I came across the NY Times article, “Why Kids Can’t Write,” and I couldn’t help it. I had to click on it. Silly me, I got sucked into it, and wasted an afternoon and most of my patience on it.
The answer to that question doesn’t take a several-thousand-word article. Kids can’t write because NO ONE EVER TAUGHT THEM HOW. DUH. But according to Dana Goldstein (a woman, of course. Only a female could come up with such tripe and expect it to mean something. Sometimes women embarrass me), it’s much more complicated than that.
So complicated, she gets fisked. As usual, the original is in italics, and my commentary in bold.
On a bright July morning in a windowless conference room in a Manhattan bookstore, several dozen elementary school teachers were learning how to create worksheets that would help children learn to write.
I thought this was an article for a respectable (sort of) news organization, not a fluffy fanfic piece. Get on with it, already.
Judith C. Hochman, founder of an organization called the Writing Revolution, displayed examples of student work. A first grader had produced the following phrase: “Plants need water it need sun to” — that is, plants need water and sun, too. If the student didn’t learn how to correct pronoun disagreement and missing conjunctions, by high school he could be writing phrases like this one: “Well Machines are good but they take people jobs like if they don’t know how to use it they get fired.” That was a real submission on the essay section of the ACT.
I’d expect that sentence of a first grader. A seven-year-old is still learning Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and sometimes it’s difficult. But a high school student writing like that is beyond a failure, and the fact that said high school student could get into college with those writing skills (or lack thereof) is even more disturbing.
“It all starts with a sentence,” Dr. Hochman said.
Actually, it starts with reading. Children who have been read to by their parents have a much easier time writing, because they read good sentences and then imitate them. Duh.
Focusing on the fundamentals of grammar is one approach to teaching writing. But it’s by no means the dominant one. Many educators are concerned less with sentence-level mechanics than with helping students draw inspiration from their own lives and from literature.
And there’s your problem right there. You can’t express your “inspiration,” from your own life or from literature, if you can’t write a coherent sentence. You need those “sentence-level mechanics” if you’re going to write anything that makes sense. Why are we even talking about this? I thought that much would be obvious.
Thirty miles away at Nassau Community College, Meredith Wanzer, a high school teacher and instructor with the Long Island Writing Project, was running a weeklong workshop attended by six teenage girls. The goal was to prepare them to write winning college admissions essays — that delicate genre calling for a student to highlight her strengths (without sounding boastful) and tell a vivid personal story (without coming off as self-involved).
Okay. Someone teaching kids how to write something with a specific purpose. That’s good. The question is: how is she going to do it? Do tell.
Ms. Wanzer led the students in a freewrite, a popular English class strategy of writing without stopping or judging.
And there it is. The judging part. We can’t judge anyone’s writing ability. That would be mean.
You know, if I’m going to correct it and make it better, first I have to judge it. That’s the only way anyone learns anything. If I answer that 2+2=6, I won’t know it’s wrong unless someone judges it to be wrong and tells me about it.
First, she read aloud from “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott’s 1995 classic on how to write with voice. “You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind,” the memoirist writes. “Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”
Um. I know that those are English words, and I can see that they’re strung together in a vaguely subject-verb-object fashion, but I still have no idea what you just said. Try again.
Ms. Wanzer then asked the students to spend a few minutes writing anything they liked in response to the Lamott excerpt.
If it’s “in response to” something, it can’t be “anything you like.”
Lyse Armand, a rising senior at Westbury High School, leaned over her notebook. She was planning to apply to New York University, Columbia and Stony Brook University and already had an idea of the story she would tell in her Common Application essay. It would have something to do, she thought, with her family’s emigration from Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island. But she was struggling with how to get started and what exactly she wanted to say.
Stop trying to make it so dramatic. It’s an article, not a fluff-and-stuff nonsense feel-good piece. Oh wait. It’s the New York Times. My bad.
This is when the child in question should raise her hand and say, “Excuse me, I’m having trouble starting, can you please help me?” But I have a feeling that that isn’t about to happen.
“What voice in my head?” she wrote in her response to the Lamott essay. “I don’t have one.”
Yeah, because you have never practiced using it. Writing is a skill that needs to be refined. You don’t just pick up a pen and write a Pulitzer piece.
Lyse needed a sense of “ownership” over her writing, Ms. Wanzer said.
I wrote it. It’s mine.
