Writing as an essential academic skill

Someone on Facebook drew my attention to this article in the The Atlantic about a low-performing school that was turned around by a focus on analytic writing. That’s not an approach that educational reformers usually take, but I hope many schools learn from the example of New Dorp.

The article explains how, decades ago, educators adopted an approach to teaching writing that really didn’t teach them how to write. The idea was that if they were given interesting writing assignments, they would pick up the skills they needed. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t work very well.

I don’t know how I learned to write. I know I had lessons on grammar and sentence structure in English classes, but I can’t remember ever learning anything in those lessons that I didn’t already know. I had read somewhere that good writers learn to write by reading good books, so I read voraciously. (It was easy to do; I enjoyed reading, and absorbing the feel for good writing was simply a bonus.)

I can’t remember a time when my teachers didn’t exclaim over how well I wrote. I didn’t know whether I really was all that good a writer, or if I was just good in comparison with other students. I didn’t know how I knew how to write, and I certainly couldn’t have taught anyone else how.

I probably never heard or saw examples of my classmates’ writing except for the very best of these. Sometimes the best compositions were posted on bulletin boards (unlike in my younger son’s elementary school, where everyone’s work was posted), or printed in a school “literary magazine.” In my senior year of high school, I took a college-level course in literary analysis, and we had to share our papers with the class, but only the best students were in that class to begin with.

When I tried teaching Spanish, I offered students the opportunity to get extra credit by reading books (in English) on Hispanic history/culture and writing a book report. Few students took advantage of the opportunity, but I was appalled by the poor quality of the writing of those who did. I was teaching Spanish, though, not English, and my goal was to broaden my students’ knowledge, not teach them writing.

It did give me a clue, though, why my teachers had always exclaimed over the quality of my writing. It was probably such a welcome break from a lot of what they had to read. I don’t know exactly where my own education fell, in terms of the change from the old-school way of teaching writing to the current approach, but certainly teaching methods couldn’t have changed much from when I was in school until my students were. I graduated from college at age 20 and was not much older than those I taught.

As a parent, I have seen some examples of my sons’ writing, and I think our local schools could benefit from teaching analytic writing the way New Dorp does. My sons’ spelling and grammar have always been far better than what I saw as a teacher, but expressing ideas in writing obviously does not come to them as easily as it did to me.

I always figured this was largely a matter of personality and interest. They both like assignments where there is a clear right and wrong. Writing an analysis or opinion is not nearly so clear-cut. Even writing about a personal experience seems to require a good deal of effort. (I am assuming that my older son, now a junior in college, does a good job writing papers. I haven’t seen any of his work since he graduated from high school, however.)

Perhaps, however, a large part of the problem is the lack of direct instruction in the schools about how to express oneself well. Certainly their elementary schools did seem to focus primarily on just getting students to write, without instructing them on how to do it well other than correcting grammar and spelling mistakes. I didn’t know why they had writing journals where they were allowed to write about anything they wanted to, and it didn’t occur to me that it was a substitute for more formal teaching in how to write.

One surprise from the article was how much students’ lack of ability to write corresponded with their lack of ability to understand what they read. They knew how to read, but they couldn’t follow the argument of a complex sentence. Since they couldn’t express themselves well, however, their teachers didn’t realize where the problem lay. Often, it was assumed to be lack of motivation or lack of academic ability.

Often people who have gone through public schools in more recent decades are criticized for having poor skills in critical thinking. I know the schools try to teach critical thinking. But perhaps it is crucial to first learn how to express ideas clearly in order to develop good reasoning skills. One might think it would be the other way around – first learn to reason, then write it down. But when students don’t know how the words work that are used to compare and contrast ideas, they probably can do neither.

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