Why students can’t write

From trivium to triviality: Students can’t write because they don’t learn grammar or logic, an instructor argues.

Also, all students need a liberal education, even those training for careers, writes a community college president on Community College Spotlight.

About Joanne


  1. Camplin nails it on the head. All students can engage in is messy abstract thought that usually centers on themselves…kind of a stream-of-consciousness vomit.

    The number one way to reform education? Take away all forms of digital expression before the age of 16. I gave my 7th grade science students a 2 page writing assignment that had to be handwritten. I think some of the students were close to crying when I assigned it. Got two complaints that it would be too painful to write with their hands for 2 pages.

  2. SuperSub, my son has neurological issues that result in problems with his handwriting. You take away his Neo and his grades and love of school will plummet. Care to try again?

  3. What Mike said.  Some people are susceptible to writer’s cramp.  Long handwritten pieces are agony, and equating academic ability with muscular endurance in the hand is not merely idiotic, it probably violates equal-protection laws.

  4. If a neurologist diagnoses a neuro-muscular disability, then OK. But most kids that resist using their hands to write are simply unaccustomed to it. It’s a skill like walking or bike riding; it gets easier with practice. You have to do quite a lot of it for it to become fluid. And while keyboard writing fills the bill a lot of the time, there are still situations where it’s not feasible or not permitted (SAT tests for one). I think most children should develop their ability to write cursive to the fullest extent that they can.

  5. Supersub is correct. And two pages is not very long.

    We’re not even talking about super long papers. How about a paragraph without a cramp. My middle schooler could hardly write one since his school had permitted him to do all writing assignments with the computer since the 4th grade. He literally forgot how to form the letters.

    At this point state exam extended response answers and the SAT/ACT essays are all handwritten, yet a good many students can barely write, stemming almost entirely from a lack of practice.

    The physical act of handwriting should be as automatic as math facts. It actually takes practice to become fluent in anything. Like math, skills,( if they are taught at all), need to be practiced in isolation a good deal of the time. Many parents are finding that they are not taught at all, or they’re treated as some kind of supplement to the main writer’s workshop curriculum.

  6. I agree with Susan. Schools are jettisoning handwriting instruction and practice. It seems to be held that this generation will type, rather than write. This belief ignores the handwritten essay exams this generation faces. An average middle schooler should be able to take notes by had. He should be able to complete an essay exam by hand. If he can’t, his school has limited his educational tool chest.

  7. Print and cursive are two of many things I’ve had to teach at home since my kids’ “world-class” Montgomery county, MD public schools can’t be bothered.

    Regarding times when we have to write by hand – there have been some recent articles about college professors banning computers from their lectures, thus requiring hand-written notes.

  8. My son’s school teaches both, and he still can’t do it effectively, not because of the school, but because of his Tourette Syndrome. Two pages is torture. His IQ is absurdly high, but without a word processor he would be flunking out. With it, he’s acing everything. I get the argument, but your absolute statements are simply foolish.

  9. I can answer this question! The reason why students (or most Americans) can’t write well in general is because they don’t read. When you read a lot, you just write better naturally and everything flows better; proper sentence structure and proper grammar etc. I took English 100 at a local community college here in Orange County, Ca and once we had to exchange papers with other students. Most of the students had ATROCIOUS writing, it’s like they were illiterate. I don’t even know how they passed high school, and these were white folks born and raised here, not ESL students. The sad part is that a lot of Europeans have better grammar than some U.S folks

  10. Mike,

    Nobody is talking about kids with disabilities. I have a special ed son that needed an Alpha Smart for years due to a serious LD problem with writing (among other things.). He still needs to be able to do what he could, but in no way is anyone talking about kids with special needs. The vast majority of kids do not fall into that category anymore than they fall into a borderline IQ one. Your situation is completely separate.

  11. Literally everyone is aware that accommodations for actual disabilities are not only possible but required. Absent a diagnosed disability preventing it, everyone should learn to write well enough to take notes, write in-class essays, essay and short-answer tests, lab notes and standardized tests. I remember writing both master’s and doctoral comprehensive exams; two 3-hour exams on day one for all, with one 3-hour exam on the second day for master’s students and two for doctoral students.

    I am continually amazed that the same people who understand that regular practice is both necessary and desirable in athletics and the arts do not understand that it is equally necessary and desirable in academics.

  12. To get back to the point the article is making…

    Grammar is often intimidating to teachers as well, which is why many don’t teach it. They didn’t learn it well, and they get along perfectly fine without it (ehem, so they believe), so why teach it? These same teachers often send professional emails that make me cringe. Teachers may need a good crash course in grammar themselves.

    I remember being completely speechless that a new teacher at our school (a few years ago) was concerned about the new state standards coming out because they were heavy on grammar. While the rest of the “seasoned” English teachers rejoiced that we weren’t required to teach grammar under the table any more, this teacher declared that she had no idea how to teach commas, and if they made her she would just quit and go elsewhere because grammar was so old-fashioned and unnecessary.

    She is no longer at our school. Not because she was forced to teach grammar, but because our department embraced it so wholeheartedly – even some still very new teachers.

