Why Johnny Can’t Write

The Atlantic has a nice debate up on the history of the teaching of writing that ought to interest several of our posters and commenters. As part of the series, Judith Hochman writes:

I have learned that celebrating writing is not the same as teaching children how to write — how to craft good sentences, develop a well-formed paragraph, and improve their work. Too often, teachers merely tell students to “add detail” or “summarize.” Frustrated students don’t know what to do, and many teachers haven’t learned the proper teaching skills in their graduate or professional development classes to effectively help them.

Make no mistake — done right, good writing instruction can extend learning. Diagramming sentences or doing page after page in grammar texts does not automatically result in better writers, although more able students enjoy these types of activities. There is evidence that confirms that teaching grammar in isolation does not lead to better composing. But research does confirm that when students begin to write more complex sentences, their reading comprehension improves. When they develop outlines, their organization and knowledge of text structure improves. When they respond to verbal questions using the prompts Tyre describes in the article, their oral language becomes more precise and sophisticated.

Stylish Academic Writing

2 thoughts on “Why Johnny Can’t Write

  1. I think the excerpt you posted (and Sword’s book) focus too much on the sentence level and on style. To me, teaching students to write means teaching students to think through written language, and that means they need interesting questions and ideas to think and write about. In this respect, I agree with Arthur Applebee’s position that writing instruction needs to be grounded in a particular subject matter or discipline or set of ideas. Asking students to write about themselves assumes that 1) students are naturally self-centered and 2) students know themselves. But those assumptions underestimate the range of students’ interests and overestimate their self-knowledge. If we want students to write more than shallow autobiography, we need to give them critical lenses through which to view themselves and their experiences (theories about the self, other writings about other selves, etc.). Which brings me to a point that I didn’t seem mentioned in my quick skim of the articles — if you want to improve students’ writing, you absolutely need to have them practice writing (a lot), but you also need to have them read a lot. How do you learn to construct complex sentences, have a sense of paragraph organization, and the structure of complex, layered narratives and arguments if you haven’t read texts that have these features?

  2. Totally agree, s.l.kim. Moreover, autobiographical writing hobbles feedback. Assumptions of self-knowledge usually come with assumptions of privileged access,* which means the teacher relinquishes a heck of a lot of authority before the assignment even begins.

    *Also a terrible assumption.

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