There’s your ownership. That doesn’t help me actually write anything properly, you idiot.
Lyse had solid sentence-level skills.
Then why are you using her as an example? I thought this was about why students can’t write?
But even when Ms. Wanzer encounters juniors and seniors whose essays are filled with incomplete sentences — not an uncommon occurrence — she limits the time she spends covering dull topics like subject-verb agreement.
“Incomplete sentences” don’t need a review on “subject-verb agreement.” They are two different things. Very important things that you obviously aren’t teaching. And they pay you for this?
“You hope that by exposing them to great writing, they’ll start to hear what’s going on.”
That’s why you read books to children. But that isn’t the only way they acquire writing skills. You have to actually demonstrate how sentences work, and make them practice it. By the time they get to high school, if they can’t write a coherent sentence, you need a lot more than a good example to fix their lack of skill.
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 complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.
And your happy-slappy-fluffy crap English classes are directly to blame. So why don’t you go fix it and stop perpetuating the happy-slappy-fluffy crap? It obviously isn’t working.
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.
The difference is that in 1874, the definition of bad writing actually meant something, unlike today. And also in 1874, if you failed the writing exam, you either acquired new skills quickly, or you failed out of Harvard, and nobody gave a crap about your self-esteem.
But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this.
HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! *snort* I’m sorry, you actually believe that?
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.
You can keep saying that, but actions speak louder than words. It didn’t work. Why don’t you admit it and try to fix it, instead of just wringing your proverbial hands?
It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.
A what? Are you trying to look intelligent, or just pretentious?
Both Common Core and No Child Left Behind were stupid, useless government programs, neither of which worked, so stop trying to make Common Core look better at the expense of No Child Left Behind. It doesn’t help your cause.
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.
Yep. And it’s even worse if you can play football, because then you aren’t even expected to take said remedial classes.
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.
Yeah, you can’t teach what you don’t know. But this is part of the problem. The so-called teachers were never taught, either. So again, it’s back to the problem with teaching. Or maybe the lack of teaching in favor of indoctrination.
A separate 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers in grades three through eight across the country, conducted by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University, 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.
Yep, this is more of the same. Proof that teachers weren’t taught, and therefore can’t teach. This isn’t new. The public school system has been a disaster since day one, thank you, Woodrow Wilson.
“Most teachers are great readers,” Dr. Troia said. “They’ve been successful in college, maybe even graduate school. But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much or feel comfortable with it.”
How in the world can anyone graduate college without learning to write? I went to college. I had to write multiple papers for each of my courses, not just English, and I took 18 credit hours per semester. That’s a lot of papers. And I wouldn’t have been able to graduate without being able to write. The senior thesis alone is something like half your semester grade. So what the hell is going on in most American universities that this could happen in the first place?
There is virulent debate about what approach is best.
I’m sure. And all of it is useless, no doubt.
So-called process writing, like the lesson Lyse experienced in Long Island, emphasizes activities like brainstorming, freewriting, journaling about one’s personal experiences and peer-to-peer revision.
None of which actually TEACHES WRITING TO IGNORANT KIDS, you IDIOT. Those are writing TOPICS, not writing SKILLS.
Adherents worry that focusing too much on grammar or citing sources will stifle the writerly voice and prevent children from falling in love with writing as an activity.
Oh, you did not just go there.
You can’t love it if you can’t properly execute it. Learn the concrete skills first, THEN go about loving it. I could write as a kid and all through college, but I didn’t love it until after I graduated college. I had the basic skills, then I had to learn how to use them. But I couldn’t have done that without those basics in the first place. My imagination might be first-rate, but without basic writing skills, I couldn’t ever show the contents of that imagination with anyone else. Depriving kids of the means to do that isn’t just bad for their future; it’s criminal. It’s like creating new Helen Kellers, making them stay trapped inside their own minds, with no means to express themselves, or making them objects of contempt and ridicule when they make an attempt. And you call yourself a teacher? God help us.
That ideology goes back to the 1930s, when progressive educators began to shift the writing curriculum away from penmanship and spelling and toward diary entries and personal letters as a psychologically liberating activity.
Yep, it all started with federal control over the school system, and the Department of Education. Thank you again, Wilson.
Just because people have been doing it wrong for a long time doesn’t make the strategy any less wrong.
Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, this movement took on the language of civil rights, with teachers striving to empower nonwhite and poor children by encouraging them to narrate their own lived experiences.