  13. I’m fond of good grammar and I’m constantly dashing off emails to The Mercury News and the New York Times when they make mistakes.

    But how do you teach good grammar?

    When I taught my son to ride a bike, I didn’t sit him down to give him a lesson on physics.

    I don’t believe that Joanne Jacobs, a flawless writer, received great grammar instruction. I think she writes so well primarily because she’s a read-a-holic.

  14. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Joanne’s certainly not flawless. I don’t think any of us are.

    But I agree: reading is probably the most weighty factor that goes into writing well.

  15. Michael, I counted both you and Joanne as flawless until this last comment of yours.

    Since Joanne is flawless, your comment is incorrect which makes you flawed.

    But now I’ve proven that I am flawed for previously miscategorizing you.

    Since my track record for appraisal falls short, my initial statement regarding Joanne should be called into question, which is something you just did, so maybe you’re not flawed after all.

    Wait a minute. I think I better sit down.

  16. Here’s an area where the American cult of technology will forever obstruct a sensible educational practice. Devoting time to penmanship will be derided by self-righteous “modern” educators as wasting time on an obsolete skill.

  17. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Sometimes it’s nice to stop by to read comments and just get a smile for my trouble. 🙂

  18. Teaching grammar is not rocket science, and since most kids aren’t “voracious” readers we really shouldn’t wait for them to pick it up through some kind of osmosis. There will always be the “naturals,” just like in math. That doesn’t mean you don’t teach it to the rest.


    I’ve already heard that argument from some teachers. That’s when I knew I’d have to do it at home.

  19. Grammar is not rocket science, true, but how to teach it so there is a practical transfer to speaking and writing skills is not so simple.

    I’ve been struggling to teach grammar for 36 years and I’m still open to any suggestions on how to do it right.

  20. Well, for starters you teach it to grade schoolers–8 parts of speech, parts of a sentence. Grammar that matches the little sentences they write. See homeschooler material since it probably doesn’t exist in any modern textbook.

    Hopefully, the grade school has handed the job of review only to the middle school teachers so that they can get into clauses and verbals and push beyond the grade school level, again matching the kinds of sentences they want to see middle schoolers write. But without clarity on the baby stuff, it’s hard to jump to a more sophisticated level. Much like math. It’s really hard to do algebra when you can’t do arithmetic.

    Then, hopefully by high school all you have to do is review all that came before. But that isn’t happening. You high school teachers are starting from ground zero with most kids. Even if they were exposed, and most were exposed on some level, there was often no follow-up or expectation of mastery.

    What you finally get in high school are a lot of kids who’ve been journaling and typing papers with spellcheck. And journals are rarely graded for proper grammar, spelling, or anything.

    So, for sure, high school teachers are in a jam if there was no formal teaching of any consequence before that time. It’s a foundational skill that is better taught in stages along the way. My son’s honors English class dropped several bright kids due to their grammar deficits alone. It’s a shame and it didn’t have to happen.

  21. Good writing starts with exposure to high-quality writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and takes many years of structured and corrected practice. Starting in kindergarten and continuing for years thereafter, teachers should read aloud to their classes, so that acquisition of new knowledge is not limited by kids’ reading ability. As reading fluency advances, materials (both in-class and assigned out-of-class) should be chosen for excellent content, language and style.

    Writing should begin with copying and advance to dictation before free composition is expected and all materials should be corrected and graded for grammar and spelling. PLEASE eliminate journaling; if kids want to do that, they can do it on their own, but schools shouldn’t waste time on uncorrected writing about me, me,me. Kids need to learn the difference between “I think” and “I feel”; expository writing and logic should be taught. Writing should be accompanied by explicit instruction in grammar and spelling and expectations regarding both amount and complexity should increase annually. If that is done, maybe freshman English teachers wouldn’t be faced with kids( in affluent suburbs!) who are unable to identify the subject of a sentence containing only one noun or pronoun. A relative of mine sees that all too often.

  22. Stacy in NJ says:

    The persistent idea that if only people avidly read quality literature then they would be capable writters is BS. I do and I am not. My oldest son reads constantly and writes atrociously. My husband reads only non-fiction that relates to his work or current affairs and writes beautifully.

    Most children need structured writing instruction with grammar, spelling, and with a focus on sentence structure.

  23. Stacy,

    My best fiction writers are avid fiction readers. I think there is causation here.

  24. Stacy –
    First off, there are always exceptions to any generalization. Does that mean that the generalization is worthless or shouldn’t be acted upon? Plenty of people smoke for 40+ years and then die due to non-smoking related reasons with a healthy respiratory system. Should we stop anti-smoking campaigns because of these lucky few?

    Secondly, with regards to your ability to write, did you read and analyze various literature in your schooling? If so, then you can thank that instruction for making you better despite not being an enthusiastic reader now.

    Thirdly with regards to your son, there are various reasons why his love of reading might not be helping him. He might not have the required non-reading instruction to help him to take advantage of his love of reading. Not all literature is created equal, and it might not be as high quality as the literature you and your husband read in your youths.

    The point is that there are numerous logical reasons why your situation does not refute the argument that exposure to high quality writing is necessary for a student to learn to write.