[The following post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on Nov. 3, 2015.]
After reading yet another piece lamenting students’ inability to write clearly, I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned about this problem and offer some potential solutions.
As for causes of bad writing, we know that upbringing can be a factor. No one emerges from the womb knowing how to speak or write coherently. Depending on your home and school environment, you may or may not be surrounded by people who speak standard English. We learn to speak by imitating what we hear, and we tend to write the way we speak. Students who have been immersed in nonstandard English will have to undo, to some degree, what they have learned. Teachers must find respectful ways to show students how to code switch.
Clear writing requires proper grammar, but it needs other things, too. Many students lack the vocabulary and practice in reasoning that would enable them to build robust arguments. As Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley discovered, some children—from an early age—are exposed to many words, while others are exposed to few. In a study of forty-two families from three different socioeconomic categories (professional, working class, and welfare), they observed and tape-recorded family interactions for an hour a month for thirty months. They found that children from the wealthiest families heard over 1,500 more words each hour, on average, than children from the poorest families (2,153 versus 616). Over a four-year period, this amounts to an estimated thirty-two-million-word gap.
They also found that children mirrored their parents’ vocabulary resources, use of language, and interaction styles. In fact, about nine out of every ten words in each child’s vocabulary consisted of words also recorded in their parents’ vocabularies. As I noted in The Literacy Cookbook, however, the problem is not merely a word gap. It’s also an explanation gap. Exposure to fewer words means that one hears fewer examples of complex/logical thinking: fewer sentences, fewer questions, and fewer explanations of ideas or arguments.
So how you’re raised may affect how well you write. But upbringing is not destiny: we can and should help students build a knowledge base that will strengthen their ability to comprehend and write.
And upbringing is not the only reason children fail to write well. The truth is, children from wealthy and well-educated families often struggle, too.
One reason this problem is so widespread is that historically, our expectations have been too low. Until recently, we did not have national standards that demand clear writing. As shocking as it might seem, until the mid-late 1990s, not all states even had standards. And in some places, the standards were not necessarily adequate. Case in point: for many years, in my home state of New Jersey and in others, the standards were framed as, “By the end of fourth grade,” or “By the end of eighth grade,” and so on. That sketchy framework put undue pressure on some teachers and left others to wonder what their responsibilities were.
To be perfectly blunt, our spotty national expectations have meant that some citizens—including some who are currently classroom teachers—never received proper grammar or writing instruction. And it is challenging to teach something you never learned.
One bit of good news is that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), adopted by most states in 2010, address every grade from K-12, and grades 3-5 in particular address the most fundamental grammar points students need to know. The CCSS also emphasize the importance of supporting arguments with relevant evidence and explanation, something good writers do all the time.
Unfortunately, some students are already past fifth grade and have not learned key grammar points yet. They struggle with subject-verb agreement and are not sure what a complete sentence entails. Also, they don’t know the difference between “argument” and “evidence,” which makes it difficult for them to build strong arguments (See my earlier MiddleWeb post).
As dismal as this situation might seem, there is hope. There are things that teachers can do—no matter what grade or subject they teach—to help students become stronger writers.
Probably the most important thing we need to remember is this: Good writers write one good sentence after another. It sounds really obvious when you say it, but if you spend enough time in classrooms, you will realize that most people don’t frame writing instruction in this way. Teachers tend to assume students can write sentences, so they skip to things like paragraphs, “small moments,” and essays. There is nothing wrong with these assignments. It’s just that we need to build up to them.
Even if you start by showing students a model essay—planning with the end in mind, which is always helpful—it’s crucial to attend to the details. The first time my elementary school gym teacher taught us how to shoot a layup, he didn’t simply shoot a layup and walk away, saying, “Save yourselves!” He showed us how to jump and lift the ball and drive our knee up and flick the ball so it would hit that box on the backboard. As we tried it, he gave us immediate, specific feedback. He wasn’t evaluating us. He was coaching us towards success.
What would it look like if writing teachers saw themselves more as writing coaches?
Here’s a sentence that could be game-changing: “What do you like about that sentence?” Think about what this question implies: 1) Sentences have structures that writers create purposely, which we can analyze and admire; 2) Sentences can be written well or poorly; 3) If you figure out “what works” in that sentence, you could imitate it and write your own good sentences.
