Why Kids Can’t Write, and What We Can Do About It

After years of worksheets and quizzes, many students arrive in high school with brains largely unscathed by grammar. I know this because I teach both English and Latin. It is obvious to me who understands subjects and verbs, especially in my Latin classes.

People who have studied a foreign language generally understand the grammar of their own language better than those who have not. This is one way foreign language teachers justify their existence — we will teach them grammar so English teachers can focus on dramatic irony, rising action, oxymorons and other stuff that might be on the state graduation test or the S.A.T.

I have nothing against literary analysis. Through reading and analyzing literature, students gain a new perspective. They understand that jealousy and revenge are universal, not just things that happen when you put a lot of teenagers in a large building and call it high school.

But it’s tough to write about jealousy and revenge when you don’t have the tools to express yourself. The subordination of one idea to another doesn’t just happen by throwing lots of ideas at students. My students have many ideas; they come out in long rambles beginning with “So…” and are strung together with “and” and “because.” Their reasoning never takes shape; if it does, it’s a circle. They write things like, “School should not be mandatory because students should have a choice.”

Why don’t kids learn grammar? And it’s not only grammar — why don’t they know how to spell and punctuate?

I am sure that their elementary and middle school teachers have taught these lessons and that they have obediently handed in worksheets and passed quizzes. But my eleventh graders still can’t write. They randomly sprinkle commas into their sentences, misspell simple words and write, “Him and me are best friends.”

The rules of language bounce off kids’ brains. There are several reasons for this:

First: We treat grammar, punctuation and spelling as embellishments.

Students can easily pass our state graduation test without being able to write grammatical sentences or understand the difference between a subject and a direct object. The rubric does not include what we call ‘conventions’ of writing; it’s all about the ideas. We focus on reading short selections and answering multiple-choice questions. For the short-answer questions, we work on extracting examples and ideas from the reading selections. We’re not supposed to tell them, but jot lists are acceptable; full, grammatical sentences are not necessary if you’ve extracted the correct answer.

Though knowing your own language should be fundamental, the educational establishment no longer values grammar. Like penmanship, it is seen as a relic of a quaint era of schoolmarms, memorization, and corporal punishment.  Once diagramming sentences fell out of favor, grammar instruction bit the dust.

Second: Grammar, spelling and punctuation are irrelevant unless taught in the context of writing.

Our state curriculum recognizes this, and tosses lessons on commas and run-on sentences into units on The Crucible and Romeo and Juliet.  We print out worksheets and pass them out when we need a filler.

But literature is hard, especially for kids who don’t read much. It takes a lot of time to understand what’s going on in a play, poem or story, let alone analyze it as literature. A lesson on sentence structure doesn’t have a lot of impact in the context of a difficult literature unit.

We teach vocabulary the same way, picking out words that every high school graduate ought to know, having them write sentences, and giving a quiz. Like the grammar lesson, these vocabulary lessons are quickly lost.

Third: Teachers don’t have time to teach grammar, spelling, punctuation properly.

Students should write every day, or at least several times a week. Unfortunately, grading papers takes a lot of time. I have 100 students — most English teachers have more, which is a shame. If each of my 100 students writes a page every day, and if I spend 5 minutes carefully reading and grading each one of these, it will take me more than eight hours to finish one day’s stack of assignments. If I worked 16 hours a day, I might be able to do this. Wait — I forgot about planning lessons, making copies, writing all the reports I’m expected to write for my kids with I.E.P.s, tutoring kids…

A couple things that can be done:

1. Don’t dilute your focus by trying to teach too many things. Stick to the micro-aspects of writing: spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure. Don’t tack these on to a literature unit or worry about having a thesis and supporting arguments.

The topic should not be anything difficult. Teenagers love giving their opinion: cell phones, dress code, bullying, multi-tasking, and Facebook are all relevant to their lives and make good topics for short writings.

Grade for spelling, punctuation, grammar — but not content or organization. Put the focus on how they express themselves, not whether they gave the right answer. Give them feedback daily, if possible. Make them revise and re-submit what they’ve written.

2. Make kids write every day, but don’t grade everything they write. Check-off assignments should be minimal points; graded assignment should be worth a lot more, and points strictly taken off. If you don’t tell them ahead of time what will be graded, they will form a habit of paying attention to how they write.

3. Teach them to evaluate their own writing. If you put student writing samples on the overhead (anonymously, of course), bad writing is obvious. Have them re-write, offer suggestions. They will look more carefully at their own work once they see how it is being judged. And they will begin to comment on style. They will notice when a proposition makes no sense or lacks supporting arguments.

It’s important for kids to express themselves well, not just so they will make a good impression on people who read their job applications and college essays, but because if they can write well, they are better thinkers. Their ideas are no longer a string of thoughts, but a coherent proposition, a persuasive argument, a clear analysis.

