Why Your Kid Can't Write

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Recently by Ellen Finnigan: The Lesser of Two Evils

     

For years American employers have been complaining about the poor writing skills of college graduates. Teaching assistants in English departments across the country are shocked after their first week teaching Freshman Comp: "We can't be expected to make up for twelve years of lost grammar in one semester!" they cry, while sipping their green tea, and pushing up the sleeves of their oversized cardigans. The SAT grader cringes, knowing these essays are sure to be the downfall of many ambitious young students, relegating them to their "safety schools." Meanwhile a homeschooling mother sits at the kitchen table tearing out her hair, because her eighth grader has just stormed out of the room — again! — all because she was trying to give him "a little bit of help" with his writing.

Let me be forthcoming: I do not have a degree in Education. I have never studied Composition Pedagogy. When I was in graduate school, I did not have a teaching assistantship, despite my impressive collection of cardigans. But I am a writer, myself, and I have been working with families as an online writing coach for over four years. That's right: I have street cred. So I will share a few insights and theories, based on my personal observations and experiences, as to why "the kids these days" can't write. Parents, listen up! I also have tips.

  1. Students don't write frequently enough.
  2. Writing is a skill. Like any skill, it requires practice to master.

    If your child has been enrolled in a traditional school, he is probably not getting enough practice. One mother told me that her daughter had written only one paper during her entire seventh grade year.

    "Heavens to Betsy!" I cried, and fainted.

    This is appalling, but not hard to understand: To grade twenty tests might take thirty minutes, twenty papers three to four hours. A teacher can't "bill" anyone for the time she spends grading papers on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, so you can see why she would assign dioramas instead.

    Plus, most traditional schools do not offer a class dedicated solely to composition and rhetoric. Hence there are is no writing grade. Hence there is no writing instruction. Teachers are responsible for their "content." What incentive do they have to help your child develop a "soft skill" that, though critical, won't show up on any test? For reasons that are beyond the scope of this article (and certainly not the teachers' fault), they teach to the test! It's all about the test.

    Some homeschoolers are guilty of neglect, too, but for different reasons. Many parents dislike writing or consider themselves to be bad writers. "It's just not my thing," they say, "so I tend to avoid it." Or they tell me that writing provokes too many meltdowns: "My kids are fine with me teaching them anything else, but when it comes to writing, they don't want to hear anything I have to say. They get so defensive!"

    Tips:

    If you wanted your child to learn how to play tennis, you would sign him up for tennis lessons. He would go every week, and an experienced coach would teach him about the game and design drills and exercises that would help him practice the skills he needs to become a better tennis player. If your child were struggling with math, you wouldn't sign him up for a math class. You would hire a tutor. Why not approach writing in the same way? Especially if writing is not your specialty, you should consider outsourcing it! Find a writing coach to help your child.

    Not to mention, there is something to be said for an "objective," third party opinion. Even if you consider yourself a decent writer, your own children may not be your best pupils. Because writing is a craft, an art really, it is more subjective and personal than other subjects. Yes, there are rules that must be followed, but writing is also about creative expression and personal taste, and a teenager is likely to appeal to this latter truth when differences of opinion arise. (Does your teenager like it when you pick out his clothes? Yeah, it's kind of the same thing when you try to rearrange his sentences.) I can assure you that most students are perfectly open and receptive to criticism of their writing…as long as it doesn't come from their parents. It's just, like, you know, a kid thing.

  3. Students rarely, if ever, get quality feedback on their work.
  4. On the rare occasion that your child is expected to write a paper, a regular schoolteacher will usually grade it, not critique it. Feedback will be critical instead of constructive and it will come in the form of "mark ups": red ink pointing out grammar and spelling errors, a few X's (maybe in purple if the teacher is one of those hippie types concerned with self-esteem). A few cursory remarks like "awkward" or "So?" might appear in the margins. A thoughtful, detailed response about strengths and weaknesses, along with specific suggestions for improvement, are what a student needs to improve, but don't hold your breath. Providing that kind of feedback is time-consuming and labor intensive. Teachers have lives too, you know. Easier to just mark that bad boy up and move on.

    Tip:

    Hire a writing coach! When it comes to the written word: writing coach is to English teacher as driving instructor is to traffic cop. A traffic cop might pull you over every time you run a red light, and maybe if he does it enough, you'll stop running that red light, but that's a slow way to learn how to drive. And what if you have to parallel park one day, on a hill, while driving a stick, and holding a cup of coffee, and sending a text? (We've all been there!) Of what use will those tickets be then? Hire a cool writing coach and she will not only teach your kids the rules of the road, she'll teach them how to do donuts in the school parking lot. Yeah!

  5. Students get way too much feedback on their papers all at once. It buries them, immobilizes them, and suffocates them, like an avalanche.
  6. Okay, that simile was a bit dramatic, but homeschoolers in particular seem to have a problem with this one. They seem to forget that their child's brain can only process so much information. They bombard their children with feedback on every single facet of their papers (content, structure, spelling, diction, grammar, usage, mechanics, style, etc.). This will only dampen the child's enthusiasm for writing. He won't want to do it anymore. Instead of excitedly pouring forth his thoughts and ideas, he will clam up and get "writer's block," because he knows from experience that putting words on a blank page only opens him up to a torrent of criticism. He knows his writing will never be good enough, so why even try? Where to even start?

