Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews
Columnist

Writing lessons? Start over.

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 nonfiction reading and are even less apt to require nonfiction writing. Almost no high school students, except those in private or International Baccalaureate schools, are required to do major research papers.

Jay Mathews

writes a weekly column about education and the Class Struggle blog.

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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.

The only way to fix this is to tear up what we are doing and start over.

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.”

The new common core standards for ninth- and 10th-grade writing are enough to chill a classroom. Here is what they recommend for teaching how to write an argument:

“Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence. Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns. Use words, phrases, and clauses to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.”

The result of such clerical work is usually unreadable. Few people who learn to write this way ever make it their life’s work. The professional writers I know got excited not in class but while compiling personal journals, composing poems and songs, sending long letters or e-mails to friends, or working on the school newspaper, while reading great writers.

I have been influenced by educators who think free-reading is the best homework for elementary school. Why not add free-writing? Stacey suggested junking “the narrow models, the graphic organizers the formats and the steps” and do something very simple: “Ask students questions, read their answers and ask more questions.”

Even elementary school students love research opportunities. How long would it take for a fifth-grader to produce a report on which of her grandparents spent the most time in school, and why? Once in high school, they can read Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” and do a 4,000-word researched essay on a teacher-approved topic.

They will still need good teachers. Teaching writing the right way is hard work. But educators have told me they do it because for many of their students, it is the most satisfying work they will ever do.

Most school districts don’t see this. But some teachers have discarded the old rules. They inspire their students to be vivid and clear, rather than just orderly. They show how much this can improve their lives, from love letters to job applications. What better lesson is there in an Internet era in which more words are being written than ever before?

 
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