Green Room

Why Johnny can’t write

posted at 9:09 am on September 22, 2012 by

The Atlantic showcases a new method of teaching analytic writing that should soon be sweeping the nation. Because, educators have finally discovered, if students can’t think critically and write effectively about what they think, they can’t do well in other subjects, either.

And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page.

I’m old enough to have been taught critical thinking and forced to write analytic essays. But millions of Americans were taught what I will call “the bullshit method” of writing. And it shows. Think of the emails and other correspondence you receive at work. Look at how the average person writes on Facebook and in comment threads. Few people can write coherently. No wonder Twitter is such a big hit. Reduce everything to 140 characters and you don’t have to master grammar and sentence structure.

Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

I can’t count how many of my friends’ children have had to keep journals as part of their writing assignments. A journal where you are urged to write your feelings is not writing. It is vomiting your thoughts on a page, which is also known as stream of consciousness. To create a coherent narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, was no longer taught well in school. But the educators discovered there was even more to the problem: Students were no longer able to use simple conjunctions to form complex sentences.

What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

New Dorp High School created a program to change all that, and student pass rates improved dramatically. Nationwide, a program called Common Core is going to be introduced in all but four states that–gasp–teaches the basics.

Over the next two school years, 46 states will align themselves with the Common Core State Standards. For the first time, elementary-­school students—­who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.

Common Core’s architect, David Coleman, says the new writing standards are meant to reverse a pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-­expression and emotion over lucid communication. “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” he famously told a group of educators last year in New York.

And for that, we thank you. I have a real-life example of the awful communications skills they’re taught now. An HR employee at my company was doing a phenomenally bad job of communicating to me why my medical benefits had been terminated in August, and how I needed to fix them. When I emailed her that what she was asking was idiotic, she called to tell me that her feelings were hurt by my use of that term. I’m going to guess that she was taught that in some seminar somewhere, instead of taught how to write a coherent email so that I would understand that she was waiting for me to answer before moving ahead with fixing my benefits. (Which is incredibly stupid in and of itself, but I digress.)

Educators discovered that the old-fashioned teaching methods–the ones that taught explicitly, step by step, how to write simple and complex sentences–worked. But of course, there are those who think that rote instruction is too restrictive.

Some writing experts caution that championing expository and analytic writing at the expense of creative expression is shortsighted. “The secret weapon of our economy is that we foster creativity,” says Kelly Gallagher, a high-school writing teacher who has written several books on adolescent literacy. And formulaic instruction will cause some students to tune out, cautions Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. While she welcomes a bigger dose of expository writing in schools, she says lockstep instruction won’t accelerate learning. “Kids need to see their work reach other readers … They need to have choices in the questions they write about, and a way to find their voice.”

And that is exactly the kind of thinking that brought our students’ writing levels down to their current level. The point of teaching writing is to give students the skills they need to write coherently. Their voice comes naturally, and if they want to develop it, they will. Nothing can stop a writer from writing.

Read the whole article. It’s a refreshing change that I hope will be sweeping the nation, and possibly making work emails a lot more coherent. There’s little hope for my HR department, but there are always the ones in school now, who will be replacing them. With, it is to be hoped, better communications skills.

Cross-posted.

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New Dorp High School created a program to change all that, and student pass rates improved dramatically.

Also, the school administrators were tired of other schools in the region calling them “New Derp High School” based on the test scores of their students.

JimLennon on September 22, 2012 at 9:39 AM

Some writing experts caution that championing expository and analytic writing at the expense of creative expression is shortsighted.

When I was a kid, in grade school English class consisted of spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. (I thought diagramming sentences would be the death of me.) By 5th grade we had it all down.
Then in 6th grade and beyond English class was creative writing, ie, using the basics we were taught in 1st through 5th grade. Knowing the mechanics of written communication made it easy to convey even complex ideas clearly.
Now when I read articles in newspapers and on the internet poor sentence structure, bad grammar, and the misuse of words by professional writers is maddening. It’s plain that they were taught to write by “the bullshit method”.

single stack on September 22, 2012 at 10:30 AM

No, kids today can’t write a coherent paragraph, but their self esteem is through the roof!

mchristian on September 22, 2012 at 11:57 AM

@JimLennon: The rest of us can just stop commenting now.