    Tips:

    Start with praise. Always. Praise, praise, praise! Tell him what he did well. Tell him the strengths of the paper and his strengths as a writer. Find something to make him feel good about.

    Then: There is no reason to point out every weakness that you spot right away: every single spelling mistake, every convoluted sentence, every structural problem, etc. Language is a complex thing. Obviously you will have a million thoughts as to how the paper can be improved, but by shredding their work you will only be trampling their fragile egos and stirring up the gods of war. Show some restraint.

    Think of every paper as a triage situation. You have to divide the problems into categories, decide what the priorities are, and tackle them in stages (more about this in number four). Priorities will be different for every student, depending on age, ability, and proclivity. Ask yourself: What is the most important thing for him to learn and master, right now? What little lesson will make the biggest difference for this paper? For example, there is no reason to point out the fact that your child used the word "great" eighteen times if the paper is riddled with run-on sentences. Run-on sentences confuse the reader. While the word "great" is general and boring, it is at least clear. Aim for clarity first. Next year you can worry about diction.

    Remember: It's not about making the paper perfect. It's about using the paper as an opportunity to teach the student something about writing.

    Another example would be pointing out ineffective transitions when your child is still struggling to write clear, identifiable topic sentences. First, your child has to understand each topic and to be able to articulate that topic in one, summative sentence. Next semester, after he has grasped the idea of topics, you can encourage him to start thinking about the relationships between topics and how best to link them. First thing's first!

    Maybe you can see the problems in your child's paper, but you don't know what the priorities should be, or maybe you can identify the problems but you don't know how to fix them. Consider hiring a writing coach. (You knew I was going to say that, didn't you?) You see, writing coach is to regular teacher as rescue worker is to rescue dog. The rescue dog may be able to find the kid stuck under the avalanche, but only the rescue worker can dig him out, administer CPR, and help him revise his persuasive essay. (And that is called a mixed metaphor, folks! Make sure your children don't write those.)

  7. Because there is never any expectation to revise, students fail to learn the writing process…and they fail to learn that writing is a process.

Let's say that the teacher who makes $30K a year did spend a Saturday afternoon reading and critiquing twenty student papers out of the goodness of her heart. Is she likely to ask for revisions and spend the next Saturday afternoon reading the second drafts and noting the improvements? Um, interesting as your child's thoughts on Atticus Finch may be, she would rather spend time with her own kids, or get a root canal, than read that paper again. Students get into the habit of writing one draft, turning it in, and never thinking about it again. Where's the lesson in that?

You've probably heard it said that writing is rewriting. Absolutely. Writing is a process. Students learn far more from revising than they do from writing a first draft. But often we teach writing as a two-step process: write, proofread. No, no, no, no, no! The writing process is: brainstorm, outline, write, r…e…v…i…s…e, proofread. Revision should take the longest and be the most intense. That's where the magic happens, people! But every step is important.

A writing coach can walk your child through the writing process with each writing project…or not. For some students, it may be helpful to crank out three or four outlines in a row without ever writing a first draft, just to master those outlining skills. More advanced students who need less handholding may prefer to do their prewriting work independently and present the coach with a draft, which the coach will then critique. As opposed to a writing class with a predetermined curriculum, the good writing coach runs a writing workshop that is flexible and fluid and entirely tailored to the student's needs.

As for that revision process, like I said in number three above, don't communicate all of the problems at once. The process of revision works best in stages, with a lot of back and forth. As a general rule, I find it best to address weaknesses in the following order:

  • Content and structure: In the first round of feedback, focus on the big picture. Explain where underdeveloped ideas could be fleshed out. Make sure multiple subtopics are not being crammed into the same paragraph. Make recommendations if subtopics could be presented in a better order. Point out irrelevant or tangential information. All of this applies to outlines as well as first drafts. At this stage, help the student to generate more thoughts and ideas, challenge him to think in more depth about the ideas he already has, and make sure his ideas are organized in a way that will create good flow.
  • Sentences: When he comes back with the next draft, focus on clarity at the sentence and paragraph level. Point out things like run-on sentences and sentence fragments. Point out where things are confusing, repetitive, or unclear. Explain why they are confusing. (Stop! Let the student figure out how to fix it. Don't fix it for him.) Remember: You are not yet talking about "mistakes" or making "corrections." You are giving feedback as a reader about where you got lost or tripped up.
  • Proofreading: In the final round of revision, I get out my purple pen. (Rather I use purple font. Yes, I'm hippie-ish.) At this point you can deal with those "little" things like misspelled words and grammatical errors. Try to ignore these things until the last possible minute. (I know it's hard.) This should feel like the final "clean up" after the real work has been done, like sweeping up the sawdust after the bookshelf has been built.
  • Stylistic concerns: If your child is writing papers that are clear and well organized, and if your child is writing sentences that are grammatically correct, and if your child is doing these things consistently, then you can start working seriously on things like sentence variety, diction, transitional words, rhetorical devices, figurative language, purpose, audience, and tone. Writing should be made clear before it is made pretty. That being said, if your student writes something pretty, do say, "That sentence was lovely. Nice work!"

