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The Whiteboard Jungle: Students’ writing skills diminishing

Over the years that I have been an English teacher, there has been a steady decline in students’ writing skills.

Every time I assign a major piece of writing, one that is multiple pages in length, I brace myself for the avalanche of papers about to be turned in. It’s not the sheer volume of 100-plus essays submitted in one day that blows me back; it’s the poor quality that is troubling.

It can be quite disheartening to read student writing from advanced students and realize that these young people, the best in their class, struggle to organize their thoughts, unable to form a clear argument.

Reasons for this decline do not require a Brookings Institution study. Kids are reading less, and teachers are assigning less writing.

In the most recent round of essays I graded, one-third of the papers did not mention the literature being written about in the introduction, and when they did, these 15-year-olds did not properly punctuate the book title.

Like turning a car engine on and off, their papers began, ended and began again in just two paragraphs, each paragraph reading as a new beginning, lacking transitions or threads to the thesis.

They often bounced back and forth between present and past tense, singular and plural pronoun forms in the same sentence.

And some students decided to analyze the film version, not the book itself, perhaps because they did not read it.

I teach my students that the best mistake-prevention tool when writing is to read their paper out loud; few did it as evidenced by the scores of typos not caught by a spellchecker. What else explains not capitalizing names of characters or misspelling the names altogether?

I asked my students how many of their teachers (other than me) require them to write an expository essay: 53% said one, 14% said none.

Of course, students don’t have to write full-fledged essays to practice writing. Students can show their thinking by writing multiple-sentence answers to test questions. So, I queried my students on this.

While 40% replied that they have two or more teachers who administer this type of test, 32% have just one teacher who does so, while 28% have none. That means, for the majority of the time, students are taking multiple choice tests, which require no writing beyond a fill in the blank.

Remember, these students are taking other advanced placement classes, the most rigorous courses the school has to offer. Think about how little writing must be happening in the regular classes.

The teachers at the secondary level, especially those who don’t teach English, need to have students read critically and write analytically as often as they can. With so little writing being practiced, students enter college with a huge handicap.

My freshman son volunteered that only a couple of his high school classes prepared him for the level of writing and the amount of reading required in college; this coming from someone who took several Advanced Placement classes. Even though all the courses were labeled “college prep,” few deserved that distinction.

If one of the missions of high school is to prepare students for university-level work, we are doing a miserable job.

Could this partially explain why only 21% of Cal State University freshmen finish college in four years?

Finding a student paper that isn’t riddled with errors is as rare as finding a parking space at the Glendale Galleria on Black Friday. And when there is a crisply written paper with an eye-catching opening, a strong argument and quotes that support astute observations, a teacher wants to shout “hallelujah,” with hope in America’s youth restored.

Until the next paper on the pile.

BRIAN CROSBY is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District and the author of “Smart Kids, Bad Schools” and “The $100,000 Teacher.” He can be reached at www.brian-crosby.com.

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