In order to be able to ask that question, though, we need great texts to analyze. Not all texts are created equal. Some are dry, repetitious, formulaic, dull (I’m looking at you, most content-area textbooks!). Others are lucid and compelling. Or, poignant. Or, they percolate with wit. They make us think and feel; they take us to a particular locale and a specific, memorable instance. We can feel the writer’s pulse. Captivating models can change how students feel about reading (eliciting, “Hey, this is funny!” or, “That’s so true!”) and in turn, how they feel about writing. If we want students to think of themselves as writers, the message must be inviting—as in, “Look: you could write like this!”
We also need to teach students how to connect sentences and ideas so their sentences will flow logically and their explanations will make sense. As Peg Tyre noted in The Atlantic, teachers at New Dorp High School realized that not knowing how to use words such as “for, and, nor, but, or, yet,” limited their students’ ability to express clear thinking. They enlisted the help of Judith Hochman, who has developed a method that directly teaches such words and builds students’ knowledge of sentence structures and longer-writing structures so they can express more complex ideas.
Along with focusing students’ attention on excellent sentences and how to make their writing flow, we also need to stop doing things that don’t work.
Many English teachers spend hours and hours marking up students’ papers, and when they hand those papers back, the students merely glance at the grade and do nothing with the feedback. The result is that teachers become highly skilled at copy editing and students’ writing does not improve. So here’s some more good news: you don’t have to lose entire weekends to paper grading. What do you want students to do with your feedback? If they are not going to use it to revise, then extensive notes are not necessary. Consider making brief remarks on this ESSAY WRITING RUBRIC, which includes a separate section for “Self-Improvement Goals” that students can set in each subsequent paper, using your comments as a guide. PS, over-editing is also pointless because editing marks alone can’t teach grammar rules; at best, they remind students of rules they already knew.
The biggest thing we need to fix is how we teach grammar. Students often neglect to apply grammar rules in their own writing because grammar and writing are frequently taught as two discrete subjects, as in, “Today is Tuesday, so we’re doing prepositions. Turn to page 57 in your grammar book.” This is not to say that you should not teach grammar content. But as the Hochman Method suggests, it must be done in a relevant, authentic context so that students can see how and why grammar rules are useful.
Unfortunately, many educators not only teach grammar and writing separately but also rely heavily on the “Daily Oral Language” (DOL) approach, in which they provide sentences riddled with random errors and students are supposed to correct them. Reading specialist Mark Pennington enumerates sixteen reasons why DOL doesn’t work, and I agree with each one. He points out that DOL is proofreading, not sentence construction; that it tries to teach writing without actually having students write; that it uses bad writing models to teach good writing; and that it doesn’t teach the whys and hows of grammar and mechanics. Requiring students to fix grammatically-incorrect sentences might be a form of assessment, but it is not instruction. Students who know the appropriate grammar rules will do fine; the ones who don’t won’t learn the rules. We have to teach before we assess.
By contrast, in Mechanically Inclined, Jeff Anderson recommends a “mentor text” approach, which involves showing students models of sentence structures they can imitate. For example, you might begin with a two-word sentence—subject-verb, as in, “She laughed.”—and have students write their own. Then you could build a longer sentence—say, a three-word sentence that includes a word that describes the verb, also known as an adverb. As in, “She laughed loudly.” In the process of comparing examples with classmates, students would derive the understanding that adverbs are commonly formed by adding “-ly” to an adjective. In this way, we can teach parts of speech organically and authentically. It’s a win-win cycle: as students practice applying the rules in their own writing, they build their knowledge of grammar rules and strengthen their writing.
And once they’ve learned the rules, they can decide when to break them for creative purposes. When they need to. Not necessarily on a Tuesday.
 Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 2002).
 Hart and Risley, 197-8. NOTE: Children from professional families would hear 45 million words; from working-class families, 26 million; and from welfare families, 13 million.
 Hart and Risley, 176. NOTE: Specific data: 86-98%.
 Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 12.
 Sarah Tantillo, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014), xviii.
 Peg Tyre, “The Writing Revolution,” The Atlantic, Oct. 2012, found at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/
 “Why Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) Doesn’t Work,” Mark Pennington, Pennington Publishing Blog, Aug. 29, 2009, found at: http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/why-daily-oral-language-d-o-l-doesnt-work/
 Jeff Anderson, Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2005).