Sunday, September 27, 2015

Natalie Wexler - Why Americans Can't Write

It's no secret that many Americans are lousy writers. Just ask any college professor or employer, including those at prestigious institutions. With the advent of e-mail, writing ability has become more important than ever, and writing deficiencies have become increasingly apparent.

Surely one reason so many Americans lack writing skills is that, for decades, most U.S. schools haven't taught them. In 2011, a nationwide test found that only 24 percent of students in eighth and 12th grades were proficient in writing, and just 3 percent were advanced. If students get writing assignments at all, they're usually of the "write about how you feel" variety. There's value to that kind of exercise, but it doesn't provide kids with the tools they need to write analytically.

The Common Core education standards, adopted by more than 40 states and the District, attempt to address this deficit. They require that students learn to write fluently about the meaning of what they're learning - not just in English class, but also in history, science and maybe even math class.

That makes sense: When students put what they've read into their own words, they're more likely to absorb and retain it. And learning to write clearly requires learning to think clearly.

But the authors of the Common Core focused just on the skills that students should have at each grade level, not on how to impart them. And few teachers have been trained to teach these writing skills, apparently because educators believe that students will just pick them up through reading. Obviously, most don't. The standards also assume students in middle and high school already know the rules of capitalization, punctuation and sentence construction. But that's often not the case, especially in high-poverty environments.

Faced with high school seniors who can't compose a simple sentence, teachers may throw up their hands when confronted with an English language arts standard saying their students should "use appropriate and varied transitions and syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships among complex ideas and concepts."

You have to learn to add before you can do calculus. Similarly, before students can write a coherent five-paragraph essay, they need to learn to write a decent sentence - no matter what grade they're in…
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