Lyse Armand, a rising senior at Westbury High School, leaned over her notebook. She was planning to apply to New York University, Columbia and Stony Brook University and already had an idea of the story she would tell in her Common Application essay. But she was struggling with how to get started and what exactly she wanted to say. Wanzer said.
Lyse had solid sentence-level skills. But even when Ms. Wanzer encounters juniors and seniors whose essays are filled with incomplete sentences — not an uncommon occurrence — she limits the time she spends covering dull topics like subject-verb agreement.
Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this.
By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.
Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills. The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves.
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According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2, teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way. A separate study of nearly teachers in grades three through eight across the country, conducted by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University, found that fewer than half had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing, while fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write.
Unsurprisingly, given their lack of preparation, only 55 percent of respondents said they enjoyed teaching the subject. Troia said. There is virulent debate about what approach is best. Adherents worry that focusing too much on grammar or citing sources will stifle the writerly voice and prevent children from falling in love with writing as an activity.
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That ideology goes back to the s, when progressive educators began to shift the writing curriculum away from penmanship and spelling and toward diary entries and personal letters as a psychologically liberating activity. Later, in the s and s, this movement took on the language of civil rights, with teachers striving to empower nonwhite and poor children by encouraging them to narrate their own lived experiences. Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, a leading center for training teachers in process-oriented literacy strategies.
One of the largest efforts is the National Writing Project, whose nearly branches train more than , teachers each summer. The organization was founded in , at the height of the process-oriented era.
As part of its program at Nassau Community College, in a classroom not far from the one where the teenagers were working on their college essays, a group of teachers — of fifth grade and high school, of English, social studies and science — were honing their own writing skills. Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp. A major goal of this workshop — the teacher-training component of the Long Island Writing Project — was to get teachers writing and revising their own work over the summer so that in the fall they would be more enthusiastic and comfortable teaching the subject to children.
She found it stultifying and believes she developed her writing skill in spite of such lessons, not because of them. Sometimes, she said, she will reinforce grammar by asking students to copy down a sentence from a favorite book and then discuss how the author uses a tool like commas. In fact, research finds that students exposed to a glut of such instruction perform worse on writing assessments. But what about those students, typically low income, with few books at home, who struggle to move from reading a gorgeous sentence to knowing how to write one?
Could there be a better, less soul-crushing way to enforce the basics?
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