Writing classes should teach writing

Grading papers for a graduate literature course, Professor Stanley Fish “became alarmed at the “inability of my students to write a clear English sentence,” he blogs at the New York Times. Most were instructors in the college’s composition program.  He discovered that only four of 104 composition sections focused on the craft of writing. In the other 100, “students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.”

. . . I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research.

Fish cites What Will They Learn? by American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which criticizes general education requirements that let students earn math, science or foreign language credit for courses that don’t teach competency in the subject. As for writing, ACTA opposes giving credit for courses that require writing but don’t teach writing.

In order to qualify, a course must be devoted to “grammar, style, clarity, and argument.” The rationale behind these exclusions is compelling: mathematics, the natural sciences, foreign languages and composition are disciplines with a specific content and a repertoire of essential skills. Courses that center on another content and fail to provide concentrated training in those skills are really courses in another subject. You can tell when you are being taught a mathematical function or a scientific procedure or a foreign language or the uses of the subjunctive and when you are being taught something else.

The damage is done long before college, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

Writing instruction – especially in “writer’s workshops” concerned primarily with student engagement and developing a child’s “voice” – tends to be more concerned with teaching a child to have something to say, rather than developing the ability to say it clearly, cogently, or grammatically.

The first step in good writing is to figure out what you want to say. But it’s not the only step. I worry about the journal fad, which encourages students to practice writing to themselves but doesn’t teach them how to communicate with other people.

About Joanne


  1. Well if your instructors can’t write a clear English sentence themselves no wonder the course isn’t focused on teaching actual writing.

  2. I worry about the journal fad, which encourages students to practice writing to themselves but doesn’t teach them how to communicate with other people.

    I don’t worry about it, although I agree that they need to learn to write for an audience other than themselves. Writing in a journal accustoms them to the act of writing, which is an important part of the whole process. It’s not sufficient, but it is necessary.

  3. Mike, I disagree. Journal writing is not necessary; many generations learned to write well without it. Many people would even argue that the most recent generations of HS graduates write less well than the previous ones. Keeping diaries has been done for hundreds of years, but it was not part of the school curriculum. Back in the days of the dinosaurs, when I was in school, EVERY piece of written work was corrected for spelling and grammar. That started in first grade (no kindergarten) and continued through high school, in every subject, and the mechanics counted significantly in the final grade.

    My older kids started school in the 80s; about the time journals became fashionable. As I recall, the idea was part of the self-esteem movement. A study found that high-achieving students had high self-esteem; therefore, the ed establishment jumped to the conclusion that the latter caused the former. That the converse might be true didn’t occur to them, so it came into being that kids had to be told – constantly – that they and their work were wonderful. The focus became the self, not academics. Correcting grammar and spelling were out, since red pencil marks might damage kids’ self-esteem etc., ad nauseum. All of my kids HATED the navel-gazing and journal-writing, but there was no escape.

  4. Middle and grade school journal writing was a big part of my son’s problems. By middle school he had seared into his brain many misspellings and basic punctuation errors due to the fact that journals are supposed to be free expression and are never corrected. Add to that the fact that his essays and other writings weren’t consistently corrected either.

    The “voice” they develop is actually the way they talk in the hall or on the phone, not exactly what high school and college professors are looking for. Their opinions are excessively valued, making a decent analysis of anything very difficult.

    If I had known then what I know now, I would have told the school that he wouldn’t be doing any journaling. It would have saved me hours upon hours of after-school remediation.

  5. Ponderosa says:

    Kids today write and write and write, with little discernible progress. It seems like a waste of time. It seems to me that we should rather nourish kids’ minds with a meaty, content-rich curriculum so that one day they’ll have something substantial to say, and that we should be exposing them to some of the BEST literature and non-fiction so that they’ll have mental models of what truly good writing looks like. We expect mature writing out of them prematurely. Let us focus on the fundamentals through ninth or tenth grade, and then step up to more advanced composition.

  6. Those hearkening back to the “good old days” of writing instruction are ignoring a large part of the equation: the many, many students for whom that form of writing instruction didn’t work. It’s very easy to reflect back on our own education with rose-tinted glasses, forgetting that there were many people back then who did not receive a quality education and for whom that educational model also didn’t work.

    Now, do I think that today’s pedagogical paradigm is superior to the past? Not necessarily. I do think there is danger in growing too nostalgic for the ways of the past, though. Trying to dismiss today’s writing instruction as navel gazing and journal writing is a bit reductionist and could lead us to throwing out the baby with the bath water.

