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Opinion

The Whiteboard Jungle: Writing skills continue to decline in schools

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Even 10th-graders in an honors class have inadequate writing skills, columnist and teacher Brian Crosby has found.
(File Photo)

The other day I asked my students what they knew about Herbert Hoover, the name emblazoned on their school. Besides a few rudimentary things such as he was a president, few knew anything else.

Then I asked about Mark Keppel and Eleanor J. Toll, names of their elementary and middle schools, respectively.

Nothing.

Isn’t it odd that students can attend a school for several years yet not be taught anything about the person whose name graces the building they enter and exit day after day?

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They were never curious enough to Google these names, even though they have libraries of information at their fingertips on the cellphones they carry.

Just another reminder about the paradox that surrounds us living at a time when information is everywhere, yet people seem less knowledgeable despite the technological advancements.

Unfortunately, from my view in the classroom trenches, the downward trend of what kids know is not surprising.

Exhibit A: student writing.

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Picture a piece of notebook paper with printing (no more cursive handwriting) that starts on the first line all the way on the left-hand side and continues down the entire page without any indentations, paragraphs or blank lines. Just a block of text.

I even have students who turn in multiple pages of their work without stapling them together.

If I were talking about a third-grade class, you wouldn’t be surprised.

But I’m referring to 10th graders in an honors class, two years away from entering college.

Yikes!

How can a 15-year-old get this far in school and not know how to follow the most fundamental rules of writing?

Students’ lack of paragraphing carries over to more critical areas of writing such as formulating a thesis, organizing topics, supporting opinion with evidence, and so on.

With each passing year that I teach, I have seen a degradation in students’ writing skills.

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It’s not that students don’t know how to write, it’s that teachers haven’t asked them enough times to practice it.

Kids aren’t getting the instruction and practice they need to become more effective communicators. The amount of writing a student does depends on the individual teacher.

If a student writes one paper per quarter, four papers a year, in ninth through 12th grades, that totals 16 papers in one’s high school career. But more often than not, students receive even less writing practice than that.

For the most part, students write papers in their English classes. Imagine how much stronger their skills would be if they were practicing them in history and science classes.

The writing doesn’t have to be multiple-page opuses. Even a one-pager regularly assigned can provide sufficient practice in exercising their writing muscles.

Years ago, I was asked to coach social science teachers on how to grade short pieces of writing using rubrics. There was resistance.

If only English teachers are expected to give writing assignments, students will continue floundering.

After all, today’s English teachers must deliver differentiating instruction for three types of student populations — regular ability, special education, English language learners — in a classroom bulging with nearly 40 pupils.

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And it is expected those instructors will assign writing on a regular basis? Where is the time outside of work hours to grade 175 papers?

As I have written in this space before, Glendale Unified used to support English teachers with lay readers and paper-grading days to ease the heavy workload. However, those programs have long been eliminated.

Why should the average person worry about these things?

Think about where these less-than-qualified students are headed — the workforce. The people who will be our caretakers in law, accounting and medicine. It is not just about indenting paragraphs.

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