Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic are the educational holy trinity in this country, beginning with Dick and Jane reading primers, oversized alphabet cards and memorizing mathematic time tables.

Yet somewhere along the way, the practice of communicating in a logical, grammatically correct fashion disappeared, and writing like we speak and keeping journals instead of creating term or research papers replaced it.

The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, a panel of educators and writing experts appointed by the Scholastic Aptitude Test service, recently issued a report condemning our education system for shortchanging students in writing instruction. They charged that today’s system ill prepares students for the writing demands of college and careers.

The report stresses that “writing is essential…it allows students to ‘connect the dots’ in their knowledge…students must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else.”

As a part-time first-year-writing instructor at a local university, I wasn’t surprised by the report. Every year I see students struggle with the demands of a first-year college writing course. This lack of proficiency ignores regional boundaries and is also apparent in students who graduated from school districts touted as the best in the Metroplex.

I have often wondered how the first-year college students I teach managed to graduate with such remedial writing skills and grammar knowledge – such as not knowing when to use an apostrophe or how to use a semicolon or a comma.

Every semester I have to tell my students that the adage of using a comma where you would naturally pause when speaking is a falsehood guaranteed to lower their grades if they follow it. And we spend most of the semester practicing how to write an organizing idea that reflects what the essay will prove. These are things that I believe should be a minimum standard for high school graduation.

The National Commission on Writing’s report revealed why this trend of poor communication skills occurs in secondary schools. Some of their findings: Most students spend less than three hours each week engaged in writing, equivalent to 15 percent of the time they spend watching television; fewer than half of all high school seniors write a three-page paper on a monthly basis in English class; 75 percent of all seniors in history and social studies never receive a writing assignment; most schools don’t assign a senior research project.

This dearth of writing assignments exists because the actual time it takes to grade such projects cannot be shortened by technology. The teacher has to sit and read each paper, marking it for mistakes, adding suggestions and praise in the margins.

The process takes hours. A machine can grade multiple-choice assignments in one-tenth of the time, and overworked teachers have turned more and more to those forms of testing.

We need to halt this backward slide in writing competency, because the writing standards of colleges and careers are not changing to accommodate the downward shift in secondary education. Students will be penalized in higher education and career choices if they do not achieve the level of mastery these institutions require.

Find out what your child’s school is doing to implement better writing proficiency and writing assignments. Talk to teachers, principals and the school board about increased emphasis on writing skills within the curriculum – writing that goes beyond journal keeping and creative self-expression.

Our children’s higher education and careers will require an ability that is currently not provided by our school system, and it’s up to us to make sure they receive what they need to succeed.

Writing is everybody’s business.


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