  7. I agree with Ponderosa. Writing should be based on the content of the curriculum, not kids’ own feelings, and the content needs serious upgrading. What often passes for “literature” in elementary and middle schools is pathetic and the amount and worth of non-fiction is likely to be almost non-existent.

    Back in the early 50s, my small-town school with non-college-graduate teachers until 5th grade, did better. We started by copying from the board, and progressed through dictation to independent writing. When that began, it was usually in the form of responding to written or oral questions with full-sentence answers. All of the above were corrected for grammar and spelling, of course. That continued through high school, in every subject (exceptions in math/science), and the mechanics counted significantly in grading. In junior high, we did significant writing and the college-prep high school English classes did a great deal, including 20+ page research papers in the last two years. We also did grammar every year, including sentence diagramming.

    I put more red pencil on my kids’ work than all of their teachers combined. At first, they didn’t like it, but they did improve. They also read more good fiction and non-fiction at home than at school, until high school.

  8. Margo/Mom says:

    I don’t see the dichotomies. When I taught GED classes, I challenged them to write on any topic of interest. Most were terrified of writing, of committing words to paper and waiting for the inevitable criticism. In those cases, I made clear that their opinions were their own–not really my business. But, I could help them hone their ability to make their statement, to clarify points and organize thoughts, and yes, to point out when sentences were not whole and punctuation misplaced. Personally, I find it easier to teach mechanics when students can get personally hooked on the content–but there are other valid methods. Sometimes writing on a totally insignificant or unfamiliar topic can be helpful in keeping the focus on the mechanics.

    Personally, I was never required to journal for any class. I did however, begin diary writing at an early age and kept up with multiple forms of personal writing over time. I cannot say that this was anything but helpful. More writing is certainly a part of developing one’s own voice and becoming comfortable with the flow of ideas within the appropriate grammatical structure.

  9. Addendum: Most of my kids’ teachers had never heard of Rosemary Sutcliff, who wrote excellent historical novels with young male protagonists; a hard category to find. I have found the same unawareness among librarians, even in libraries with some of her books. Most of the books are now out of print, so I recently ordered the ones I lacked. At least half of them were discarded library copies. I think it’s all too likely that their replacements are far inferior, in historical content, in language and in character development. BTW, many are set in Roman Britain, for those who might be interested in locating some of the books.

  10. Margo/Mom raises a useful distinction: choice of topic versus journaling. I hate journaling for all the reasons already identified, but I do try to allow my students choice of writing topic whenever I can, even if it is a menu of options within a theme (such as several related prompts each analyzing a work we are reading).

    I do agree, though, that teachers are not taught how to teach writing. I never was. I took a course on English grammar as an undergrad, but no where in my methods courses was I given clear instruction about how to teach kids to write…and no, correcting every grammatical error is not TEACHING a kid how to write. I end up using highly formulaic structures such as the Jane Schaffer (sp?) models to provide kids a sense of rhetorical foundation, upon which they can then add their creative flourishes if they are confident enough to do so.

    One of the problems is that many teachers of writing find it intuitive and natural. For most adolescents (my clientele), writing is FAR from intuitive and natural. They cannot simply feel their way to a good argument.

  11. Does anyone know what the curriculum of the old normal schools was like? They were the precursors of the teachers’ colleges and, judging by my old teachers, did a very good job of preparing high school graduates to teach. I do know that the course was one academic year. I am assuming that the Catholic teaching orders had something similar, since the typical elementary-school nun had not attended college. Maybe those kinds of preparation could provide useful guidance today.

  12. Apparently my understanding of “journaling” is different from others’ experience. I had in mind the physical act of writing on various topics, done in class. Margo/Mom’s comment is excellent.

  13. Journal writing, in my kids’ schools, meant that the kids were to write in their journals every day, on their choice of topic. There was no correction of content, grammar or style. Teachers gave a check mark for doing it, with sometimes a check plus if she really like what was written. Smart students played to the teacher’s interests. I remember one high school teacher who was very into the significance of dreams; her sophomore honors class created dreams out of whole cloth with great regularity and imagination. No one learned anything about literature or composition in that class, though.

  14. The most useful writing class I had was in 9th grade English (in the late 70’s). In addition to the usual material we covered, including a few longer papers, we were also required to write two one-page essays every week. We could write on whatever topic we chose; the essays were only graded on spelling and grammar (including clarity at the sentence level).

