students, into college and beyond, in the stage of figuring out HOW to express the idea. So long as they’re stuck there, trying to figure out the
    “how” because they were never taught and drilled on it, fluid, elegant writing is impossible for them. Even clear, consice writing is extremely difficult and effortful. It takes people at this skill level great amounts of time to turn out modest pieces of passable writing.

    What I’m saying is this: make the mechanics of writing something so practiced that they come without though, and free the writer’s mind to deal with the ideas he’s putting forth.

  10. Tim from Texas says:

    The mechanics of writing, and all aspects of writing, is exactly what the dictation and reproduction teaches. If the use of them is sequenced correctly, and if they are utilized k-10th then the students will write well enough to communicate and will have confidence to write.


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