It’s time American teachers face the fact that for our students, written English is a foreign language.
Our students can decode writing if it’s not too complicated. They can pass tests of grammar knowledge. They can put together collections of sentences in written English.
What they can’t do is write English language paragraphs for the purposes for which they need or want to write English language paragraphs.
In brief, our students haven’t learned to use written language in real life as a tool for communication.
The way we teach writing (or don’t teach writing) is the major culprit.
We don’t teach writing right.
We don’t give young children enough opportunities to use writing to do things that are both interesting and useful to them. And we need to give even grade school students opportunities to write both fiction and nonfiction.
We regularly encourage elementary school students to invent stories, which may be interesting to them, but rarely encourage them to do writing that’s useful. Because of that, we turn off many youngsters who are creative but not imaginative, the ones who see how to make something better rather than envisioning an entirely new thing.
There’s no reason that writing cannot be both interesting and useful to youngsters. Even invented stories can be turned to practical uses, which is a fact teachers at all levels routinely ignore.
While we’re having students invent stories, we’re also having them learn grammar and related writing mechanics in isolation from their own writing. The writing mechanics exercises we give students don’t sound like they were written by elementary school students because they weren’t.
Students do exercises (many of them are disguised as games these days) but success with the exercises doesn’t translate into ability to write good sentences of their own. To be able to write good sentences, students need to practice with their own material.
We expose without teaching.
After messing up the teaching of writing in K-6, we mess up from grade 7 through college by failing to give students either procedures or practice in writing the kinds of things adults must write in the kinds of situations in which adults must write: short, nonfiction texts written with an eye on the clock.
In grades 7-12, we expose students to various kinds of writing—perhaps one narrative essay, one comparison essay, one argument essay—but we don’t actually teach students to write any of those things.
It’s hardly any wonder students don’t learn to write: They graduate high school with just enough exposure to writing to build up an immunity.
By the time they reach my first year college course, teens and adults don’t need or want any more exposure to writing. They have enough information about writing, but nobody has taught them to do it.
Most first year college students would be happy to have help to improve their writing providing the help focuses on a limited number of procedures which are
- easy to understand
- easy to learn
- easy to adapt
- widely applicable to their own writing situations.
For my students, I’ve identified 10 procedures, each of which can be stated in one sentence, which work in probably 95 percent of the writing situations adults encounter. Unfortunately, teens and adults aren’t able to write just because they have a set of procedures to follow.
Teach and then supervise practice.
In my experience, to become competent at writing most teens and adults need 100 hours of practice—supervised practice—applying the strategies in authentic writing situations. Typically, for first year college students, 20 times through the entire writing process is about 100 hours practice.
That may sound like a lot, but 100 hours of practice between seventh grade and high school graduation shouldn’t be a big deal.
In those 100 hours, we need to do some honest-to-goodness teaching of writing, being physically present while students practice, interacting with them, helping them apply their developing skills to their own writing situations.
And we need to do it now before young people lose the ability to communicate without pictures.