    Obviously, this is not a complete writing curriculum – there wasn’t a focus on making an argument nor on large scale organization of a writing project. But focusing on your argument and on the organization of your paper is *so much* easier when you don’t have to worry about grammar and other sentence-level elements because you can take care of that automatically.

    It’s kind of the difference between building a shed when you have a pile of lumber and nails ready to go, and building a shed when you have to first cut down trees and forge iron to make the lumber and nails, and only *then* can you work on building the shed.

  15. Fish’s article also brings up the bigger issue of “[t]he battle between those who actually work in the academy and those who would monitor academic work from the outside” which is way beyond the scope of this post. Is external intervention really necessary? One would expect the academy to have figured out on its own that classes billed as X should actually teach X. Why isn’t this the case? How did 100 out of 104 sections come to neglect writing in favor of discussion? (Is Fish observing a typical or an anomalous program?) If this is the state of “composition” classes, what are nominal classes on “mathematics, the natural sciences, [and] foreign language[s]” like?

  16. linda seebach says:

    My son (now in his late 30s) learned to write on usenet (when he was in his early teens). You know, how on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog? Well, nobody cuts you any slack because you’re a 13-year-old boy, either. If you don’t want to be mercilessly flamed, you quickly learn to self-edit for grammar, spelling, punctuation, logic and style. Maybe the red pencils online are entirely metaphorical, but they sting, and they are effective.

    When I entered college, I was one of three or four students who “tested out” of freshman comp, and because that had never happened there before, the school didn’t know exactly what to do with us. So they stuck us in the writing course for upper-division English majors. It was wonderful. We had a text by Brooks and Warren (looking at Amazon now, I think it must have been “Modern Rhetoric”) and every week in addition we read one or more essays on writing. And every week we wrote a 1,500 to 2,000 word essay supposed to illustrate a specific rhetorical purpose, which was meticulously and thoroughly graded. And two longer papers during the semester.

    I think what elementary and high school courses should do is prepare students to take and profit from a course like that (and the preparation will stand them in good stead whether they ever take such a course or not). Time purposefully spent on developing a “voice” is wasted; if they have one, and they write enough that writing becomes second nature, as natural as speaking, the voice will emerge. If at some point you as a teacher encounter students who are too terrified of writing to write about anything besides their own feelings, you have to meet them where they are, but the question remains; how did they get trapped in that place?

  17. By junior high, and throughout high school, it was common for the English or history teacher to put a question or quote on the board. We would need to identify the source and significance of the quote or answer the question. It might be a short in-class essay or a longer take-home one. It was necessary to justify your position with facts and grading reflected content, grammar and style.

  18. True.
    Writing is one of the most common outlet of people’s emotions. It is a fair option for self development. self development course often offer writing as a subject.

  19. Looks like a whole heap of comments just vanished (the count was 30-odd when I loaded the page, now it’s 17).  WTF?

    I found this statement astounding:

    my students’ independent reading rate puts them at about three to five minutes per page of a typical novel

    Wow.  Just… wow.  These students have problems which need to be addressed before they can even start thinking about composition.

  20. Fish has a lot of gall to complain about students’ and teachers’ inability to write. He was one of the many individuals in the Humanities who took this field into the insanity of the postmodern movement. I’m sure he remembers–grammar, spelling, etc. aren’t important. Now, he sees the consequences of his actions and he wants to complain.

  21. Teacher Coach says:

    A new comment on the post #10790 “Writing classes should teach writing” is waiting for your approval
    The best sentence in this opinion piece can be found at the end of the article:

    The first step in good writing is to figure out what you want to say.

    There are a number of ways to help students find what they want to say. Unfortunately, a very common method I am observing in my work with classroom teachers is where the teachers TELL students what to put in their essay. A much better way is where the teachers provide students the time and methods of developing their ideas on their own. One of the best ways I know of to do this is through freewriting—an arena where students are not concerned with the MECHANICS of writing (good sentences, proper punctuation, correct spelling, etc.) and instead, focus on the discovery of personal insights, understandings, connections, and knowledge. One of the best ways to keep track of these “ponderings” is through the use of journals, especially when they are used while students are in the process of reading the text..

