Making the Pen Mighty Again


You don’t write because you want to say something… you write because you have something to say, said American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

That is supposed to be a basic premise when one puts pen to paper. Unfortunately, real life appears to tell a different story. While employers in the US want to hire graduates who can analyze quantitative data, think creatively and write clearly, such potential is hardly found in many prospective candidates. This has led employers to require writing and communications skills as a must-have in job advertisements.

While graduates fresh out of college face this challenge, when in college, they drive their professors to despair. An English professor at College of the Sequoias, Joseph R. Teller, recently wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “My students can’t write a clear sentence to save their lives, and I’ve had it. In 10 years of teaching writing, I have experimented with different assignments, activities, readings, approaches to commenting on student work — you name it — all to help students write coherent prose that someone would actually want to read. And as anyone who keeps up with trends in higher education knows, such efforts largely fail.”

Professor Teller says that substantial revision of a first draft never takes place, and with all the strategies he tried, “weak drafts remain weak; stronger drafts get slightly stronger, but not by much.” Many students are tempted to use “write my essay” services.

Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa question the quality of undergraduate learning in the United States, following the outcome of a study they did on over 2000 students at four-year colleges. In their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the two authors write, “If students are not being asked to read and write on a regular basis in their course work, it is hard to imagine how they will improve their capacity to master performance tasks that involve critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.”

Many college courses rarely require extensive writing projects because it increases the workload on students and professors. Students question the logic of having to write five-page essays, quite apart from 20 pages, when many of them will only need to master the skills of doing PowerPoint slides, emails and one-paged memos at their jobs. However, with any activity requiring more hours of practice earlier on, college graduates need to master coherent writing as students in order to compose anything in their jobs later on.

Journalist Don Fry categorizes two types of writers – planners and plungers. Fry said that the world was once made up of planners, but teachers of today say many of their students are plungers – starting to write before they even know what to write, shortchanging on research and organization of the writing process. A high school teacher of journalism from Pennsylvania said, “They need to learn that the writing process is not linear.” In fact, the correct approach to writing includes pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing and sharing, with components of that process repeated often.

The reason why college students in the US write so poorly goes way back to elementary, middle and high school approaches to teaching students to write. In the past 30 years or so, the approach taken was to push aside critical writing skills to allow self-expression like stories, poems and personal essays. It was an approach intended to make instruction livelier and to get more kids to write. Profession of Education Instruction at the Arizona State University, Steven Graham, said, the popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught.” That approach may attract students to engage in writing but it does not teach them how to write. Emotional expression may be powerful but logical thinking and analysis is essential as part of life skills, not just writing skills – and elementary education ignores that.

A teacher at a public high school in a high-poverty area in Washington DC, recently discovered that students are unfamiliar with the basic components of English grammar – such as the subject and the verb. Some students did not know that “Although I am home early” is not a complete sentence. Analyzing further, it became apparent that the problem is much deeper than mere ignorance of grammatical, spelling and punctuation rules. Many students did not understand how a paragraph binds together and were unable to distinguish a connection between a claim and evidence in upholding or refuting the claim. That is, they did not understand how to build a logical argument. So, students are unable to write coherently, because they have not been trained to think analytically.

In this backdrop, a passionate educator named Judith Hochman introduced a revolutionary writing program in a low-performing high school in Staten Island New York a few years ago. The Atlantic magazine drew attention to the dramatic results, this program, which focused on writing in English, history and sciences courses, achieved with a structured and adaptable form. The aptitude of students rose to unbelievable levels. What is vital here is the attention given to critical thinking, with the use of conjunctions like “but”, “because” and “so.” Students were led to connecting thoughts, analyzing and drawing conclusions. This automatically led to coherent writing. It had to. The Hochman’s program also focused on enhancing students’ reading comprehension. Having to summarize a portion of text involves having to understand what it means.

The Hochman Program led 46 states and Washington DC to align themselves with the Common Core State Standards for the English Language Arts, and require students to write informative and persuasive essays in elementary school. By the time they are in High School, they will be expected to write more mature and thoughtful essays, not only in their English classes, but also in history and science classes. This approach to teaching students to write will unlock their intelligence in a way that multiple-choice questions never will.

As screenwriter Bill Wheeler said, “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.”

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