Meryl Yourish on September 22, 2012 at 12:17 PM

And it starts here:
Schools do not teach cursive writing
Beautiful, flowing handwriting
can lead to beautiful, flowing writing.

mrt721 on September 22, 2012 at 12:25 PM

When I was in school, they stressed writing in a strict five paragraph format. As long as your paragraphs consisted of a single sentence of statement and a couple of sentences of “supporting” statements, you got a perfect grade, no mater how flawed the argument was. Worse, you could have a well well supported argument, but if it wasn’t “fluffed” up with enough meaningless sentences to make it look sufficiently long, the teacher would knock points of your score.

Count to 10 on September 22, 2012 at 1:05 PM

Call me a little skeptical that the “answer” to failing schools is in English class.
Maybe it’s just my hard science bias showing.

Count to 10 on September 22, 2012 at 1:07 PM

I call BS.

We need to focus on teaching READING.

Then they can read to learn facts, then later they can use reading and logic to figure things out, only then do they have something worth writing about.

Liberals always thing expressing one’s self is the most important thing, but if you are an idiot you would do best by educating yourself before you express yourself.

To quote the reading program that was all over the place when I was in school: “Reading Is Fundamental”

Spartacus on September 22, 2012 at 1:34 PM

The fact that one-third of a student’s score on the SAT is now determined by writing might also be pushing high schools to emphasize writing skills more.

With regards to bad writing skills, too many people just don’t care, while others are convinced that they are somehow on the cutting edge of the evolution (or devolution) of the English language: “y u fail me in wrtng? We all wil talk lik dis in 2100.”

JimLennon on September 22, 2012 at 1:40 PM

What good is creative kids if they can’t pass the benefits of their creativity on to others in the form of coherent language? Get them reading the great philosophers, have them understand their arguments, reasoning, conclusions, and just maybe they’ll start to learn rhetoric and how to convincingly convey an opinion rather than just emoting.

But then that would take some real work on the behalf of teachers. Much easier to just let students gush all over a page every week.

Socratease on September 22, 2012 at 1:45 PM

Yeah, common core is great. Stresses writing in every subject. So last week I ask my sixth grader (new to middle school), who was stressing about changing for gym class how it went. The response I got…. “we didn’t have to change, we spent the whole period writing about the “muscle of the week”. So much for physical education……

Gr8seezersghost on September 22, 2012 at 2:26 PM

I call BS.

We need to focus on teaching READING.

Then they can read to learn facts, then later they can use reading and logic to figure things out, only then do they have something worth writing about.

Liberals always thing expressing one’s self is the most important thing, but if you are an idiot you would do best by educating yourself before you express yourself.

To quote the reading program that was all over the place when I was in school: “Reading Is Fundamental”

Spartacus on September 22, 2012 at 1:34 PM

I agree with you that before good writing skills must come good reading skills.

Reading well-written material reinforces, through repetition, what a well-constructed sentence and paragraph should be. The more good reading that is done, the more naturally the student’s thoughts come out in similar form.

Is it true that schools no longer teach diagramming sentences? I clearly remember the drudgery in 6th and 7th grade. I remember how it really did move one past the “anything goes” ethos of elemnetary school, and force one to work hard to create acceptable diagrams. Just the repetitive practice of being forced to include a subject and verb, and then learning to expand on one’s thoughts with well-placed adjectives and adverbs, helped establish a minimum competence in my fellow students and me.

