I published a recent post about how to teach writing to college students that seems to have sparked a good deal of discussion, as evidenced by the emails I have received about it. It was written by John G. Maguire, who has taught writing for decades at a half-dozen New England colleges, including Boston University, and the headline was, “Why so many college students are lousy at writing — and how Mr. Miyagi can help.”

It said that the main reason young people can’t write well is that colleges are not “really trying to teach students to write clear sentences.” To fix this, he said, he would “redesign the courses so they focus only on readability of style and we might get somewhere, even in one semester,” and he would use a teaching strategy made famous in the 1984 movie “The Karate Kid” by a character named Kesuke Miyagi, a karate master.

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.

Well, there was a good deal of criticism from other academics of the Miyagi approach — rote practice — to the teaching of writing. Here is one piece that takes issue with Maguire.

It was written by John Warner, a writer and college instructor who has authored five books and taught writing at various institutions for almost 20 years, including most recently at the College of Charleston.

He blogs about education for Inside Higher Ed and writes a weekly column on books and reading for the Chicago Tribune. He has two books on the teaching of writing currently under submission, “Why Can’t They Write? Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities,” and “Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay: A Book of Writing-Related Problems.” Both books have received multiple offers of publication.

By John Warner

We’re teaching writing wrong.

We must be, because when I meet people and they find out that I’ve spent 20 years teaching writing at the college level, they are eager to tell me how today’s generation can’t write worth a damn.

“What they write doesn’t make sense! I can’t even understand the sentences, let alone the message!”

“And why do they keep writing ‘plethora’?”

Complaints about the substandard writing abilities of students date back to the earliest classrooms. Professor Og was likely rending his animal skin over Student Thak’s failure to properly etch the antelope glyph onto the cave wall.

That said, over the last several years, I have noticed a significant uptick in the percentage of students entering my first-year writing classroom who, despite strong academic records, seem ill-prepared for the rigors of college-level writing.

In our age of educational standards and accountability, and its increasing focus on writing instruction, this generation of students, who have spent the entirety of their K-12 educations being made “college and career ready,” should be, well … ready.

But increasingly, it seems to be the opposite.

On this, Professor John G. Maguire writing recently in the Answer Sheet and I agree. Maguire believes the problem can be solved by a focus on teaching students “readability,” and drilling them in how to write clear, grammatical sentences.

Unfortunately, he is wrong. Maguire is clinging to a kind of educational folklore. The reason there is limited current scholarly writing on student prose is because the direct instruction of grammar as a method for teaching meaningful writing practice has been discredited for more than 50 years.

In 1963, the National Council for Teachers of English reported in “Research in Written Composition” that “the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.”

A 1985 resolution by the NCTE reaffirms this research:

“Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction.”

A 2007 meta-analysis of 11 different teaching methods found the only one that was ineffective was direct grammar instruction.

Even the sainted Strunk & White have been repeatedly demonstrated to be both haphazard grammarians  and in the case of White, habitual violators of their own dictums.

Knowing this might make one tempted to give up altogether. Perhaps it’s simply impossible to teach students to write in today’s world. Maguire suggests we have indeed given up on the task, claiming that the “composition profession evades the teaching of writing,” but the reality is that the teaching of writing is hindered by attitudes and approaches that resurrect such zombie ideas of writing instruction despite the efforts of knowledgeable composition professionals to put them to an eternal rest.

Students struggle at writing because in an era of standardization and accountability, very little of the “writing” we ask them to do requires them to engage deeply with the true basics of writing: ideas.

Maguire analogizes writing with the “muscle memory” that Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel in “The Karate Kid,” but writing is thinking, and thinking is not a reflex, but is instead a complex and deliberative process.

Maguire’s focus on sentence “readability” as the basics of writing is actually rooted in the same problems with writing instruction that is oriented toward passing standardized assessments judged on surface level traits. Students are coached on rubrics and rules that will help them pass muster on these tests — for good reason when teachers and schools are going to be judged on the results — but genuine, meaningful writing does not adhere to rubrics and rules.

Sure, drilling students in what competent sentences look like will allow students to create something that resembles writing, but to invoke another classic film, “Blazing Saddles,” it’s writing that’s akin to the fake version of Rockridge the townspeople erect in order to fool the marauders, flimsy facades with nothing behind them.

If we want students to truly write well, rather than settling for surface features either through a “readability” approach, or one rooted in the necessity of passing a standardized assessment, we must require students to engage in a much more rigorous curriculum centered on the most important skill all writers must practice: making choices.

Writers choose what they want to write about (subject), who they want to write to (audience), and why they’re writing (purpose). In composition circles we call this the “rhetorical situation,” and without it, you’re not really writing. Instruction that ignores these dimensions will prevent students from developing meaningful writing practices.

This is not the fault of teachers, or parents, or students, but instead is a consequence of a system that was put into place bit-by-bit without sufficient thought as to the larger implications, a system that privileges shallow traits over genuine intellectual engagement.

Much of the writing students are asked to do in school is not writing so much as an imitation of writing, creating an artifact that resembles writing, but is not, in fact, the product of a robust, flexible, adaptable writing process rooted in the rhetorical situation.

Imagine an acting school, where instead of teaching the craft of performance, everyone was instructed only on impressions, DeNiro 101, Streep 413.

But what happens when our young thespians are tasked with a role which they haven’t learned how to mimic, a performance that doesn’t yet exist? Those uses of “plethora” are an attempt to imitate a smart person, even though no one ever uses plethora, except as a joke.


Maguire’s approach is simply a variation on this same theme, a method for buffing up the surface features of student prose in order to temporarily please for the purposes of assessment.

Sentences are hugely important, but they are not first. Simply examine your own writing practice, and you will recognize that the last thing to take shape in a piece of writing is the specifics of the sentences. First, we must have the idea.

I have seen the difference in student attitudes when presented with what I call “writing-related” problems, a more rigorous approach rooted in the full rhetorical situation that requires students to wrestle with all the dimensions of writing and create ideas that are meaningful to themselves and others.

There are no rubrics, no rules, no strategies. There is audience and need, and the problem must be solved, a problem such as trying to slay one of the most persistent zombie ideas in the teaching of writing being promoted in a major national newspaper, as is my self-appointed task here.

We can either train students to pass assessments that make teachers and bureaucrats happy, or we can help them learn how to think and write in ways that will allow them to operate effectively in the world.

We can’t do both.