Teaching writing, and training teachers to teach writing

To begin with, two facts and an opinion. Fact: There are 110 million salaried workers in America.

Fact: Well over 60 percent of them produce written material on a regular basis.

Opinion: Yet the writing ability of America's students ``is, quite simply, bad.''

The facts come from the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The opinion comes from Archie E. Lapointe, executive director of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He knows whereof he speaks. NAEP has just released its 112-page study of writing achievement in the nation's schools (``The Writing Report Card,'' available from Educational Testing Service, Princeton, N.J.), and the results are sobering in the extreme.

NAEP's survey of nearly 55,000 students, written by Arthur N. Applebee, Judith A. Langer, and Ina V.S. Mullis, found that:

1.Less than 25 percent of the 11th graders surveyed``performed adequately on writing tasks involving skills required for success in academic studies, business, or the professions.''

2.Writing ability can be correlated to television viewing: As viewing rises, writing ability falls.

3.Students' attitudes toward writing fall off sharply as they advance: While 57 percent of 4th-graders like to write, the figure falls to 39 percent for 11th-graders.

These and other points document a problem so subtle in its manifestations, yet so damaging in its consequences, as to call into question the capacity of the nation to grow, compete, and even survive as a democracy.

Does that overstate the case? I don't think so - though I admit that those of us who write for a living are prone to feel particularly passionate about this subject. One can certainly argue that strong writing is the best predictor of academic success - that the ability to write engagingly and rapidly is a more valuable scholastic tool than any amount of personal charm, oral persuasiveness, or even mathematical acuity. One can argue, too, that academic success, despite occasional tales of exceptional careers built on 8th-grade educations, is typically a strong predictor of other sorts of success - including, interestingly, success in marriage, if the correlation between higher education and lower divorce rates has any significance.

What does that have to do with the nation's success? The OTA figures provide one answer: To be involved in business management, in government, or in a profession these days is to be involved with writing. Moreover, it would seem self-evident that a nation's collective success is predicated on the individual success of its populace - especially in a democracy, which depends on the enlightened participation of its citizens.

Good writing, then, is not simply a luxury. It's a national imperative. So what's to be done? The NAEP report points to the need for incorporating writing instruction into all classes. It discusses the value of teaching writing as a process that involves such separate steps as outlining, pre-writing, and editing. It calls for more feedback from teachers, more encouragement from the home, more thought-provoking assignments.

All that will help. But the report also arrives at ``a major conclusion'': that students at all levels ``are deficient in higher-order thinking skills.'' The fact that ``students are having difficulty organizing their thoughts coherently in writing,'' they add, ``suggests that they need much further guidance in how to think about what they write.''

That's well said. Writing, after all, doesn't exist for its own sake. It exists to convey ideas. And there's nothing quite like a tough writing assignment to force one to think hard about ideas - and to become, almost without realizing it, a better thinker.

And that, in the end, is the goal: to produce a nation of thinkers. NAEP deserves praise for carrying the issue this far. Unfortunately, however, its report shies away from asking the obvious next question: Can students become good writers and deep thinkers if they are not taught by teachers who are themselves good writers and love to think deeply?

That sounds like an indictment of teachers. It's not. It's a question aimed, instead, at the educational bureaucracies that maintain such a hammerlock on teacher training these days. The point is this: Have our school teachers themselves been compelled by their teacher-training courses to think deeply? Has good writing been demanded? Or have they been shuffled through schools of education that emphasize process above content, procedure above insight, mechanics above creativity? If so, does that explain why so many of the very best ``burn out'' as teachers - and why so many students, who as little children are so eager to write, grow progressively disenchanted as they mature?

NAEP has done fine spadework: Its report card deserves a solid B-plus. Had it called to account the schools of education - asking how many of them had bothered to teach their own students not simply how to teach writing but how to be good writers, it would have earned an A.

A Monday column

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