    The skillful teacher requires students to find something about the topic to say, something that each student wants to share with a reader—the understandings and perceptions and connections they have come to make on the topic. It is at this point where writing instruction comes in. After studying the topic (in an English class, this would involve reading the novel, article, etc.), first the student organizes his thoughts, evidence, and ideas he has been recording into a logical order. Next, he writes his first draft to capture this arrangement and flow of ideas, including making a “stab” at an introduction (any crappy introduction will do; it’s just to get us started, right?) and a conclusion. Students then check to see that their paragraphs are organized (all on the same topic; paragraphs have a topic sentence, evidence, and the necessary explanations or elaboration, sentences are in the correct order, there are transitions when necessary) and that the paragraphs are in order. Students next go back and perfect their conclusion, and logically, the last step in this stage of writing is to go back and see what needs to be in the introduction (which the reader needs to know before s/he reads the writer’s thoughts on the subject). The thesis statement is actually an encapsulation of the main thrust of the paper. Contrary to a prevailing dictum, there are many places for a thesis in a good paper besides “the last sentence of the introduction.” I (and other National Writing Project fellows) believe that students be the ones who should help their peers revise their papers—not the teacher—because it is here that students have to articulate to each other what good writing is and what it isn’t. It is through these conversations where students come to a deeper understanding of what good writing is. Good writing is NOT following some form stamped onto the page where students plunk down information in the order dictated by the format. Good writing is not a dot-to-dot exercise.

    Another point: the author seemed to dislike is that students are discussing topics in class. There is a lot of research going on currently about the power of student talk and the importance of student discussion. By the by, when a teacher asks the class a question (even a thought-provoking question) and a student answers and then the teacher goes on to his or her next question and a student answers—what you see here is not a DISCUSSION, instead it is a Q&A. A good student-centered discussion is where the teacher turns the discussion over to students, such as we see in classrooms where students take turns leading discussions or participate in Socratic seminars. These discussions should not be random but should be focused on the topic, of course. In an English class, these discussions will center on the text being read. Talk promotes discovery. Talk requires the use of academic language (character, plot, event, thesis, etc.) .Academic classroom talk in English, including think-pair-shar,e is imperative with struggling students and students in schools of poverty because these students are “language learners,” even those who come from homes where English is the first language.

    Another comment covered in the blogs was that far too much focus is on literature and not on writing in courses. In a way, I agree, especially because the practice at many high schools is to require one essay each quarter, usually called a “benchmark.” First of all, four essays a year is not a sufficient number for students to learn the craft of writing. That is why I always ran a writing-intensive writer’s workshop in each class. I staggered these throughout the year by periods; they are killers in terms of time commitment on my part, but I believed they were imperative to a deeper understanding of writing. And, literature is the appropriate topic for writing in English classes. A well-written (and well-instructed) analytical literary analysis paper prepares students for any writing they will ever have to do. Confession: I also believe a well-instructed narrative essay can prepare students for all writing as well, but only if the teacher helps students see how narrative writing translates into expository modes.

    There is a generalized “lament” in today’s society about the lack writing skills in our students. I have to agree, but one of the largest problems seen in student writing today (according to many university professors) is that we are churning out students who “can’t think.” The primary cause of this: Teachers have done far too much TELLING of what students should learn and what students should write, such as in classes where students collect evidence as a whole class, with the teachers telling them exactly what to write in their prewriting charts or forms. Quite frankly, I can’t imagine reading a stack of papers containing the same evidence; in fact, shoot me first. When I read a stack of student papers, I want to be amazed by what students think, what their interpretations and connections are, and how they assemble them. I want to get inside their minds—not see how well they can vomit back what I have TOLD them.

    And by the way, what exactly is a “clear English sentence”?

  22. I never had any problem learning spelling and grammar, but I don’t recall being taught how to write during public school. Well, with the exception of my 10th grade history teacher who told us how to write an essay for the history Regents exam: start with a topic sentence, and follow with three short paragraphs illustrating three main points.

    I had never been taught that in any English class.

    I hated writing so much that I turned in a 2 page term paper for 10th grade English, and chose the multiple-choice section on the American Lit Regents instead of doing the essay.

    I was in my late-twenties before I had the good fortune to benefit from some real teaching.

  23. “Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.”

    But Wired’s all wrong. People wrote letters–lots of letters. They wrote letters to family, to friends, to the editor, business letters–most schools taught you how to write all sorts of letters. I can’t believe how little Clive Thompson knows about anything.

  24. Fish isn’t talking about middle schools. He’s writing about college comp. classes that have become indoctrination camps–multi-culti, white men are guilty of something, anything, everything, and so on.

  25. The problem is the growth of the idea that writing is an ‘art’ – in other words, the importance is in the intent of the creator and not in the correct communication of ideas to the viewer. Meaning is malleable and rules fall away so that artists can bear their souls (supposedly). Instead, writing is a skill, with set rules, methods, and procedures. It shares more in common with mathematics than with painting. Just as mathematics is taught through constantly assessed practice, so should writing be.

