Where Did We Go Wrong in Teaching Writing?

penThe writing standards of the CCSS are difficult and the expectations high. As children progress through each subsequent grade the skills required can look rather daunting.  Why are the CCSS writing standards so daunting?  Well, for one thing, the last major federal reform – No Child Left Behind – focused on reading – not writing.  The push was to become a “Nation of Readers” and as a result, over the last several decades under this reform, we have lost the ability to write well.  College professors are still correcting such errors as the difference between “their and they’re” and to be honest, the quality of the written work is extremely poor.

In the commentary, “We Must overhaul College Writing,” author Murray Sperber writes, “Yet, they still had difficulty mounting a logical argument, and had even more difficulty writing out that argument in coherent paragraph form. They had serious problems writing clear sentences; often they were addicted to passive constructions, believing that they sound “more academic.”   When I asked them to unravel a  sentence and explain who was doing what to whom in it, i.e., what the subject, verb, and object were, they looked at me as if I had arrived from another galaxy to torture them.”  Sperber also talks about moving from traditional grammar-based pedagogy to a “holistic writing” approach.  He describes this as, “…trying to get students to grasp the language as a whole rather than its grammatical parts.”  His entire commentary is quite good and can be found at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. 

I remember I generally received “A’s” in  High School English and therefore assumed that my writing was pretty good.  What I didn’t know is that my English writing grades were based on the content of my writing – not grammatical correctness.  I subsequently failed the writing portion of my college entrance exams and was required to take a pre-college English course to improve my writing.  I won’t go into my experience in this class, but suffice it to say I was rather frustrated at the fact I had graduated High School with all A’s and B’s thinking I knew how to write only to find out I didn’t.  I honestly felt that my high school had failed me.

I did some research on “holistic writing” and found that the writing is generally evaluated using a rubic and on the work as a whole.  We’ve been using a rubric to evaluate writing for quite a while – at least most of my educational career. I also know how difficult it is to teach writing.  Many kids hate writing finding it extremely difficult.  As a teacher, when I would grade student writing, I also found it extremely difficult to give a child a failing grade.  I didn’t want to stifle their fledgling writing ability even more nor did I want to deal with the parent complaints at that poor grade.  But, if I didn’t grade writing properly, wasn’t I also failing my students?  Such are the every day decisions of teachers.


About Lucy Salerno

I have been a resident of Fairfield for over 25 years and have 30 years’ teaching experience in California K – 6 schools. I have been a music teacher, band and choral director, elementary teacher in grades K – 6, a district level technology coordinator teaching, and an elementary school administrator. In 2011, my most recent school, Scandia Elementary, on Travis Air Force Base, was awarded the California Distinguished School Award for work and programs implemented under my watch. Because of my broad educational background, I know and understand what is needed in today's difficult educational environment. I have taught writing to children in numerous grades as a core subject as well as integrating writing into other curricula areas. I retired a few years ago from the Travis Unified School District, I love working with children, and am now dedicating my services and skills in support of your children. Through love and patience, I hope to understand a child's needs, meet them where they are, build self-confidence and develop a life-long love of learning.
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