But to repeat myself, in my opinion the surest way to make one’s thoughts flow out naturally from the brain to the pen to the paper is to READ, READ, READ.

cane_loader on September 22, 2012 at 2:53 PM

Everyone’s always got an opinion on how to fix education. This just means that the pendulum is finally swinging back the other way. I’m glad they’ll emphasize the basics in earlier grades, rather than having to reteach students basic sentence patterns in their senior year.

And it starts here:
Schools do not teach cursive writing
Beautiful, flowing handwriting
can lead to beautiful, flowing writing.

I disagree. Cursive is an archaic form of handwriting based on the use of inkwells, when lifting the pen could damage the tip and make writing more difficult. While students should be able to read it, just because they can write in cursive does not mean they can write intelligently.

kc-anathema on September 22, 2012 at 2:54 PM

We need to focus on teaching READING.

Why focus on just one thing? When I was in school we were taught all of it – at the same time.

So much for physical education……

Two years ago I worked on a crew building a new concession stand next to the football field at one of the area high schools. There is a track around the field and twice a week three groups of students walked around the track in their street clothes, watched by three adults.
Curiosity got the better of me and I finally asked one of the adults what was going on. He told me it was physical education class. Each student was required to walk around the track one time once a week, weather permitting. There were benches around the track and they could sit down whenever they wanted. They were not allowed to run. (not that any of them would choose to)

single stack on September 22, 2012 at 3:09 PM

we have inputs, processing, and then outputs.

Writing is an output.
Reading is an input.
Garbage (or 17 magazine, or MSNBC) in gives us garbage out, particularly when schools focus on liberal brainwashing and “creativity” vs. analysis.

This is why we must focus on knowledge acquisition first, the ability to independently gain more knowledge, and the ability to independently gauge if the “logic” that the teachers are teaching makes sense. This is reading.

Focus on the ability to gain good and voluminous input, then on analysis, then and only then do we give a sh*t what you (or the kid) think.

Writing to express your creativity is not nearly as important as understanding Economics, History, Math, Home-Ec, Vocational skills etc.

We have a nation of creative idiots with French Basket Weaving degrees (photography minor) making coffee for us as is.

Spartacus on September 22, 2012 at 3:55 PM

I call BS.

We need to focus on teaching READING.

Then they can read to learn facts, then later they can use reading and logic to figure things out, only then do they have something worth writing about.

Liberals always thing expressing one’s self is the most important thing, but if you are an idiot you would do best by educating yourself before you express yourself.

To quote the reading program that was all over the place when I was in school: “Reading Is Fundamental”

Spartacus on September 22, 2012 at 1:34 PM

Reading is the key. You learn good sentence structure, and can become a natural speller.

It seems to be working well for my 10 year old homeschooler. We read, read, read. We are studying formal grammar as well. When she writes and misspells a word, I correct her. She can write a cogent sentence and paragraph. She writes creatively on her own.

I stress comprehension through conversation. I ask her to relate three key points and to ask pointed and relevant questions. She impresses folks in the real world when she makes comments or asks questions.

When she is 12 we will begin more critical writing/reading and will include the book “How to Read A Book”.. We will also practice debate.

My goal is to teach to a thinker rather than just have her regurgitate junk. Hopefully I will succeed.

kringeesmom on September 22, 2012 at 4:04 PM

“Kids need to see their work reach other readers … They need to have choices in the questions they write about, and a way to find their voice.”

Awesome. The Institution in its God-like wisdom is going to metaphorically tear down the Tower of Babel and diffuse the language (i.e. each finds his voice) to thwart the misdirected masses. The irony is delicious.

AnonymousDrivel on September 22, 2012 at 5:09 PM

The big question: why is the kid in question called “Johnny?” Might’ve made sense 50 years ago…

Olo_Burrows on September 22, 2012 at 5:37 PM

Some writing experts caution that championing expository and analytic writing at the expense of creative expression is shortsighted. “The secret weapon of our economy is that we foster creativity,”

The average libtard has no idea that the word “create” exists as a verb, meaning to MAKE something that didn’t exist before…. let alone why that process nearly always involves communicating clear and logical thoughts to other human beings.

