Monday, October 31, 2005

The Other Epidemic: Bad Writing

Judging from the headlines, we're awfully concerned about a possible epidemic of avian flu these days. We should be concerned about that. But here's another epidemic we should spend a lot of air time and money dealing with: how badly Americans communicate with each other when we write instead of speak.

You know what I'm talking about -- business papers that rattle on in the passive voice about "processes that were implemented by stakeholders" and other such vagueness. College professors lament that only a few students show up -- at top universities -- able to construct papers that are coherent and engaging.

The College Board created the new SAT writing section in part to address this epidemic. The first students who took the new SAT last spring are applying to colleges right now. Several colleges, including Georgetown, have said they won't look too closely at the writing section scores. After all, these colleges already require essays for admission, and these essays test the actual writing process much better than the SAT does.

As a writer myself, I agree -- in part. The SAT writing section consists of a 25 minute essay. The grading scale, available on the College Board website, does not penalize for a few grammatical or spelling errors. One professor studied results and found that there was a bias toward longer essays scoring better. Given the number of needless words bobbing around out there, longer doesn't always mean better. Furthermore, the formulaic essays the SAT requires are infinitely coachable. Test prep companies have actually upped their score guarantees as a result.

But... the SAT does test the ability to crank out a first draft. So what if most first drafts are lousy. That's why the College Board doesn't expect perfection. And second, people ignore the other 35 minutes of the writing section in their critiques. Students spend those 35 minutes answering questions on improving word choice, sentence structure and paragraph structure. That sounds like a test of editing skills to me.

The biggest benefit, in my mind, though, is not what's on the test. It's that the presence of a mandatory writing section on the SAT forces schools that care about student SAT scores to teach writing. This is a big benefit over what's existed many places up until now.

Schools don't teach writing well for two main reasons. The first is that many teachers attended education schools that laud the "processes were implemented by stakeholders" school of writing as much as any corporation.

Second (and this is the biggie), teaching writing takes a lot of time to do right. Teachers must assign multiple papers. They must then grade these long compositions, make comments, return the papers, ask students to rewrite them, grade them again, etc., through three-plus rounds of edits. If a teacher has 100 students (not uncommon at the high school level), spending a measly 10 minutes per paper is 1,000 minutes, or nearly 17 hours. Try fitting that into your weekend.

So, with the SAT writing section giving all this a sense of urgency, here's my 3-part plan for improving student writing. Teachers should:

1. Make all students read Strunk & White's "Elements of Style." There's a new illustrated version coming out next year if people find text tedious. The language of this grammar book, though, is never dull. A high school English teacher of mine once said it was the book most often stolen from the school's store room.

2. Up the volume of writing assigned. Students should be writing something -- be it an essay, a research paper, or a critique -- every week.

3. Outsource the grading. There are armies of under-employed writers and English graduate students in this country who would grade papers for cash if schools put the money there. When I wrote about improving writing in USA Today a year ago, I made a joke about outsourcing grading to India, but the more I think about it, it's possible. Families are already hiring Indian tutors to work with students over web connections. College educated Indian professionals who are fluent in English could certainly grade papers. This would free up English teachers for higher value work, such as explaining to students that papers need a thesis (really. I didn't know this until my sophomore year of college!)


Amy S said...

I agree with your post. As an example, the middle school principal completed a form required for my son's participation in an All Star game. It asked for his grade point average. This is what she wrote:
"We Don't keep grade Point's. Jake is a Great student an well Behaved good Luck Jake!"
The punctuation and spelling is as she wrote it. I think the issue is not about the lack of time the teachers have to grade the work. It is the lack of basic skills. You can't teach what you don't know.

Laura Vanderkam said...

That's priceless, Amy.

I didn't want to paint with too broad a brush on teachers and grammar. The problem is, almost no one has a ready command of the subject, from business people to teachers to (I'm sorry to say) sometimes people who actually write for a living.

This makes no sense to me. Command of grammar is not a skill like playing the trumpet, which has a daily application for only a small percentage of the population. All of us write emails, notes, letters, etc.

Jackie said...

And when you have a gifted child who is especialy interested in writing....there doesn't seem to eb anywhere to turn! I can find science and math resources, advanced music and specialty art, but what aboutmy 13 year old step son who is seriously interested in poetry and writing? Nothing!

My step son is diagnosed Aspergers and he is also very advanced in math, spatial concepts and writing. He cannot apply to Davidson Institute due to the autism, and we have been unable to find local resources to support him. A good friend, and PhD in charge of literature at a local university couldn't find any resources either, but did recommend a book called something like "Robin, where did you get that red?" Or something close to was brilliant and DSS loved it!

BTW - did you hear the NPR piece on "The Elements of Style" this week? There is an illustrated version coming out which I plan to purchase for our 13 year old.

I don't think anyone worries about writing and literature in education, but they sure as heck worry about reading comprehension and penmanship. Odd.


Laura Vanderkam said...

I did see that Elements of Style is coming out in an illustrated version. I guess one way to "omit needless words" as the phrase goes is to put in a lot of pictures instead! Ha.
The illustrations are quite whimsical, actually, showing versions of the sentences Strunk & White use to illustrate their points.
Anyway, as for resources for kids who are gifted in writing.... Stanford's EPGY program has some correspondence courses in expository and creative writing. If you like more one-on-one instruction, if you live near a university, you might hire a creative writing student to tutor your step son.