Educators are constantly lamenting the lack of writing skill observed in their students. However, few teachers take any ownership over this often-cited deficit in their own students, preferring to blame social trends regarding technology, entertainment, and the popularity – or lack thereof – of reading.
Many English teachers claim that reading is the key to writing (Hanski, 2014). They suggest that the rules of English grammar will be learned naturally as one continues to read English prose. These same teachers suggest that the lack of writing skill we presently observe in our students is the result of a lack of such reading. While I would certainly agree that reading does improve writing skill, I must disagree with any position that views writing skill as being wholly dependent on reading. In truth, I believe that writing skill is a body of knowledge that must be taught - not absorbed subliminally. I believe that one must first learn the rules of grammar before one can even begin to recognize the various rules and conventions at play in our language. Otherwise, commas that come before coordinating conjunctions, for example, will seem like just another random event. In my view, until one understands that there is in fact a rule being invoked, one will not realize they are observing such a rule when they see it.
To be sure, it is widely believed that the quality of writing skill amongst English writers is on the decline. Few teachers would disagree with this. I strongly believe, however, that the cause of this deterioration is not a lack of reading, but rather the Whole Language movement that came to the forefront of educationalist theory back in the 1970s. Whole Language (also known as “New English”) is a learning theory that believes language is acquired most effectively when language is kept whole, and not fragmented into skills. The theory sounds very nice, and was without a doubt well-intentioned. However, I personally prefer the perspective provided by Steven Laffoley, a Canadian English teacher and school principal. In a 2004 CBC radio commentary, Laffoley described Whole Language as a movement that “blindly trusted a student’s individual intuition and ... encouraged students to write willy-nilly, unfettered by rules of grammar or qualitative evaluation.” Laffoley went on to say, “Unfortunately, Whole Language failed to produce competent writers. And worse. Whole Language imparted to students a fantastical and unwarranted sense of self-esteem and self-confidence in writing. They were told they write well, but in truth, they have no practical knowledge of English or of writing and certainly no sense of its craft. In truth, they are inexperienced and incompetent.”
Laffoley’s final assertion is the most damning, not just of Whole Language, but of the very future of the English language: “Even if we had the will to change our course suddenly, we would be left to confront the dark, awful truth that this generation of teachers is the product of New English. Frankly, many teachers are without the fundamental grammatical knowledge necessary to teach our children.”
While some may view Laffoley as being cynical, it's hard to deny his point. If we teachers do not understand the mechanics of writing, then how can we expect students to understand the mechanics of writing? Should we simply ask our students to read more? That’s an easy out... but I suspect that's not the answer. I say this for two reasons. The first is that any modern piece of published writing can, and likely does, contain numerous grammatical errors. As such, modern published writing cannot be utilized dependably as exemplars of grammatically correct writing. The second reason is this: reading didn’t work for us. Teachers read, do we not? Yet, how many of us have enough faith in our knowledge of grammar to qualitatively mark grammar? If we do mark grammar, then how often do we simply underline a phrase or clause and write [awk] or [revise] or [rewrite] on the student’s paper? If we do understand the notion of, for example, parallel structure, how often do we just mark the paper with [ // ] and then move on? Can we actually explain the meaning of parallelism to our students? Can we identify the non-parallel elements within the sentence? Can we describe these elements in terms of their parts of speech? How often do we find ourselves saying, “I know it doesn’t sound right, but I can’t really say why”? In her 1994 article, The missing foundation in teacher education: Knowledge of the structure of spoken and written language, Louisa Cook Moats discusses the findings of her study wherein she tested experienced teachers on reading, language arts, and special education to determine whether they have the requisite awareness of language elements. "The results were surprisingly poor, indicating that even motivated and experienced teachers typically understand too little about spoken and written language structure to be able to provide sufficient instruction in these areas." After these same teachers took a course focusing on phonemic awareness training, spoken-written language relationships, and analysis of spelling and reading behaviour in children, the teachers judged this information to be "essential for teaching" and advised that it "become a prerequisite for certification."
I would even go so far as to suggest that we teachers – many of us the products of Whole Language – have simply tuned our ears to our own writing styles, and remain oblivious to the countless errors that we commit on a regular basis. We do this simply because we, quite frankly, find ourselves in constant agreement with the mechanics that we taught ourselves all those years ago in middle school. Thus, we think ourselves competent writers, yet we cannot really explain our system of writing to anyone else. Until we subject our own system of grammar to scrutiny, and dare to acquire an understanding of the grammatical rules that have governed our language for centuries, then we cannot know for certain whether our knowledge of English is truly knowledge, or simply a fairy tale told to us long ago by our Whole Language teachers.
