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An English Teacher Explains 5 Reasons Today’s Students Can’t Write

3 min

One of the interesting things about working at Intellectual Takeout is hearing the personal experiences of readers regarding issues we raise and discuss in our articles. A more recent example of this is the individual who wrote that he had gone back to college as a middle-age student seeking greater career advancement. While there, a teacher pulled him aside and accused him of plagiarism on a written assignment. The reason? His grammar was far better than that of his younger college classmates.

Unfortunately, that teacher’s accusation, although misguided, is somewhat understandable. Only one-fourth of America’s high school seniors are proficient in writing, a fact which causes many headaches for today’s college instructors, as was recently noted by Justin Parmenter in The Washington Post:  

“I reached out to postsecondary writing instructors across North Carolina to investigate trends in their students’ writing. The common refrain in their responses was that student writing skills had diminished over the past 15 years and that it appeared that writing had not been a priority in their students’ previous classes.

Many of these instructors spoke of their students’ inability to write in complete sentences with proper grammar and punctuation, to structure their writing effectively, and to provide support for their views. They told me students often didn’t know how to research or how to paraphrase the words of others in their writing. Unable to make up the necessary ground in four years, these students are then entering the job market with subpar writing skills.”

So what’s behind these poor writing skills which seem to prevail across the board in American schools? Parmenter, himself a celebrated English teacher, lists five reasons for the decline in writing.

1. Over-emphasis on Testing – Standardized appears to have “exploded in the past decade,” largely due to standards brought on through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Parmenter believes increased testing is a primary reason writing scores have declined over the same time period.  

2. Increased Focus on Other Subjects – Because tests have largely focused on reading, math, and science, teachers have devoted more time to teaching these subjects. As a result, writing gets pushed to the side.

3. Ill-prepared Teachers – As Parmenter notes, recent studies have found that many teachers simply are not equipped with good writing skills themselves, and as such, pass this inability on to their students. In all likelihood, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that highly-skilled experts in areas such as math, writing, and science are not allowed in the classroom unless they have official education credentials.

4. Not Enough Practice – Citing a 2015 Education Trust study, Parmenter writes:

“[L]ess than 10 percent of assignments required writing longer than a single paragraph, and nearly 20 percent of assignments required no writing at all. In fact, only 1 percent of assignments required students to think for extended periods of time – the kind of thinking required to plan, draft, revise and publish meaningful writing.”

5. Increased Emphasis on Technology – A final component preventing the development of writing skills, Parmenter notes, is technology. Although admittedly useful in some respects, technology has been found to hinder performance on writing tests, particularly for students with disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Writing is one of the key mediums used to express thoughts and ideas. Unless we place more emphasis on this craft, will we continue to see generations of students mature without being able to craft a cogent thought – both in written and oral form?

Annie Holmquist

Annie Holmquist

Annie Holmquist is the editor of Intellectual Takeout. When not writing or editing, she enjoys reading, gardening, and time with family and friends.

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bobbym51
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One other thing to consider is the writing skill, or LACK thereof, required of social media communications. There is no spell check and there is no moderator to correct fuzzy thinking so, as a result, there is NO learning curve to communications. Spelling has always been a hobby horse that I tend to ride so I am never surprised by the sloppy product I see on screen.
 
 

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Bladerunner
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I do not know Annie Holmquist, nor do I know what grade she is teaching. However, I do know the English being taught to my stepson, nephew, and niece at the grades of 6-9. It's terrible. And what's terrible isn't the "teaching" of it, but rather, the acceptance of POOR grammar, spelling, sentence structure and most of all, critical thinking. Example: My stepson was asked to write an essay on Chinese inventions. The teacher gave clear instruction NOT to include gun powder, paper, or the abacus. He wrote his essay on gun powder, paper and the abacus. Additionally, the essay was riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. And yet he got an A. My stepson had the same thing happen. He was so excited about an A he got (he gets straight As) on a paper that he showed me. When I read it, I was astonished the teacher gave him an A. Again, the grammar and spelling mistakes were rampant. If teachers do not hold the students accountable when they're young with a lot of the foundational aspects of English (spelling and grammar), and accept poorly constructed or thought out paragraphs and theses - then the students who reach HS and college will not have the skillset to write well. It's on the teachers. Sorry. I can't hold my kid accountable if you're giving him As for garbage. I can't win the battle when I tell him to study and his retort is, "I get all As!"
 
 

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kmsturgill
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My mother taught writing to university students in the 60’s and 70’s. She used to cry at how bad their writing was. This is not a new issue!!
 
 

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The Un-Tacitus
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If any of you are English, or more PC "Language Arts" teachers, I cannot emphasize enough your need for excellent grammar and usage. Read the novels the AP kids read (or that they pretend to)! Exposure to excellence is a form of practice. Standardized testing is an excuse, and a poor one at that if you are focusing on the test rather than the children learning to read and write. Children need structure, and work - that isn't political, it's biological. I'll offer this bit of advice to women teachers: male students must have a clear reason why they are to complete an assignment. "Because I assigned it" is not sufficient. Understanding this and addressing it on every assignment will make your life far easier. If anyone's interested, I wrote about my views on education and one of the primary tools I created to both help the kids, and make my grading faster. https://conspicuouspresumption.wordpress.com/2017/07/14/our-edjikashunall-system/
 
 

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Cscarborough
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Another aspect is the lack of reading, which is connected to the predominance of technology; kids who used to read back before cell phones and internet now have immense distractions available. Why put the effort into reading when you can have hours of mindless entertainment through your devices? Without an exposure to good writing, it is hard to become a good writer.
 
 

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