A while back, I talked about the importance of strong writing skills in the workplace. Today I want to take a look at the grim statistics regarding poor writing skills on college campuses and help you explore things you can do now to ensure that your children do not join those ranks.
EDIT: Originally written in 2010, this article has been updated to cite more recent sources. As you will discover, the problem has not gone away, but remains as disconcerting as ever.
The Problem on College Campuses
“The Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, writing copious text messages and social media posts, but when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.” Why Kids Can’t Write (NY Times, August 2017)
First-time college students face their new post-high school careers with excitement, fear, and any number of challenges. But good writing, for many freshmen, may pose the biggest challenge of all. Professors want to see concise, coherent and well-reasoned writing assignments. And regardless of the discipline—whether English, history, biology, or art—they expect students to write at a higher level than they did in high school.
Are incoming students unprepared for college writing? We hear again and again that many freshmen lack the most basic skills to write clearly, effectively, and coherently because their working knowledge of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and paragraph structure is so poor. The Why Kids Can’t Write article reveals that
Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class.
When High Schools Fail to Prepare Their Graduates
According to The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on education, “only 13 percent of [Baltimore City College] students were deemed ready to start on college-level math and English courses right away.”
As a result, many students must attend remedial classes, “a process that is a financial drain on not only students, but also colleges and taxpayers, costing up to an estimated $7 billion a year.” Most Colleges Enroll Many Students Who Aren’t Prepared for Higher Education, January 2017
The article quotes Sonja Brookins Santelises, chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, who puts the onus on those who are supposed to be preparing these teens for a college future. “If we’ve been giving kids worksheets with simplistic answers for years,” she says, “and then get upset when they can’t write a five-paragraph essay or recognize subject-verb agreement, that’s not the kids. That’s us.”
When College Writing Courses Don’t Teach Writing
Arriving on campus is no assurance of success for incoming freshmen who need basic writing courses but aren’t necessarily getting them.
Professor Stanley Fish says universities should rethink the political and ideological emphasis of most composition classes. In a NY Times article, What Should Colleges Teach? he rightly suggests that “unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.”
Fish became alarmed and curious about the poor writing skills his English graduate students demonstrated in their research papers. Graduate students should write well, Fish reasoned, especially since they were teaching introductory composition classes to undergrads.
After asking to see lesson plans for the sections in which English graduate students taught undergraduate composition, Fish found that in almost every section, “students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.”
Of the 104 sections, only four emphasized grammar, rhetoric, and the craft of writing well.
A Sad but True Example
Some time ago, a friend came into possession of a freshman English paper and shared it with me. Sadly, it serves to reinforce the statistics and testimonials that only too frequently cross my desk. From start to finish, this student’s essay on William Blake’s “The Tyger” is riddled with errors:
- Uncapitalized proper nouns such as jesus and greek
- Missing punctuation, including periods
- Casual language (“…it is actually about more than just a tiger and stuff.”)
- Slang (“Allusion is all over the freekin place.”)
- Misplaced apostrophes and more slang (“Tyger’s have four feet. Cool, huh?“)
- Use of second person (“If you look at Blake’s history…”)
- Run-on sentences and sentence fragments
- Absence of transitions
- Lack of organization
- Use of numerals instead of words (“…5 years ago…”)
- Use of Wikipedia as a “credible” source
This student represents a mere drop in a very full bucket. Thousands of similarly skilled young men and women are accepted into major universities every year—high school graduates whose writing abilities just aren’t up to par.
You Can Make a Difference!
I could continue filling your brain with testimonials and data and examples. But the bottom line remains the same: students are emerging from their high-school cocoons as undernourished butterflies whose wings are inadequately developed for flying through college writing.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As a homeschooler, you’re in a privileged position to help your students. In future articles, I’ll get into more detail, but for now, rest assured that you can:
- Learn to identify your child’s unique grammar, spelling, and writing issues.
- Tailor curricula and writing lessons to address those needs.
- Make sure you’re covering the basics.
- Expand instruction to include more college prep work.
- Offer your child what a classroom teacher of 150 cannot: one-on-one instruction, frequent writing assignments, and detailed, consistent feedback. “At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing.”