The key word here is: work. Yes, writing is a lot of work! But in my experience, when you break things down into steps, and give feedback in little bits, students quickly overcome their anxiety about writing and even begin to experience joy in it. And that is the best thing about being a writing coach. (Just had to get that in there one more in time!)

  1. Writing is usually assigned for the purpose of demonstrating knowledge, rarely for the purpose of practicing a writing skill or engaging in personal expression.

A literature or history teacher might assign a paper for the purposes of assessing how well the student understands the material covered in the course. In this case, the emphasis will be on the content, and if the content is new, not something the student confidently grasps, then the effort to deal with that content will consume the students' attention. It's kind of like expecting someone to practice juggling while he is walking on a tightrope. Why not let him stand on solid ground and just juggle for a while? This way he can focus on his juggling technique, and forget about remembering everything you taught him about the causes of World War I.

Tips:

Assign some papers strictly for the purpose of practicing writing, and let the student pick his or her own topic. Encourage the student to write about something he loves or understands well, whether video games, dogs, or baking. This takes the pressure off the "content" side, and allows the student to focus on the writing. I have found it especially effective to have the students write "real world" essays or letters for a specific purpose and with a specific audience in mind.

One of my favorite students was a girl named Melinda. Her mother warned me: She had officially entered her teenage years. Her mother had to sit at the computer with her, place her hands on the keyboard, and make her send me an email. I only heard from her maybe twice a week, and her work was haphazard and slapdash. I could tell that she wasn't really trying. So I tried to find something that would get her fired up. Melinda and I emailed casually for a few days, with no work assigned, until I discovered one reason for her malaise: She hated being homeschooled and desperately wanted to go to a "regular" school. A-ha! We had found our topic! I suggested that she write a persuasive essay, with her parents as the audience, convincing them why they should let her enroll in a "regular" school. From that point on, there was not a day that went by that I did not hear from Melinda. The girl became a writing machine.

I spent the next six weeks working with her on this essay: helping her to write a claim, outline an argument, develop her points, and, yes, modify her tone. ("Now, Melinda, think about your audience and how they might react to something that sounds like an accusation.") Because Melinda had been begging her parents to send her to a "regular" school for years, she knew all of their opinions and positions, so we worked those into the paper as well, addressing every one. At some point she decided that the essay was still not good enough. Something was missing. I said it could use more concrete support. It morphed into a research paper! With some guidance and instruction, off she went to research her topic, and I helped her incorporate any research she found. She asked her parents to extend the course for another month, and to my surprise, they did. She ended up writing something akin to a dissertation!

At some point I wrote to her mother: "I'm sorry that I have turned into an agent of subversion in your home."

She wrote back: "I don't care! I have never seen her so excited about writing. She cannot wait to get your emails every day. I have never seen her work so hard at anything."

In the end, Melinda did not succeed at convincing her parents to send her to a "regular" school. But she did convince them to start looking into hybrid schools. Her mother reported that the writing workshop had been good for their whole family: Melinda, noticeably less "whiny" and "sulky," had seemed to mature overnight, and this no doubt had something to do with the fact that she was given the tools to be able to express herself well and engage in a productive and satisfying dialogue with her parents, during which they treated her with the same level of seriousness with which she had undertaken the project.

My work there was done! I have to admit, I felt a little bit like this.

In Conclusion

Writing is not just another useful skill in a technocratic world, like knowing Photoshop. In the end, being a good writer is not about getting into a good college or getting a good job (though that might result). Writing is thinking. Better writing skills make for better thinking skills, and as you help your child to become a better thinker, you help him to become a more critical and independent human being, less easily influenced by others, more reliant on his own judgment, and better able to express himself and engage in valuable dialogue with others. Writing is not just a skill; it is a power, one you don't want your child to live without.

If you choose to be your child's writing coach, I leave you with this parting thought: Do resist the temptation to become your child's editor. You may think that he will learn a lot by watching you make corrections, by noticing the way you move a few things around, by seeing you reword a few things, by showing him the difference between the version he wrote and the version you "fixed," but all you are teaching your child is that writing does not require hard work because at some point, someone else will come along and do the hard work for you.

One of the oft repeated writing maxims is: "Show, Don't Tell." Well, when it comes to teaching writing, it is best to "Tell, Don't Show." There are times when you have no other choice but to show the student what you mean by just getting in there and writing something or changing something, but it is best, whenever possible, to try to explain the problem and let the student do the work of figuring out how to fix it. If explanation isn't getting you anywhere and you need something to "show" what you mean, go find a published work that you can use an example and let your child try to mimic or replicate that. Yes, the hands-off approach requires some restraint, but it will allow the student to feel a greater sense of accomplishment when he sees the final draft, knowing the work was his own.

Ellen Finnigan [send her mail] graduated from the University of Montana with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She currently runs an online writing workshop and teaches Literature and Rhetoric at a Catholic hybrid school in Atlanta. Visit her at scribblesworkshop.com.

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