Monday, December 6, 2010

Teaching: Why Can't Johnny Write?

I missed school Friday to attend a workshop on "differentiated instruction," basically the practice of teaching to each student’s strengths. It was a decent workshop, the third installment in a half-dozen strong series held over the course of the school year.
The best part of the workshops for me is getting the opportunity to talk to others in my field, something there is little time for during the school day. During lunch I chatted with a couple of elementary-school teachers and they remarked that the reading and writing they did with students 15 years ago would be over the heads of their students today.
The first time I noticed a decline in writing skills among the young was in the late 1990s, when I was working as a newspaper editor. I kept getting assigned kids right out of college, and none of them could write.  They’d make very basic mistakes, including confusing “their/there/they’re,” inserting commas seemingly at random, and writing “would’ve” as “would of.” I spent hours on deadline fixing these errors.
It’s a nationwide problem. In 2007, the National Center for Educational Progress (NCEP) said only one in five high-school students can be considered “proficient” in writing.  Twenty percent of 12th-graders are “not even basic writers,” according to the NCEP report.
So why is this happening and what are we going to do about it?


  1. How do we instill a love for writing in students who have no desire to write?
    I believe the love for writing begins at a very early age. My six year old grandson began writing every word he saw as soon as he turned five. Not only did Landon copy the words, he would ask what they were and has now learned to sound out the letters to know what the words spell. Landon's love of learning the art of writing and language will enable him to follow in the footsteps of his older sister who excells in high school.
    How do we encourage children to excell when they don't have the same desires? Maybe we don't, unless we find the button that triggers their desire to learn. Who has time to do that when the day is spent just trying to get students to be quiet long enough to hear the teacher?

  2. Patti and I discuss this frequently, her as the teacher and me as the struggling student that I was all through out school, so I'll give you my take.

    Firstly-- this is completely anecdotal, I understand that-- there are a lot of teachers I've had in the past that didn't correlate grammar and sentence structure to the actual act of speaking, very well. Writing and speaking felt like completely different areas of study in elementary school. It's my opinion that elementary school teachers and middle school teachers need to convey that better.

    Secondly, perhaps it's academia's death grip on antiquated classics and commonly assigning them as mandatory reading, e.g. Great Expectations, Red Badge of Courage, Pride and Prejudice, etc... It's not that these classics don't have their place but, I imagine, that they become increasingly difficult to read as the centuries begin to part today's audience from the book's intended audience, most of whom are long dead. No wonder writing appears tedious when you're reading Dickens or Melville, why bother? On top of that, the English language has grown informal. Most of these books don't read like anyone speaks. They're hard to relate to as kid harboring a bunch of chemical crazy inside. Perhaps more modern day classics will crack that nut, or at least get the ball rolling.

    Lastly, shit Rob... Maybe the English teachers/test makers, avid readers/writers and the grad students jockeying the Barnes and Noble cash registers are the only ones who care anymore. Clutching onto that eloquent, Victorian dream. It should start with the parents, right? But their job doesn't care whether they can write well. Just well enough to not write a completely embarrassing email.

    Combine all of that with an increasingly visual society, advances in technology and the rapid evolution of the English language. Good luck.