“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
This weekend, while I was in line to purchase materials for class, I heard a strange, repetitive mechanized noise. I looked next to me and there IT was — a boy, not more than 7, totally consumed with a video game playing on his mom’s phone. His mom? Disconnected. Totally unaware that the entertainment habit she had provided him might soon become his downfall.
The articles are all over the Internet. It’s the buzz in the teacher’s lounge and it’s the headache of more and more parents these days… kids can’t write anymore. This doesn’t mean they can’t write a sentence. It means that they are losing the ability to compose a thoughtful or analytical passage. The reason? Kids can’t write because they can’t or don’t read. Yet, the acquisition and application of language skills underpin success in all areas of the curriculum.
The great writer Stephen King says in his book On Writing that all great authors of our time were also voracious readers, with the exception of a very few. The rule is that you must be a reader first, a writer second.
According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the battle against English and the other humanities has led to some unintended and very negative effects. Parents don’t read to their children as much, K-12 humanities teachers are not as well-trained as STEM ones, federal funding for international education is down 41% over four years, and many college students graduate without being able to write clearly.
From middle school to college, educators all over have noticed a startling decline in the quality of written work turned in by their students.
Research shows that not only are students not demonstrating critical thinking skills in their writing, but also their ability to use proper syntax, spelling, and structure (paragraph indentation and how to cite sources) has declined. How many times must a teacher correct “their” when it was meant to be “there”?
Last week, a brilliant educator colleague of mine, Carol Bregman, was helping me find ways to support writing in my science curriculum. She suggested that I ask my students to write a 21 word sentence on what we had just covered in class. Twenty-one words — no more, no less. You would have thought that I asked them to do 21 push ups! It was painful for both them and me. Many couldn’t do it.
Peg Tyre in her essay, The Writing Revolution, shares a story about a Staten Island High School, New Dorp. In 2006, 82% of its freshmen were reading below grade level and routinely scored poorly on the English and history Regents exams, a New York State graduation requirement. The reason? The essay questions were too difficult. For decades, no one seemed to know how to help these students. But after a detailed investigation, the finger pointed to bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences and essays was impeding intellectual growth in many subjects.
Tyre says that New Dorp’s writing revolution — much like the revolutions now taking place across America, thanks to Common Core — placed an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching analytical writing skills. Ultimately, their pass rates for the English Regents went from 67% in June 2009 to 89% in 2011; and the global-history exam, rose from 64 to 75%.
No matter where you look, studies consistently show that the ability to express thoughts on paper is a defining factor between those who succeed and those who do not.
According to the Nation’s Report Card, in 2007, the latest year for which this data is available, only 1 percent of all 12th graders nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-organized essay. Last spring, Florida school officials administered a writing test that required 10th graders to produce an expository essay aligned with Common Core goals. The pass rate on the exam plummeted from 80 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2015.
For the first time, elementary-school students — who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction — will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. With the implementation of the Florida Standard Assessment, high school students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.
Connecting Reading to Writing
William Harris, a professor emeritus at Middlebury College, says that when we ask why Johnny can’t write, we also have to ask the more important and basic question: Why can’t he read?
There are clues that may explain why this deterioration has occurred so fast and with such widespread effects.
The early l950’s provided us with a strong print culture. As society embraced television, it began its slow disintegration. Further technology (CD recordings, music videos) created the audio-visual society. It is suggested that the major cause for student’s poor writing, is the result of many years of de-focused habit of looking at printed words, stemming from the shift toward more visual and auditory inputs. Everybody talks about the importance of “computer literacy” in today’s world, but this has come with a price —verbal illiteracy.
For a student to succeed in college, he or she must be able to read between 40 and 60 pages an hour. At this rate, the only practical way to read is by skimming along to hit the peaks and sliding quickly over the rest. But reading fast is not the same as reading carefully. All good books must be read very slowly. Fast reading grasps the ideas but misses the impact of the individual words, which often convey a special meaning of their own. And how do you “skim-read” poetry?
Teachers suggest that struggling readers and struggling writers create shorter and more disjointed sentences. They don’t incorporate the words that conjoin and expand ideas. Words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. Some of the best-written paragraphs contain complex sentences that employ dependent clauses like although and despite. These show an idea shift within the same sentence.
Revamping the Curriculum
The No Child Left Behind program mandated tests to assess two subjects — math and reading, and we all know what gets tested gets taught. Literacy, once understood to be the ability to read for knowledge and write coherent and complex thoughts, has simply become the ability to read.
Arthur Applebee, director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany says “writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding, has become increasingly rare.”
Schools like New Dorp revamped their curriculum so that essay writing was employed to teach the content areas. In chemistry class, a lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required students to describe the elements with subordinating clauses — for instance, they had to begin one sentence with the word although.
Although … “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.”
If … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”
The real world
Max Nisen, in his Business Insider piece America Is Raising A Generation Of Kids Who Can’t Think Or Write Clearly, shares the importance of writing in the business world. He says CEOs, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Logitech’s Bracken Darrell, Aetna’s Mark Bertolini, and legendary Intel co-founder Andy Grove emphasize how essential clear writing is. STEM alone isn’t enough. An idea cannot be realized if you cannot convey it to others in writing. Almost every job demands clear if not elegant writing, yet writing skills seem to be disappearing.
Future of Writing
When we ask why young people can’t write decent English prose, we need to ask “What do we do about it?” Traditional grammar instruction doesn’t work. One of the best things to start with is language, with its nouns and verbs, phrases and sentences.
Clarifying what is meant, and putting it down in exact words so someone else can understand it, is a basic trait of being human. Our verbal tools need resharpening in order to recapture the edge of effective thinking.
Farnoosh Brock in her piece 39 Reasons Why You Must Read In Order to Write Well, reviewed and summarized King’s book with a list of reasons why reading is so critical to writing. Here are three:
1. Reading acts as a mental stimulation and fills you with inspiration.
2. It improves your vocabulary and enhances your memory.
3. It makes your writing stronger by teaching you the rules of good basic writing.
Teaching grammar and punctuation does not have to be dull. Julie McGuire, in her piece, Teaching of Basic Literacy Skills is Being Eroded in Our Schools, shares that when these skills are taught in context, and made relevant to the learning in class, they can be more meaningful than an unrelated grammar lesson. It is more likely that they will retain the key concepts. Reading comprehension skills can be taught through researching areas of interest or teaching drafting and editing skills through creative writing.
Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College guards against formulaic instruction to prevent students from tuning out. She says “kids need to see their work reach other readers … They need to have choices in the questions they write about, and a way to find their voice.”
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.
For more information
For great examples and information on the most common writing problems in elementary, middle, and high school, and how you can help, go to: