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Why so many college students are lousy at writing — and how Mr. Miyagi can help

Actors Ralph Macchio, left, and Pat Morita on the set of “The Karate Kid II” in Kahaluu, Hawaii, in 1985. (AP)

There are a lot of students who enter college as lousy writers — and who graduate without seeming to make much, if any, improvement. It is true in the arts as well as the sciences, anecdotally evidenced by some of the blog post submissions I get from a wide range of people whose jobs would suggest they can communicate well in writing but, as it turns out, not so much.

How can someone get out of college — any college — without being a decent writer? And what can we do about it? Those are the subjects of this post, by John G. Maguire, who has taught writing for decades at a half dozen New England colleges, including Boston University. He developed his first-year Readable Writing course while at the Berklee College of Music, and he blogs on the subject of writing pedagogy at

What happened when one school banned homework — and asked kids to read and play instead

By John G. Maguire

The failure of many of today’s college students to write decently, even after years of instruction, became headline news not long ago when a well-researched study of college student learning was published as a book under the title “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” Its authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, found that 45 percent of 2,300 students at 24 colleges showed no significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years. Experts in education were shocked. Bill Gates said, “Before reading this book, I took it for granted that colleges were doing a very good job.”

Those who were paying closer attention than Gates have known for some while that many colleges are terrible at teaching writing. Millions of young men and women sit in freshman composition classrooms each fall semester, but if the Arum report is right, nearly half will write just as badly in their junior years as when they started college. There are “legions of college graduates who cannot write a clear, grammatical sentence,” says Natalie Wexler of The Writing Revolution, an educational nonprofit group focused on the reformation of writing pedagogy.

Why aren’t they learning? There are multiple causes. One is that schools admit students who can’t write and then pack them into comp courses taught by adjuncts. But the main problem, I think, is that the colleges are not really trying to teach students to write clear sentences. Not anymore. First-semester writing courses now cover rhetorical strategies, research, awareness of audience, youth civic activism — everything except the production of clear sentences.

“The college writing profession has made a conscious decision not to teach style,” says Phillip Mink, an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Delaware. “If you review the scholarly literature, which I have done, you will find virtually nothing about student prose at all.” To the full-time professionals who publish in journals, Mink says, “the quality of student prose is nothing more than an afterthought.”

We could wring our hands and ask how we got to this pass, but it makes more sense to decide what to do going forward.

What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning

I propose that we redesign our college writing courses from the ground up, and fast. We have to stop kidding ourselves that students can write sentences when they enter college — because many cannot — and start teaching them how to do it. We need to revise writing courses and directly teach style — the readable style.

Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” might be a good place to start, but it’s not enough. We need a real theory of what constitutes readable writing so we can build a course on that theory. I’d recommend going back to “The Art of Readable Writingby Rudolf Flesch and teaching from that. (I have in fact developed Flesch’s ideas into a course.)

Professional writers and editors, such as those at The Post, know readability can be learned. They have learned how to be vivid and interesting, what to do when a sentence is screwed up by a bad verb, and why one controls sentence length. Why not teach these skills to college freshmen?

The composition profession evades the teaching of writing, I think, because the job seems impossible these days, especially in 14 weeks. How can you get them to write well when half the students in your classroom can’t find the subject and verb in a sentence? Much easier just to talk about rhetorical strategies.

But redesign the courses so they focus only on readability of style and we might get somewhere, even in one semester. First we figure out what makes a readable style, working from Flesch and Strunk & White, and then we reward students for doing it.

Myself, I’d consult with Kesuke Miyagi, the karate master played by Pat Morita in “The Karate Kid” (1984).

Everyone, even today’s students, remembers how Mr. Miyagi insists, “Wax on, wax off,” to the kid, who is sure he is being enslaved and abused — but then later discovers that the waxing and fence-painting motions are foundation skills for karate, and he’s grateful. I’m a teacher, and I know what Mr. Miyagi did — he tricked the kid into learning. He got him to do important behaviors first, and didn’t reveal where they fit into the overall skill until later.

Colleges should teach the important writing behaviors first, one at a time, in sequence. They should offer new writing courses that assume students know nothing about sentences and train new sentence behaviors from the ground up. Be repetitive and tricky — fool the kids into doing the right thing. Create muscle memory. Think “wax on, wax off.”  The kid’s goal was to win the karate contest. The student writer’s goal should be mastery of the readable style. Period.

What happens when young kids are forced to sit too long in class