That’s great. BUT ONLY IF THEY CAN WRITE A COHERENT SENTENCE, YOU IDIOT. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fantastic public speaker. He could write and speak with distinction and eloquence. He didn’t get those skills by doing “diary entries” and “personal letters” and making sure he was “psychologically liberated.”
Dr. Hochman’s strategy 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.”
Somebody should have taught you how to write before turning you loose on the internet. That sentence needs at least one more comma, and probably should have been broken up into two sentences, minimum.
And you SAY that Dr. Hochman’s strategy is a return to basics, but I didn’t see a bit of that in the above example. So, either you’re deliberately confusing the issue by not telling us what is actually going on, or this “strategy” is different in real life.
After all, the Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, writing copious text messages and social media posts, but when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.
Yeah, because you don’t need punctuation and clear, complete sentences in text messages. I text in complete sentences, but I’m a little weird.
That doesn’t make text messages and other online forums a bad thing, something that “will destroy the English language.” That’s a dramatic exaggeration. It’s only a bad thing when you can speak text messages, but not simple English sentences.
The Common Core has provided a much-needed “wakeup call” on the importance of rigorous writing, said Lucy M. Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, a leading center for training teachers in process-oriented literacy strategies. But policy makers “blew it in the implementation,” she said. “We need massive teacher education.”
Hold on, I thought that’s what college was for. I guess I misunderstood those four years of my life.
I hope you speak sarcasm as well as texting.
One of the largest efforts is the National Writing Project, whose nearly 200 branches train more than 100,000 teachers each summer. The organization was founded in 1974, at the height of the process-oriented era.
And such an organization would be useless if said teachers actually graduated college with something other than a massive ego.
As part of its program at Nassau Community College, in a classroom not far from the one where the teenagers were working on their college essays, a group of teachers — of fifth grade and high school, of English, social studies and science — were honing their own writing skills. They took turns reading out loud the freewriting they had just done in response to “The Lanyard,” a poem by Billy Collins. The poem, which is funny and sad, addresses the futility of trying to repay one’s mother for her love:
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
Oh, gag me with a spoon. Freewriting is fine as an exercise for someone who ALREADY KNOWS HOW TO WRITE, something you just said these teachers didn’t know how to do. Authors freewrite to clear writer’s block, or for fun, or to exercise their skills. If you can’t write in the first place, you can’t freewrite. You’re trying to get them to sprint before they can crawl.
Most of the teachers’ responses pivoted quickly from praising the poem to memories of their own mothers, working several jobs to make ends meet, or selflessly caring for grandchildren.
You’re talking about the CONTENT of writing, not the writing itself. I don’t care what they’re writing about; I’d like to know that they know HOW to write before they go off and try to TEACH it.
It wasn’t sophisticated literary criticism, but that wasn’t the point.
Yeah, I still haven’t figured out the point. I know you have one somewhere.
A major goal of this workshop — the teacher-training component of the Long Island Writing Project — was to get teachers writing and revising their own work over the summer so that in the fall they would be more enthusiastic and comfortable teaching the subject to children.
Once again, you missed the point. That’s a great way to teach people creative writing, but we’re not talking about creative writing. We’re talking about WRITING. Can you construct a subject-verb-object sentence with the correct punctuation and make yourself understood? That’s it. The rest of it is all happy-slappy-fluffy crap.
“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.
Oh, yes, be absolutely sure you slam Catholic schools while you’re at it.
I hated diagramming sentences. I did it (yes, in a Catholic school), but the point wasn’t circling the subject and predicate. If you could do that, then you demonstrated that you understood how the sentence worked, after which you could imitate it. You could write properly. Duh.
Sometimes, she said, she will reinforce grammar by asking students to copy down a sentence from a favorite book and then discuss how the author uses a tool like commas.
I’m worried about your definition of “discuss.” If you’re trying to say that the student had to explain why the comma was used in a certain way, that’s good. If you’re using it to say that the student can argue about whether or not the comma use was correct, then you’re way off.
But in general, 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.’ ”
And you “looking beyond” is exactly why those students will graduate without ever forming a correct English sentence. I hope you’re proud of yourself.
