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Rachel Maddow on the Need for Better Writing

When Rachel Maddow recently spoke at her alma mater, Stanford, she decried the lack of writing skills in the job applicants she interviews. In her estimation, college graduates do not know how to craft an argument especially in the form of a resume. In other words, students leave college without the ability to formulate a persuasive case for why a company should hire them. She stressed the value of a humanities education even in a culture where all the accolades go to scientists and engineers. In a quote from her address, she asserts that we need writers and artists who can create the content which engineers have made so abundantly available.

Link to original article in Stanford News

photograph Charles Russo

“It’s not to say that technological innovation is not a creative enterprise,” she added. “Google changed the world, absolutely. But it didn’t make the world. It organized it. And that’s great, but if you’re not creating things, and all you do is organize other people’s stuff, then you’re Wikipedia. And Wikipedia is awesome, but who is going to write the stuff that goes into Wikipedia?”

Miss Maddow is not alone. Business leaders have been criticizing the lack of writing skills in their new hires for years. Many businesses have had to take on the task of providing basic writing instruction to bring their employees up to the company standard. College campuses across the country have doubled and tripled their enrollments in remedial writing courses. Many have had to dedicate space and staff to writing centers for students who need help demonstrating what they know in written form. In K-12 public education, one of the biggest reasons cited for adoption of the new common core standards is to address the gap in writing achievement. Given that we accept the assumption that the basic skills of writing should be mastered by senior year, our K-12 writing instruction needs to improve.

Link to Wall Street Journal article on poor writing skills in the workplace Link to NBC Nightly New report on businesses providing writing instruction Link to Huffington Post article on bad grammar in the workplace

Many would blame the problem on the lack of education funding and specifically on large class sizes. One English teacher with 24-36 students per class must grade anywhere from 120-180 essays for any given writing assignment. Clearly individualized feedback is impossible in this scenario. Nevertheless, is individualized feedback a realistic answer? Based on all the topics that an instructor can cover with a student in a writing conference (grammar, mechanics, style, and content) and the fact that the teacher still must devote the majority of class time to teaching the curriculum, it would be difficult for an instructor with even 15-20 students per class to give personal feedback on 75-100 essays more than once every two months. The inordinate amount of time and/or instructors that would need to be added to make these numbers reasonable is prohibitive.

The task is to get students to be able to evaluate and improve their writing themselves with strategic feedback from instructors (and feedback from technology like a word processor). Let’s use a math analogy. When a student is struggling to solve an algebra equation, it is not automatically assumed that the math teacher needs to have long individualized sessions with the student to correct the problem. The math teacher will recommend more practice, point out an error in a step of the process, or suggest the need to relearn a building block skill. The students then apply this feedback to correct the method in which they solve such problems. The key idea is that the math teacher is leading the students to improve their analytical skills, so they can solve the problems on their own. If English teachers could have the same shorthand with students, they could give efficient feedback that would lead students to improve their own writing.

For example, a common criticism of student writing is that it does not flow well from one idea to another. The problem comes when an English teacher says that an essay does not flow properly but students have no idea how to make it flow. The concepts of varied sentence structure, transitional phrases, and effective syntax are not explicitly taught and therefore a student cannot explicitly apply them to improve the flow of the essay. This is the reason for the long writing conference. It takes only a moment for a teacher to tell a student that an essay flows poorly, but it can take hours to examine sentence after sentence suggesting this addition of a clause or that removal of a periodic sentence to improve flow. Even with this kind of personal session, the usual result is that student only makes the teacher-generated changes and does not truly understand the need for them.

Link to Washington Post article on grammar education past and present

The disadvantages of nearly three decades of current policies on language instruction are becoming more and more pronounced. Since the late 1970’s, the common wisdom has been to instruct language skills (that is grammar and rhetoric) only in conjunction with literature. In addition, research promoted the idea that increasing reading will automatically improve writing. These methods were developed and promoted for valid reasons; and they certainly have advantages. On the other hand, these methods have produced a couple of generations of students whose writing leaves something to be desired and worse still a generation of teachers who were never taught these skills themselves. Hopefully with the onset of the new common core, English education will take on a more balanced approach to language instruction where grammar and rhetoric are explicitly instructed as the basic skills of writing. Maybe then people like Rachel Maddow will have a new problem, an overwhelming abundance of good content to choose from.

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