All is not lost
If we do indeed have the will to change our course, then each and every teacher who deals with the written word can become an advocate for the authentic English language. There is still an abundance of grammar books available on the market, and more grammar blogs and websites come online every year. Any one of us can access these resources in an effort to improve our knowledge of English grammar, and, in so doing, we can help our students do the same. We even see evidence of a writing revolution in places like New Dorp High, a New York high school wherein "students suffered from a writing deficit that neither huge technology investments nor radical staffing changes could remedy" (Tyre, 2012). In 2009, the school finally resorted to implementing a cross-curricular program that required students to write expository essays and learn the fundamentals of grammar. "Within two years, the school's pass rates for the English Regents test and the global-history exam were soaring. The school's drop-out rate — 40 percent in 2006 — has fallen to 20 percent" (Tyre, 2012). "Homework got a lot harder. Teachers stopped giving fluffy assignments such as, “Write a postcard to a friend describing life in the trenches of World War I,” and instead demanded that students fashion an expository essay describing three major causes of the conflict" (Tyre, 2012).
Knowledge of grammar is not a destination: it is a journey. It is unrealistic to expect anyone to learn all of the intricacies of our language, but that does not mean that we, as teachers, should not endeavour to expand and improve our knowledge of grammar, and then teach that knowledge – true knowledge – to our students. The only question we must ask is, do we have the will?
Hanski, Mike. Want to be a Better Writer? Read More. Huffington Post, June, 2014. Web. Oct. 2016. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-hanski/read-more_b_5192754.html>
Krashen, S. (1989), We Acquire Vocabulary and Spelling by Reading: Additional Evidence for the Input Hypothesis. The Modern Language Journal, 73: 440–464. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.1989.tb05325.x
Strom, Ingrid M. "Does Knowledge of Grammar Improve Reading?" The English Journal 45.3 (1956): 129-33. Web.
Tyre, Peg. “The Writing Revolution” The Atlantic.com. The Atlantic Monthly Group, October 2012. Web. Oct. 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing- revolution/309090/>
If you're a teacher who requires your students to write essays, I highly recommend that you consider implementing a practice that I've been doing in my law course for a number of years. Essentially, I write an essay in front of my students. I call this annual custom the "80-Minute Challenge."
The 80-Minute Challenge is a demonstration that I will do once a year during an essay-writing work period. During this challenge, I attempt to research and write a complete 800 to 1200 word essay within 80 minutes. I do not know the topic going into the challenge. Rather, the students in the class brainstorm a selection of positions on a variety of legal issues. A student volunteer writes the propositions up on the board, and then we number the propositions (Proposition 1, Proposition 2, Proposition 3, etc.). Finally, a random number generator picks one of the topics. The topic being selected, I then begin to write the essay while a timer counts down the eighty minutes. Everything I do during the 80-Minute Challenge is projected onto the screen at the front of the class, so students can turn to observe my progress throughout the class. At the end of class, the students can see how far I've progressed. By that same afternoon or evening, I share the completed essay with the class. Admittedly, over the years I have found that some essays go a little better than others, but most essay topics end up being quite a lot of fun to research and write.
Too often, students put off essay projects out of a sense of fear and dread. Particularly desperate students will even resort to plagiarism in order to avoid facing the task of legitimately writing an original essay. The purpose of the 80-Minute Challenge is to demonstrate that essay writing is not just an academic skill, but a fun, stimulating, and exciting endeavour. Embarking on a good essay is actually very similar to setting out on a treasure hunt or rally. The act of searching for and locating compelling sources that support one's thesis is actually a great deal of fun, but students can only access that sense of fun after they learn their requisite skills associated with essay-writing. For too long, schools have failed to expose students to the shear fun of essay writing. Once we add in that sense of fun, the technical skills associated with essay writing become something that students are little more inspired to learn, and the actual writing of essays becomes something that students start to embrace.
Various points of skill, strategy, and technique are demonstrated and discussed during the 80-Minute Challenge. Students see actual demonstrations of:
Essay writing is one of the most critical skills we demand of our students in both high school and university, yet the fact of the matter is that essay writing is also one skill that we as educators do not actually demonstrate to our students. Contrast how we teach essay writing to almost any other skill. Do we not demonstrate everything else from physics formulas, to financial statements, to jump shots? I would argue that we continue to see both poor essay writing and high rates of plagiarism because essay writing is the one skill that we attempt to teach without actually demonstrating.
Admittedly, writing an essay in front of our students does seem a bit extreme... possibly even eccentric, but I maintain that this is simply because we've never been able to provide such a demonstration until very recently. These days, if a teacher has i) a computer, and ii) an LCD projector in their classroom, then they have the ability to take the 80-Minute Challenge. Having said that, this final point does give rise to what may be the most important point of introspection a teacher could ask themselves on the topic: if they have the tools, and they have the time, then why wouldn't they? This question will be explored more fully in an upcoming article.
The Art of Argument: Exploring the foundations of essay writing. (See link below.)
Some Past 80-Minute Challenge Essays:
The New Learner Lab
Exploring the ever-changing, often challenging, and always controversial world of teaching.