To liberals the word creative only exists as a self-descriptive adjective, used to express how incredibly wonderful they feel about themselves. And LiberalSpeak works a lot better than old-fashioned English in getting that message across and, even more importantly, making sure that no countervailing message is ever received.

logis on September 22, 2012 at 6:39 PM

I call BS.

We need to focus on teaching READING.

Then they can read to learn facts, then later they can use reading and logic to figure things out, only then do they have something worth writing about.

Liberals always thing expressing one’s self is the most important thing, but if you are an idiot you would do best by educating yourself before you express yourself.

To quote the reading program that was all over the place when I was in school: “Reading Is Fundamental”

Spartacus on September 22, 2012 at 1:34 PM

Yes Yes Yes Yes YES.

Johnny can’t write cause johnny can’t read… and johnny hasn’t been able to read well for quite some time.

How are you supposed to write well when you don’t know what good writing even looks like!

Chaz706 on September 22, 2012 at 11:54 PM

Reading is the key. You learn good sentence structure, and can become a natural speller.

It seems to be working well for my 10 year old homeschooler. We read, read, read. We are studying formal grammar as well. When she writes and misspells a word, I correct her. She can write a cogent sentence and paragraph. She writes creatively on her own.

I stress comprehension through conversation. I ask her to relate three key points and to ask pointed and relevant questions. She impresses folks in the real world when she makes comments or asks questions.

When she is 12 we will begin more critical writing/reading and will include the book “How to Read A Book”.. We will also practice debate.

My goal is to teach to a thinker rather than just have her regurgitate junk. Hopefully I will succeed.

kringeesmom on September 22, 2012 at 4:04 PM

Teaching someone what to think is easy… and summarizes the bulk of most teaching in K-12 today.

Teaching someone how to think is incredibly hard but is also one of the noblest things anyone can aspire to do.

I salute you for your efforts and will cheer you on for them.

Chaz706 on September 22, 2012 at 11:57 PM

It’s a circle: even if the kids are reading nowadays, the writing they are reading is horrendous and reinforces their own lack of skill in communication.

The key is to get them reading GOOD writing at an early age, then teach them to communicate verbally the ideas found in that writing, then teach them to think critically and to communicate clearly in written form simultaneously.

Teaching the kids to write in cursive, using ink, does have one good outcome: they must learn to think first, then to put the ideas on paper (clearly). Ink cursive writing teaches this sort of organized thinking and writing.

GWB on September 23, 2012 at 7:43 AM

Teachers have an incentive to fail. If you succeed at one level of funding, you cannot constantly berate communities for their lack of caring and DEMAND more and more and more. If lousy teachers can’t teach at 75K, they still will be incompetant at 80K

The AFT and NEA are the problems

clnurnberg on September 23, 2012 at 9:38 AM

The ability to write coherently requires that you be able to think logically and be able to reason. Neither of these things have been taught in most public schools for 50 or more years. The purpose of geometry was to teach people to reason from a premise to a logical conclusion. “Logic” was once taught in high school. The inability to think logically is absolutely crucial to the empowerment of the Democrat party, hence the only thing stressed in education today is/are “feelings”.

R. C. Sproul, after visiting the National Archives, once asked, “Who taught these men to write?” If you ever read the writings of the founders, they may not all be classed as ‘brilliant’, but they are certainly light-years ahead of anything you’ll read from the nit-wits in public today. And how did they learn? Most were taught by their mothers, and they were taught from one primary source: the King James Bible.

But decades ago we were assured by education “experts” that nothing could be learned from the writings of Dead White Males, so schools started teaching from Marxists and other people who hate liberty.

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Galatians 6:7 (ASV)

Divine Judgement is knocking…

oldleprechaun on September 23, 2012 at 12:24 PM

I call BS.

We need to focus on teaching READING.

Then they can read to learn facts, then later they can use reading and logic to figure things out, only then do they have something worth writing about.

Spartacus on September 22, 2012 at 1:34 PM

Yes Yes Yes Yes YES.

How are you supposed to write well when you don’t know what good writing even looks like!

Chaz706 on September 22, 2012 at 11:54 PM

I am with you both so much on this. It’s putting the cart before the horse. In order to be able to write anything worth a darn, you have to first READ things that are worth a darn and get a general idea of how to proceed. I understood this in grade school when I read adventure books by the dozen before trying to program a text-adventure game.

It is futile to try and teach Johnny or Jane to write poetry or persuasive essays when they can’t read, or worse, won’t read unless nagged and/or threatened into compliance.

MelonCollie on September 23, 2012 at 3:39 PM

I hope this program includes using the correct spelling.

davod on September 23, 2012 at 4:05 PM

Inability to think or express ideas is a feature, not a bug, of the ‘caught, not taught’ method.

1984 really hammered the point home that a vocabulary as well as an ability to write are some of the most important aspects of your life. The fewer words you know the less thoughts you have, but now ignorance is a celebrated virtue in most urban schools.

John_Locke on September 24, 2012 at 11:48 AM

I at the end of a 2-year battle with my local school district. When we arrived, there was no mechanism in place to make sure that students were reading challenging books. Writing class “talked” about what makes a good writer but they didn’t actually put pen to paper until May.

My request for an advanced class for my child was denied because she hadn’t learned any writing skills in the last 2 years. Well, duh, the school hasn’t TAUGHT any.

This year a hint of success – they are requiring reading (and found that 6th graders have trouble w/ just 5 minutes of silent reading), they got a grant for advanced level books and kept them AWAY from the librarian who recommends pap, and, with any luck, the MAP analysis will allow them to fire the one or two deadwood teachers that drag everyone down.

Daisy_WI on September 24, 2012 at 12:05 PM

I call BS.

We need to focus on teaching READING.

Then they can read to learn facts, then later they can use reading and logic to figure things out, only then do they have something worth writing about.

Liberals always thing expressing one’s self is the most important thing, but if you are an idiot you would do best by educating yourself before you express yourself.

To quote the reading program that was all over the place when I was in school: “Reading Is Fundamental”

Spartacus on September 22, 2012 at 1:34 PM

we have inputs, processing, and then outputs.

Writing is an output.
Reading is an input.
Garbage (or 17 magazine, or MSNBC) in gives us garbage out, particularly when schools focus on liberal brainwashing and “creativity” vs. analysis.

This is why we must focus on knowledge acquisition first, the ability to independently gain more knowledge, and the ability to independently gauge if the “logic” that the teachers are teaching makes sense. This is reading.

Focus on the ability to gain good and voluminous input, then on analysis, then and only then do we give a sh*t what you (or the kid) think.

Writing to express your creativity is not nearly as important as understanding Economics, History, Math, Home-Ec, Vocational skills etc.

We have a nation of creative idiots with French Basket Weaving degrees (photography minor) making coffee for us as is.

Spartacus on September 22, 2012 at 3:55 PM

Reading being the input must be learned much sooner than the writing part. Reading should be imphasized much sooner (Elementary School) then transition to Writing (Middle School) then culmanate in High School.

Both are equally important and must be layered…onion anyone?

Spinstra on September 24, 2012 at 2:57 PM

The reason Johnny can’t write is because of Social Security, plain and simple.

Adults no longer need to feel obligated to educate their children in order to have a secure old age. They can rely on Uncle Sam to rape other people’s children to give them security.

THAT IS WHY JOHNNY CANNOT WRITE. Because Social Security Taxes, Medicare Taxes, Regular taxes that are spent on social welfare programs will leave Johnny and Sally less able to take care of Mom and Pop in their old age, so what is the point in putting the effort into training the little leeches!?! Why do you think we have abortion, school as a babysitter rather than educator? Because parents really do not care overall.

astonerii on September 24, 2012 at 4:27 PM