By: Elizabeth Klein
Historians across the board agree that written language is one of the most important elements of a civilization. Writing can define a generation. It can connect a people. It can change a language. It can incite rebellion. It can time travel. It can bewitch, enthrall, uplift, dishearten, and cultivate.
And knowing how to write can make your life so, so, so much easier. But how many students today can actually write?
In an article detailing the issues and nuances of the problems of the writing crisis among students, the The New York Times cites a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that claims 75% of 12th and 8th graders “lack proficiency in writing.” Additionally, 40% of high school students in the graduating class of 2016 who took the ACT writing exam “lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class.”
So it’s obvious there’s a problem: something has gone wrong in the way that writing is instructed. But the solutions to this widespread writing issue are fairly complex and would be difficult to implement and evaluate. Writing education needs to be improved. But how? At what grade? In which classes?
Likely the biggest problem surrounding the writing debate is the conflict between writing instruction that emphasizes grammar and instruction that emphasizes self-expression. There are strong arguments in favor of both. On the one hand, grammar-heavy instruction gives students a solid understanding of the mechanics of writing that allows them to meet the demands of high school and college writing. Good writing is absolutely essential to succeeding in high school classes, passing AP exams, and applying to college. If students don’t know how to use commas by the time they’re applying for scholarships and writing admissions essays, they’re set up to fail. Plus, a good foundation in the mechanics of writing doesn’t mean students have to give up self-expression. If they learn the basics first, they’ll have the tools to express themselves later without sacrificing accuracy. Like the Picasso quote goes, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
But Picasso liked to paint. Not every student loves writing. However, to succeed, they must be good at it. If students don’t like to write, can they still be good writers?
The answer is yes, absolutely, one-hundred percent yes. Obviously not every student is going to enjoy the writing process, and that doesn’t mean they’re bound to produce bad writing for the rest of their academic career. This just means that like all humans, they prefer some things over others. You can hate writing essays and still write a quality essay! Any worthwhile grammar-heavy writing instruction takes this into account. But a question still remains: are students less likely to become good at writing if they don’t like it?
That’s what supporters of self-expressive writing instruction argue. If teachers don’t foster a healthy appreciation for writing as an art from a young age, students may be less encouraged to hone their writing skills and commit themselves to improvement. Nobody likes doing something they don’t enjoy even for a little while, and the process of becoming a good writer takes years of practice, practice, practice. How can we expect students to dedicate this kind of time if they’re miserable? Putting self-expression first and the rules second can make writing fun for students in a way that grammar cannot. Free writing, journaling, and responding to open-ended writing prompts can teach students to love writing before the rules convince them otherwise. Once this enjoyment is established, then students can learn how to write for practical purposes and academics.
So which approach is better? Well, as with most things in life, the right answer is a balance of both. Grammar is essential. Self-expression is non-negotiable. When students are taught how to bring both accuracy and their own voice into their writing, good writing is born and can begin to grow. To achieve this, to give all students a basis that can make every single person who passes through school a good writer, writing instruction must start with the teachers. In the aforementioned article by The New York Times, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality told the newspaper that “a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way.” Time and time again, studies show that teachers receive little training in how to teach writing and do not feel comfortable with their ability to do so. The solution to the lack of strong writing in this country needs to start with teachers. This requires training and practice in writing instruction, ensuring that each teacher has the confidence required to make students good writers.
It’s clear that this writing instruction must start early. By the time students get to high school, it’s more difficult to right the wrongs that have been learned over the course of a decade. And high school teachers don’t have the kind of time to take students aside and make them good writers. They have too many students because of increased class sizes, and therefore have little time after grading papers and creating tests and designing lesson plans. (Not to mention the fact that they’re not paid enough, which doesn’t help increase the incentive.) If students are to become good at writing, they have to start young. When students are taught from an early age by skilled teachers, they can begin to unlock their true writing potential.
Overall, it is clear that there is a writing epidemic in this country. But it can be stopped. If we take the right measures to teach students how to write—if they get an education in both grammar and self-expression and are taught by confident teachers who are qualified to give them this education—then we can change. Everyone—everyone—has the capacity to become a good writer. If writing instruction is reformed, then the generation of these good writers might just change the world.