I worked in the writing center in college. I saw a lot of freshman English papers. I loved showing those freshman how to say something more clearly, or how to arrange their paragraphs to form a coherent argument, or how to use “however” correctly. I could tell them that one paragraph had great content, but was poorly executed. And nobody ever asked for my head on a plate. Nobody rushed out of there crying. On the contrary, I had a few students who would stick their head through the door, ask “Is Lori here today?” and if the answer was “no,” they’d turn around and leave without dropping off a paper. I pointed out their mistakes; that’s why they kept coming back. If they didn’t have proper capitalization and punctuation, I told them so.
Bottom line: YOU ARE A BAD TEACHER.
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.
I dare you to prove that’s true. Show me your source, twit.
And it doesn’t work well BY ITSELF. But that, plus reading classical works, and practice writing well, will work better than all your stupid “freewriting” and self-esteem boosting crap.
A musical notion of writing — the hope that the ear can be trained to “hear” errors and imitate quality prose — has developed as a popular alternative among English teachers.
That’s why reading helps, genius. It doesn’t have anything to do with music; it has everything to do with reading good books.
But what about those students, typically low income, with few books at home, who struggle to move from reading a gorgeous sentence to knowing how to write one? Could there be a better, less soul-crushing way to enforce the basics?
That’s why God invented the PUBLIC LIBRARY.
Everyone finds parts of school soul-crushing. I hated geometry. But you know what? I sucked it up, buttercup. Deal with it. Nobody ever said every minute of school was fun and a tiptoe through the tulips. Sometimes you hate it. Sometimes it’s hard. Get over yourself and do it. Maybe then you’ll be able to express yourself without proclaiming your ignorance from the rooftops.
In her teacher training sessions, Dr. Hochman of the Writing Revolution shows a slide of a cute little girl, lying contentedly on her stomach as she scrawls on a piece of composition paper. It’s the type of stock photograph that has probably appeared in a hundred educators’ PowerPoint presentations, meant to evoke a warm and relaxed learning environment, perhaps in one of the cozy writing nooks favored by the process-oriented writing gurus.
Aw, how sickeningly cute. The “warm and relaxed learning environment” in the United States is the reason Japanese companies have to hire college graduates in the US to do the same jobs their high school graduates can do in Japan.
“This is not good writing posture!” Dr. Hochman exclaimed. Small children should write at desks, she believes. And while she isn’t arguing for a return to the grammar lessons of yesteryear — she knows sentence diagramming leaves most students confused and disengaged — she does believe that children should spend time filling out worksheets with exercises like the one below, which demonstrates how simple conjunctions like “but,” “because” and “so” add complexity to a thought.
A return to the grammar lessons of yesteryear would do the whole world a favor.
Students are given the root clause, and must complete the sentence with a new clause following each conjunction:
Fractions are like decimals because they are all parts of wholes.
Fractions are like decimals, but they are written differently.
Fractions are like decimals, so they can be used interchangeably.
And this is modern American writing class? First graders can do this. Or at least they used to be able to.
Along the way, students are learning to recall meaningful content from math, social studies, science and literature.
Yeah, because they learn so much accurate information in all those other classes.
Is my sarcasm still working?
By middle school, teachers should be crafting essay questions that prompt sophisticated writing; not “What were the events leading up to the Civil War?” — which could result in a list — but “Trace the events leading up to the Civil War,” which requires a historical narrative of cause and effect.
The first question getting a list as an answer would only be wrong if the prompt actually gave the instructions to give a paragraph answer. The first question is fine by itself; it’s only the lesson prompts and teachers’ instructions that would make it a problem.
“Freewriting, hoping that children will learn or gain a love of writing, hasn’t worked,” Dr. Hochman told the teachers, many of whom work in low-income neighborhoods.
Hell, I could have told you that.
She doesn’t believe that children learn to write well through plumbing their own experiences in a journal, and she applauds the fact that the Common Core asks students to do more writing about what they’ve read, and less about their own lives.
Oh, plug Common Core. Go right ahead. That doesn’t make it any better.
“I call it a move away from child-centered writing,” she said approvingly, and away from what she considers facile assignments, like writing a poem “about a particular something they may have observed 10 minutes ago out of the window.”
You can’t write a poem until you can write prose. Once again, you’re expecting students to sprint before they can crawl.
“I don’t mean to be dismissive,” she continued, “but every instructional minute has its purpose.”
You need to look up the word “dismissive” before you use it. That particular word has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of your sentence. But then again, how can you be expected to know that? Nobody taught you how to write, either.