As long as we are teaching to a multiple-choice, short-answer test, this won’t happen for many students. They will always be more concerned about getting the answer right than knowing things or communicating effectively. And teachers will focus on these things, too, if they are being evaluated and paid based on their students’ test scores.

School districts get what they pay for. If they want kids who lack curiosity, think there is only one answer to every question, and don’t bother to express themselves clearly, then high-stakes tests are doing their job. If they want teachers who no longer bother to teach anything that’s not on the test, they have succeeded.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Laura Gibbs
    Apr 03, 2011 @ 14:22:56

    Wow, I am in TOTAL AGREEMENT with this blog post, and am glad to see something on this topic which seems to me strangely neglected in the various education blogs that I read. When I started teaching 10 years ago, fresh out of graduate school, I was so naive about students’ writing abilities, and it has taken me literally years to build up a repertoire of strategies and support materials that allow me to try to manage, somehow, this absurd problem: college seniors who want to write but who lack the basic writing mechanics, just as you point out. They cannot spell (except insofar as they use the spellchecker, which can lead them astray as much as it helps makes corrections), they cannot use punctuation (alas, the poor apostrophe, the single most endangered piece of punctuation in the English wilderness!), and they have no clear notion of sentence structure, so where sentences stop and start is more an aesthetic choice than a grammatical or rhetorical one. To add to your list of things that can be done, here are the things I now do in order to make sure students experience at least some kind of gain in their writing ability over the course of the semester:
    1) Revise revise revise. I’ve had students tell me they have literally never revised a piece of writing in college. No wonder their skills are not improving. Here’s how I structure our semester-long writing project to include revision: Storybook Project.
    2) Share share share. Students, especially students with poor writing abilities, may have long ago learned to ignore their teachers’ criticisms, but they are still very anxious to please their peers. When writing for each other, they are much more motivated than when they write for me, so all their writing is done for each other; both the more informal blogs and the more formal Storybook are projects they share with each other; they do not write anything for me exclusively. So, in all of my classes, the students publish their projects online using GoogleSites; here are this semester’s projects in my Myth-Folklore class. Plus, they like learning how to create websites. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down…
    3) Creative writing. In addition to their writing errors, by the time they are college students, my students have learned to adopt a faux-omniscient third-person impersonal writing style that only exaggerates the problems they have with writing (passive verbs, abstraction, vagueness). By switching my class assignments to creative writing, I was able to get them to re-engage with their writing by using new voices (a favorite choice is to re-tell a story in first-person, taking on the voice of one of the characters) with real excitement about what they are writing. If I am going to ask them to revise and revise until their writing is technically correct, they need to be excited about what they are writing. With creative writing assignments, they really do get excited; that was never my experience with expository writing.
    Again, thanks for this blog post. I find very few of my colleagues engaged in any serious way with their students’ writing… and that scares me. My students need a lot of help with their writing – I know I cannot do this alone! 🙂

    Reply

  2. theteachingwhore
    Apr 03, 2011 @ 19:46:38

    Your last line definitely hits home. I hate to hear when teachers are teaching to the test. Just teach students how to think, read, and write, I want to tell them. Yeah, it takes time, but it’s worth it, and after a few years, you’ll figure out how to manage all of that writing that they keep doing. (Teachers who don’t figure it out should quit.) I’ve taught a long time and haven’t noticed a decline in writing skills, but maybe that’s because I require so much writing in my classes–journal writing, paragraphs, essays, stories, poems, interviews . . . we write and we read and we write. I don’t ever have to worry about cheating because I rarely do a worksheet or quiz or test that anyone could cheat on. And with so little emphasis on tests, my students still do well on the mandated ones.
    –About the sentence diagramming, I did that all through school and went to college still writing run-on sentences. I stopped writing run-on sentences when I decided I wanted to. I imagine that’s the way with lots of students–no matter what the teacher does, they learn when they are good and ready to.Great post, as always.

    Reply

  3. Frustrated Parent
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 14:50:25

    I like this post. The only part I might add to is “I am sure that their elementary and middle school teachers have taught these lessons . . . .” Stating that some elementary and middle school teachers have taught these lessons would be more accurate. I would also add that some of the teachers may not have taught grammar lessons well. (Some educators don’t seem to know the difference between “good” and “well” or what to do with a period and a quotation mark.)

    I find the placement of grammar instruction in school to be odd. Understanding grammar helps students read better. If grammar must be contained as a unit, it should be taught at the beginning of the year. Grammar should be, but often isn’t, incorporated into daily work.

    I do believe the more students edit and revise their own and others’ work, the better they will write.

    Reply

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