  26. Way up the strand an important point was raised: lit and comp are often taught together, which creates a strain on both tie and the kinds of writing that is done in connection with the literary study. This is a totally different issue, but I think traditional “English” or “Language Arts” classes should be divided into two discrete sections (two periods instead of one); a literary study section for examining society and human behavior, criticism, etc.; a composition model for grammar, usage and syntax as well as broader rhetorical development in a variety of modes and for a variety of purposes. It’s a cop out, but I simply do not have enough time as a high school English teacher to appropriately cover all the anchor works of literature in my curriculum as well as provide training, guidance, and practice in writing for my students. I did the math, if I actually taught all the works I am supposed to cover for my (mainstream) sophomores, they’d be reading about 100 pages a week. Doesn’t sound like much to us adults, but when I do reading fluency assessments and discover that my students’ independent reading rate puts them at about three to five minutes per page of a typical novel (varies of course depending on text size, etc), that’s a tremendous amount of time necessary just for reading the text. Then I also make them write, discuss, do vocabulary builders, and try to figure in some way to target multiple intelligences along the way… I do work hard to train my students at least the basic proposition-proof model, but every year I get feedback from them that they’ve never really be taught to write before…past teachers just gave them a prompt and then corrected it. And they admit to not paying attention the corrections. To teach writing is an intense endeavor…and should be given more time in public schools.

  27. “And by the way, what exactly is a “clear English sentence”?”

    One that is coherent, grammatically correct, and conveys the author’s intended meaning, at a minimum.

    I find it rather horrifying that most of my fellow prosecutors are great with a jury, but can neither write nor do the simplest of legal research to save their lives. I strongly suspect this is not a problem that started in law school. I was thinking the same things about my classmates’ papers that I was invariably asked to edit as an undergrad: that these are people who have never once been explained basic rules of grammar, let alone how to construct an effective written argument.

    As was said above, writing is a skill more than it is an art. Great writing can, of course, be an art, but one must learn the rules before one can ever consciously choose to break or bend them. Most people will never write a novel or a poem, but most people will be served by knowing how to write a sentence that makes some measure of sense to other people. A composition class that fails to grasp that is indeed a sham, because it is not even an attempt at being what it purports to be.

  28. Neither of these authors have the slightest bit of credentials to back up anything they say.

  29. Amritas,

    you said:
    –One would expect the academy to have figured out on its own that classes billed as X should actually teach X. Why isn’t this the case?

    What incentive does the school have to truth in advertising?

    The parents want to feel good about that tuition check they are writing. The students, mostly young and mostly without skill in writing, would prefer to not do any hard work if given a choice. The professors don’t want to teach X, they want to teach about Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Nietzchean Will to Power.

    So, mostly, the only people who might scream and holler are the current funders: the parents, the federal govt, or the alumni. The parents don’t know or don’t want to know that their money is wasted, and even if they find out, they believe that their child will have a better chance of marrying well if they stay in school. What else can they do? Take their kid out and do what instead?

    The alumni might care, but only if they see the value of their school falling, and then, the school only cared if they needed alumni. Until a few months ago, their endowments were big enough that they didn’t have to care about anyone.

    The federal govt has all the wrong incentives in place already.

    –How did 100 out of 104 sections come to neglect writing in favor of discussion? (Is Fish observing a typical or an anomalous program?)

    I’d say typical. Look at the list of courses in the UC system.

    If this is the state of “composition” classes, what are nominal classes on “mathematics, the natural sciences, [and] foreign language[s]” like?

    Math and science courses at MIT or UC Berkeley’s engineering department, are largely holding the line. But more and more students aren’t able to pass the courses. More and more emediation is needed because students don’t have the knowledge to keep up. So more and more colleges are offering math and science appreciation courses that fulfill their college’s requirements.

  30. Math and science courses at MIT or UC Berkeley’s engineering department, are largely holding the line. But more and more students aren’t able to pass the courses.

    This probably has something to do with the best students not getting ahead.


  1. […] R­ead­ m­o­r­e fr­o­m­ the o­r­i­gi­nal­ so­u­r­c­e: W­ritin­g cl­a­sse­s sh­o­u­l­d te­a­ch­… […]

  2. […] read this article last week and used it in an argument I found myself in over here. While I often, in conversation with teachers, bemoan the good old days and pretend that I think my […]