Her training session lacks the fun and interactivity of the Long Island Writing Project, because it is less about prompting teachers to write and chat with colleagues and more about the sometimes dry work of preparing worksheets and writing assignments that reinforce basic concepts. Nevertheless, many teachers who learn Dr. Hochman’s strategies become devotees.
Reinforcing basic concepts? That’s good. You SAY you’re doing that, but I haven’t seen it yet.
Molly Cudahy, who teaches fifth-grade special education at the Truesdell Education Campus, a public school in Washington, D.C., said she appreciates Dr. Hochman’s explicit and technical approach. She thought it would free her students’ voices, not constrain them. At her school, 100 percent of students come from low-income families. “When we try to do creative and journal writing,” she said, “students don’t have the tools to put their ideas on paper.”
I just said that. I can’t believe it took this many words into this article for someone to finally point that out.
You have to have the tools before you can make that work of art.
Then again, the definition of “art” has changed recently.
So maybe I shouldn’t use that as an example.
There is a notable shortage of high-quality research on the teaching of writing, but studies that do exist point toward a few concrete strategies that help students perform better on writing tests.
And you needed some expensive study to tell you this?
First, children need to learn how to transcribe both by hand and through typing on a computer. Teachers report that many students who can produce reams of text on their cellphones are unable to work effectively at a laptop, desktop or even in a paper notebook because they’ve become so anchored to the small mobile screen.
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.
Again, it took some academic to tell you that? You can see that just by looking at any high-schooler with a cell phone in any public place in the country.
Before writing paragraphs — which is often now part of the kindergarten curriculum — children do need to practice writing great sentences.
Paragraphs are made of sentences, genius. You can’t learn to write a paragraph if you can’t write a sentence first.
At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing,
Yeah, they can’t correct their work unless someone points out the errors to them. Imagine that.
and from seeing and trying to imitate what successful writing looks like, the so-called text models.
What’s “so-called” about that? You read good sentences, you can imitate them to create good sentences.
Some of the touchy-feel stuff matters, too. Students with higher confidence in their writing ability perform better.
Screw touchy-feely. How about giving good grades to good writing, and bad grades to bad writing? If you don’t want bad grades, you’ll work on improving your writing. It’s a very simple if-then proposition. Even babies understand that.
All of this points toward a synthesis of the two approaches. In classrooms where practices like freewriting are used without any focus on transcription or punctuation, “the students who struggled didn’t make any progress,” Dr. Troia, the Michigan State professor, said. But when grammar instruction is divorced from the writing process and from rich ideas in literature or science, it becomes “superficial,” he warned.
So, you want to have your cake and eat it, too. You wasted an amazing number of words, then.
Of course you need both: grammar instruction AND literature. Reading good books goes a long way. And I don’t mean the modern crap (when I worked at a summer camp, there were books floating around that were written in chat-speak. An entire novel, complete with emojis). I mean Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and all those classics that so many teacher dismiss as “racist” or “irrelevant.”
Considering the lack of adequate teacher training, Lyse may be among a minority of students exposed to explicit instruction about writing.
That’s not the student’s fault. That’s the freaking government’s fault for setting these standards and then failing to meet them.
In Ms. Wanzer’s workshop, Lyse and her classmates went on to analyze real students’ college essays to determine their strengths and weaknesses. They also read “Where I’m From,” a poem by George Ella Lyon, and used it as a text model for their work. Lyse drafted her own version of “Where I’m From,” which helped her recall details from her childhood in Haiti.
Reading more always helps. See what some essays did wrong, so you don’t repeat those mistakes. Great. Reading other works to use as inspiration. Great.
Lyse wrote: “I am from the rusty little tin roof house, from washing by hand and line drying.” It was a gorgeous sentence, and she was well on her way to a moving college application essay.
. . .
You think THAT is a gorgeous sentence? Are you delusional, or just obsessed with reinforcing someone’s self-esteem?
It has potential, but that’s about it. Maybe she needs a REAL TEACHER to help her take that potential and realize it.
Bottom line here? The education system is clearly lacking, and needs to be fixed. Kids need to learn the basics of English Grammar before they try anything like journaling or freewriting or whatever fluffy thing is popular these days. Teachers need to learn to teach, or find another job.
Basics first. Then more. You can’t put a skyscraper on an undeveloped piece of land. You need a foundation first.