If there is one thing that teachers at all grade levels can agree upon, it is this: Student writing needs improvement. Whether we look at studies that show a decline is writing skills, complaints from employers about how their employees can’t write a coherent paragraph, or the explosive rise of remedial writing classes at post-secondary schools, there is certainly ample evidence that our nation’s public schools are struggling to produce high school graduates who can write at a level that will allow them to meet the demands of higher education and employment in a globalized world.
The question of why student writing has declined generates many theories. Television, which is the standard culprit for all that ails our world, is often mentioned; however, although numbing out to an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians is likely not going to help anyone learn to write well, this might be too simplistic an explanation. It is also true that a good deal of a young person’s daily written communication—which flies around via text messages and tweets—is typically lax regarding the niceties of punctuation, but this should not mean that grammatically correct writing should be so far beyond the reach of so many of our young when it is demanded by school or work.
Perhaps a major contributing factor to all the fused sentences, comma splices, and sentence fragments that make up much of our students’ essays is a bit more obvious than we might like to imagine: our public schools have largely abandoned teaching formal grammar and enforcing its precepts in writing assignments.
This is not a recent problem. Fifty years ago academics began pushing the notion that teaching where the commas go is harmful to student writing. At this point in time, it is the accepted orthodoxy in many of our schools of education. I remember the education professor who taught my own classroom methods course carrying on in class about how “hopelessly old-fashioned” I was for insisting that no harm could come from teaching a student the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a conjunctive adverb. Her heavy gun was a study done by the folks at ACT that proved “without a doubt” teaching the rules of grammar was a complete waste of class time. I found this all a little fishy and, also just a touch frustrated with being ridiculed, I phoned the main offices of ACT to ask for a copy of the study to see if it was as conclusive as my professor insisted. However, I ran into one big problem—the purported study simply did not exist. (I’m pretty sure my grade in that education course is at least partially attributable to my utter lack of tact in bringing all this up in our next class, but such are the wages of my equally old-fashioned sense of honor and honesty—I can live with that.)
All these years later, having taught at both the secondary and post-secondary level, I’m still hopelessly old-fashioned—but also hopelessly outgunned. I’m saddened by how many college students struggle with the most basic issues of sentence construction and punctuation. I continue to believe that it is wrong to hand high school diplomas to students who cannot write clearly, and I dearly wish that our public schools would more fully shoulder the responsibility pressed upon them by taxpayers. Although I fully realize that students are often resistant to the relatively minimal work involved in learning how to properly construct and connect sentences as a first step to writing coherent paragraphs and essays, it is the job that public school teachers are being paid to do, and it seems reasonable to insist it be done.
Shortcut methods to teaching students to write simply do not work. Telling students to simply drop in a comma where they “draw a breath” or “pause” is a prescription for sentence punctuation that is highly decorative—but routinely incorrect. Also, there remains the basic problem of lack of a common vocabulary between teacher and student when it comes to learning how to improve. If a teacher cannot explain to students—because they don’t share a common language regarding sentence structure—why it is wrong to write “I love writing, however I hate grammar” from both a content and grammatical standpoint, what are the options? The teacher can either (a) tell the student the punctuation—and sentiment—is wrong without explaining precisely why or (b) say that it is just fine. Neither option is acceptable. The first produces a frustrated student without a clear path toward understanding; the second is a clear dereliction of duty on the part of the teacher.
Why, you may ask, does any of this really matter? After all, we live in an age of instantaneous digital communication. It is better to learn a programming language, some might argue, than waste time and effort on a skill as passé as mere writing.
Having worked in the private sector as recently as three short years ago, please allow me to share the news: writing skills have never been as important as they are today. Given that so much business communication is written—emails being the prime method of communicating with colleagues and clients—the ability to write concisely and intelligibly is often the difference between success and failure. Your writing is, more than ever, your calling card. A well-written email, letter, or proposal announces your competence to an audience of colleagues, clients, and competitors around the globe who have likely never even met you; a garbled and incomprehensible lump of words lets everyone know you’re just not worth their time.
Is it fair that you will be daily judged on your writing? Perhaps it is not. However, it is simple reality, and there is no successful professional that would tell you otherwise. When I worked in the advertising business in New York City twenty-five years ago, we were already painfully aware that even college graduates could not be presumed to write well, so we routinely gave a writing test to every job candidate—even a part-time receptionist. We did this because we preferred to promote from within, and we saw no point in hiring those who could not write at the level necessary for promotion. Like anyone who has to keep their eye on the bottom line, we saw no reason to waste a paycheck on someone with no future with our company.
There are, of course, jobs that do not demand the ability to write well. They are, unfortunately, clumped on the lowest rungs of the service sector. Given that it is a necessary condition of youth to dream big—to want to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or own one’s own business—it is cruel to handicap so many of our young adults by sending them forth into a future that will feature little other than dead end jobs.
Although we live in a global marketplace that has no patience with the inability to write, perhaps there will be a remarkable resurgence in well-paid jobs with benefits that will require no writing—but I would not bank on it. The world’s economy is clearly insisting on something else altogether, and presuming that ignorance of so basic a skill is winning life strategy seems more wrong-headed than ever before. Perhaps there is something to be said for simply learning where to put those commas, dashes, colons, and semi-colons—and why.
Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) December 9, 2012