Why can it be so hard to teach students to write?

  • If you are a teacher who has struggled with teaching your students to write, you’re not alone.

    The research studies and reports have become relentless over the past couple of decades: Students are having more and more trouble learning to write well. It’s not one particular age – elementary, secondary, and post-secondary teachers all cite examples. And the growing inability to write is the topic of research studies, books, newspaper and magazine articles, podcasts, and blogs written by teachers and professors.

    The reasons given are many, and change depending on who’s discussing the issue. The truth is probably a combination of many factors:

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    • A decrease in reading, in large part due to the prevalence of the Internet and smartphones. The the ability to write well often reflects how much a student reads. A report published by the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which combined several national studies and databases, found that fewer children were reading for pleasure, reading proficiency itself is falling in young children, and the achievement gap between white students and students of color remains.
    • The kinds of writing kids are asked to do in school don’t necessarily focus on the best ways to communicate ideas. And some technology – like automatic essay-grading software used at higher levels of education – relies  more on a checklist of writing elements (the five-paragraph essay) rather than the overall message. It’s possible for students to get good grades but still not be able to write well on their own.
    • The effects of standardized testing. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act signed into law in 2002 primarily focused on reading and math scores, and attached penalties to schools and teachers that didn’t perform. “As the realities of NCLB trickled down to the classroom level, the overwhelming pressure on English teachers to get results on reading tests led to many teachers reducing the amount of instructional time devoted to writing,” wrote teacher Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post. “Writing standards still appeared in each state’s curriculum, but NCLB only mandated that math and reading be tested. And in the education world, unfortunately, what gets tested it often what gets taught.” Common Core State Standards, launched in 2009, were intended to change this, in part by requiring students to learn essay writing. But progress has been elusive; the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) writing assessment test in 2017 showed that three-quarters of both 8th and 12th graders still lacked proficiency in writing.

    LDOnline, a website that works in association with the National Joint Council on Learning Disabilities, focuses on information about learning disabilities and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It makes several points about why students today might dislike or even avoid writing. For some, it’s because the act of writing requires multiple components that must be used together. Some students have differences in how they process information. Others, used to the fast-paced information superhighway of television and smartphones, have difficulty focusing on the quieter, slower activity of writing. Other aspects:

    • The task seems overwhelming.
    • They have trouble organizing the components of writing.
    • They have difficulty with vocabulary.
    • Forming and developing ideas can be difficult.
    • They lose patience with the seemingly slow process.
    • They aren’t happy with their results.

    LDOnline creates a pyramid, with “underlying processing skills” at the bottom, a shared middle portion between “mechanical skills” and “content skills,” and “writing efficiency” – the goal – at the top. Processing skills are such things as language formulation, working memory, the physical aspects of writing, and how quickly a student performs at motor tasks. Mechanical skills involve such things as an understanding of basic spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Content skills include organizing and expressing ideas, or understanding the viewpoint of the reader. To build upon any level enhances the upper levels of the pyramid, but to ignore the lower levels means you’ll never progress to the top.

    Here’s another truth: If you’re not a good writer yourself, you’ll struggle more with teaching your students. “We can’t teach what we don’t know, and when it comes to writing, it’s important to continue honing our craft,” writes David Cutler, a teacher in Massachusetts, for Edutopia. “If you haven’t engaged in much formal writing since college, you will remain a less effective writing teacher. No matter what subject you teach, try starting a blog, writing articles, or developing short stories – all terrific ways to engage the mind and keep your skills sharp.”

    To meet both needs, Dominican University Online has designed a five-course continuing education series on teaching writing — Teaching the Foundations for Skillful Writing — which supports the Common Core Standards and breaks the content into “writing traits:” ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions and presentation. The courses build upon one another as follows:

    • Teaching the Foundations for Skillful Writing: Assessing the Traits of Writing (EDUO 9207, 3 credits). This course supports Common Core College and Career-Readiness Standards on “clear and coherent writing” and “developing and strengthening writing.” This course lays the foundation, introducing the writing traits and exploring the role of assessment, and is a prerequisite for the other four courses (though there is no required order for those).
    • Teaching the Foundations for Skillful Writing: Ideas and Organization (EDUO 9218, 2 credits). This and each of the other following courses guide you through exercises and strategies for teaching the trait in the title. You’ll come away with student-based activities for the classroom, a lesson plan, a supply of writing prompts, a grading rubric, and more.
    • Teaching the Foundations for Skillful Writing: Word Choice (EDUO 9219, 2 credits).
    • Teaching the Foundations for Skillful Writing: Voice (EDUO 9220, 2 credits)
    • Teaching the Foundation for Skillful Writing: Sentence Fluency (EDU0 9221, 2 credits).

    How about you? If you feel that improving your personal writing skills and/or your ability to teach writing could help your students, explore the Teaching the Foundations for Skillful Writing series. You can find more information or register here.

    Photo credit: MonkeyBusinessImages via istockphoto.com.