Our Schools are Bad at Teaching Writing – One Perspective

I stumbled across a great column by Jay Mathews today in the Washington Post regarding teaching writing in our schools…. or rather, how badly our schools are at teaching writing.

Mathews says, “With a few exceptions, our schools are bad at teaching writing. Students are not asked to do much of it, mostly because reading and correcting their work takes so much time. Instruction methods are often academic and lifeless.

English teachers rarely assign non-fiction reading and are even less apt to require non-fiction writing. Almost no high school students, except those in private or International Baccalaureate schools, are required to do major research papers.

Worthy attempts at reform haven’t gotten far. Writing instruction is killing our children’s natural desire to express themselves. Compare their school assignments to their e-mails and you will see what I mean.

Leading this movement is Paula Stacey, an editor and educator who has taught every level of writing instruction. Her Sept. 21 Education Week piece exposed the torture that is Composition 101. “We have the entire English department at a local high school,” Stacey wrote, “embracing a schoolwide essay format that calls for exactly three central paragraphs containing exactly eight sentences: topic sentence, detail sentence, commentary sentence, another detail sentence, another commentary sentence, a final detail sentence, a final commentary sentence, and a concluding sentence.

“At a different high school across town, a history teacher hands out zeros to students who don’t have the thesis statement as the final sentence in the opening paragraph. Meanwhile, a woman I know who teaches at an elite research university bemoans the fact that her students, among the best in the country, have mastered the five-paragraph essay, but can’t develop a complex idea in writing.”

Drawing upon my experiences in the classroom, the best examples of writing were those that enabled students to express thoughts and ideas about something real and relevant and meaningful.  I agree with Mathews that teaching writing is hard work and time-consuming.  But great teachers know that there is a huge ROI on that work.

One great resource to inspire great writing in the upper grades is the book, Moe’s Cafe.  These classroom-tested prompts put students in a place or in front of a character and ask them to describe what they “see.” The thinking, writing, and scribbling they do for the prompts inspires them to create their own stories and poems. After writing 90-word mini-stories, students read a short story or watch a film scene to help them expand on their own creative works. For writing teachers in grades 6-12, this one is worth checking out.

Read the entire column by Mathews here, and let us know if you agree. We’d love to hear from you.

Schoodoodle.com offers a wide selection of instructional materials for language arts, writingmath, science, social studies, and early childhood.

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