Glanced at your child’s text messages lately? No? How about her e-mail or IMs? If you take a peek, you’ll find plenty of sentence fragments, emoticons and shortcuts like LOL (laugh out loud) and BFF (best friends forever). Punctuation? Forget about it.
Which begs the question: Where has all the good writing gone?
Chances are, you won’t find it anywhere around the e-communication world. Even blogging tends to be informal, as do the observations and insights teens share on their Facebook pages.
Is this a bad omen for the good old reliable research paper and the quintessential five-paragraph essays that we wrote as young teens?
Could be, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. While teens don’t think technology has an impact on their writing, many of the kids surveyed said e-writing style does filter into their schoolwork. “Overall, nearly two-thirds of teens say they incorporate some informal styles from their text-based communications into their writing at school,” the study says.
As if that’s not enough to induce panic in the hearts of literacy devotees, here’s more: Only about a third of the country’s eighth-graders are proficient writers, according to the U.S. Department of Education study “The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2007.” The findings did note some improvements: The average writing score for eighth-graders in 2007 was three points higher than in 2002 and six points higher than in 1998.
There’s a growing awareness among educators that kids need writing skills for life, not just to pass high school English or a state-mandated standardized test. “Our goal is to prepare kids to be good writers,” says Julie Manley, a language arts curriculum coach and a teacher at the International School in Bellevue.
Writing — all forms of it — matters, no matter what field kids pursue, Manley says. “A scientist needs to publish well-written papers. An employer expects employees to be able to write.” And yes, it’s even important, she says, to be able to transmit readable, coherent e-mails.
English and language arts teachers seem downright passionate about teaching writing and literacy skills to kids, and voice frustration when parents don’t share their zeal.
“We are a grade-centric society,” says Heather Hoffacker, language arts department chair at Washington Middle School in Seattle. “Parents often worry more about how their child is doing than about what they are doing. And that’s not the point. If they’re not literate and critical thinkers, how do they expect to be successful?”
How kids learn writing
To shape these youngsters into literate and critical thinkers, schools begin teaching writing fundamentals — including sentence structure, mechanics and paragraphing — in the elementary years. By middle school, writing expectations rise, and so do the depth and details of reading and writing assignments.
“Middle school is when students start to find autonomy and voice in writing,” says Hoffacker. “It’s the bridge between the elementary concept of learning to write and the high school and college process of self-expression, self-evaluation and critical thinking.”
In other words, by sixth grade or so, a student might be asked to progress from standard book-report regurgitation to thoughtful essays produced in narrative or expository style.
At Washington Middle School, Hoffacker works to help students cultivate those highly developed thinking skills. She also shows the kids ways to experiment with different writing strategies and styles, and connect reading with writing.
Patti Crouch, a high school English teacher at Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma, teaches her ninth-graders ways to set up an argument. By the time the students hit their senior year, they’re ready to grapple with more sophisticated ideas. “They deal with more difficult literature and focus on being analytical,” says Crouch.
Writing is all about communication, says Crouch. Students who find their own voice in their writing are the ones who have a sense that their own ideas count, she says. “They are the kids who read a lot, the ones who talk about books and politics with their parents.”
Still, today’s English and literature instructors don’t stop at imbuing their students with reasoning and critical thinking skills. The five-paragraph essay is alive and well and thriving in middle and high schools.
Why has this venerable essay form endured for so many years? “It’s a structure to hang ideas on,” says Crouch. “It’s rudimentary, like learning scales.” That form — which includes an introduction, supporting body, evidence and conclusion — works for everything from science reports to personal letters and term papers, and helps students get their ideas across clearly, she notes.
Teaching creative writing to kids
While educators make certain they expose students to creative writing, language arts teachers — especially in middle and high school — focus more on structured and analytical writing than on the genres of fiction, poetry and narratives we commonly think of as “creative.” As Tacoma-area English teacher Patti Crouch says, “We spend more time on analytical writing because that’s the way these kids will be writing in college.”
That’s one reason Writers in the Schools, or WITS, a program developed through Seattle Arts & Lectures, works to expose students to professional writers and to the art and technique of creative writing.
Through the WITS program, visiting writers teach creative writing to public elementary, middle and high school students in the Seattle and Tukwila areas. The program costs $16,352 per school; the schools contribute $6,000 and Seattle Arts & Lectures raises the rest through corporate and private donations.
Writers featured in the program have included Jack Prelutsky, Adam Gopnik, Frank McCourt and Pam Houston. The writers typically work with three classes for one period each week. “We encourage the schools to give the writers the freedom to teach from their place of passion,” says Rebecca Hoogs, director of education programs for WITS. The hope, says Hoogs, is for students to see writing as a tool for self-expression. “They should discover there is power and pleasure in writing.”
For more information on WITS, email email@example.com.
Linda Morgan, ParentMap’s associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.
6 tips for helping kids learn the value of writing:
1. Explain to your children that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end.
2. Help them create and put together their own books.
3. Ask your child why the author uses one particular word instead of another.
4. Read to your children frequently and play around with words.
5. Examine the print features of written words: Why is a title in capital letters? Why does the question mark go here?
6. Introduce your kids to different kinds of books and writing. Talk to them about the purpose behind a science journal or a newspaper.
Source: Julie Manley, a teacher at the International School in Bellevue