Don't teach rules, teach writing
''Why don't high school teachers teach these kids how to write? I've never seen so many bad writers in my tenure as a college teacher. What are they doing down there? Playing games with these people? Are they teaching writing at all?''
This college prof's lament is typical. He blames the high schools while the high schools blame the lower grades for students' lack of skills in writing. Presumably the buck stops at the first grade. No one seems to be able to handle this problem, and as a result most students are cheated out of proper direction in writing.
English teachers are only giving lip service to the teaching of writing. They do a pretty good job of doling out those grammar and syntax rules year after year; but these rules have very little bearing on teaching writing. Recent studies indicate that the repetitious teaching of rules even has a harmful effect on a student's writing.
A rule, you see, only becomes important to students as they are actually applying it. And it is at this time that teachers can best help a student. They can point out the rule in the student's writing and explain it as a useful tool.
This is called individualized teaching, and it is the best way to teach writing. One on one. To this the anguished cries go up, ''But I have too many students to do that.'' Bosh! What they are really saying is, ''It's easier to work with a group than it is with 30 individuals.'' Teachers panic when they think of the other 29 kids in the room who aren't being lectured to. ''What do I do with them?'' they ask.
Have them write, naturally. My point is teachers on any level can help students greatly in their writing if they do it on a one-to-one basis. Individualization isn't a pana-cea, but it might begin the cure.
A second thing English teachers must do to change their styles is stop lecturing in front of the room. Or, perhaps, the teacher could lecture for about five periods; that's probably all the time needed to say everything worthwhile about writing before a student begins writing. Then students write. Teachers edit and teachers consult. All period long there's a student at the teacher's desk. Kids love this; not only do they learn about their unique problems but it's the first time they've ever talked to a teacher, one on one, when they weren't getting it in the neck. The writing teacher should be an editor and consultant, not a lecturer.
Another great change must take place in the English classroom before students learn to write. They must throw out all the traditional garbage that clutters up the writing class: literature, speech, using the telephone, role playing, human relations, Scrabble games, and other activities that take time away from teaching writing. Time is impor-tant.
James Conant said in his ''American High School Today'' that ''the time devoted to English composition during the four years should occupy about half the total time devoted to the study of English.''
As a matter of fact, compared to the early '60s when we were quite comfortable with teaching writing, the amount of writing done in the classroom has now been halved. Not only are we disregarding Conant's advice but we are making conditions worse.
Conant went on to say, ''Those students who do not obtain a grade on the eleventh grade composition test commensurate with their ability as measured by an aptitude test should be required to take a special course in English composition in the twelfth grade.'' Practically no high schools do this.
Because most English teachers know so little about the writing process since they themselves don't write, and because they never have taken a course in how to teach writing, it is unthinkable that they would spend two years teaching it in high school. Rare is the school that spends one uninterrupted year on writing.
Writing is usually a hit-or-miss assignment sandwiched in with the study of literature. The exceptions, of course, are the writing electives that only a handful of students take for one semester, or the mandatory one-semester writing class everyone is required to take.
The problem will be corrected only when those in charge of curriculum development understand it. English teachers themselves could be instrumental in making the change if they recognize the problem and quit avoiding it. In the meantime a million students will be cheated.