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How 'Cut and Paste' Schooling Hurts Writing Skills

 

Q. I'm all for using technology in schools. There's no sense ignoring it, if it's available. But I'm concerned, because I keep hearing about students who can't write a single declarative sentence without grammar and spelling errors. Their papers look great, because they're word-processed. But the content is terrible. Are we over-using technology and other learning tools, and short-changing kids' brains?

 

I have a friend whose son came out of his Catholic high school with strong writing skills and excellent grammar. In his college courses the past two years, three instructors in three different courses accused him of plagiarizing because the quality of his writing was so far beyond that which was produced by other students. One of them even admitted he thought the young man was buying his papers from somewhere.

 

He vindicated himself only when the instructors gave rare in-class writing assignments, and saw that quality prose come off his pen before their eyes. Everybody else was stumped - because most students coming out of public schools today are having a real problem with writing and leaning 'way too hard on computer technology to basically write for them.

 

His mom said that his papers were well written, but they reflected writing she would expect from a college student - nothing supernaturally great. That just shows how poor the other students' skills have become. As the ability to read and understand complex subjects and situations, and write about them clearly and succinctly, becomes more and more important in our increasingly complex world, young people like this young man, who can write, are becoming more and more rare.

 

Reading and writing skills go hand in hand. The ineffective method of reading instruction which is pervasive in public schools, "Whole Language," or "balanced literacy," is wreaking havoc on student writing skills as well. The curriculum use basal readers, sight-reading word lists, workbooks, and other materials in which the students aren't taught to "decode" words, sentences and paragraphs, as with phonics, but instead look at the pictures or the context of the sentence, and "cut and paste" in their minds what words should go in place.

 

Rather than create whole sentences, paragraphs and papers from their own minds, they "fill in the blanks" and respond to computer prompts, for the most part. Guessing is OK, and accuracy falls by the wayside. Handwriting is rarely taught correctly. Sentence diagramming is only rarely taught, either.

 

Most students never learn how individual letters are shaped properly because they are never taught proper handwriting instruction. They don't recognize the letters in text as readily because of this, and develop reading disabilities. Further, students never learn how the letters should come together properly in words, because they don't learn to read analytically, with phonics, but with faulty sight-reading methods such as memorization; that's why so many students have such terrible spelling.

 

Then they don't know how words should come together into sentences, because they aren't taught to analyze and recognize the parts of speech. Past a certain grade level, around upper elementary school, they're completely lost with more difficult content.

 

Unless a child is in a school that teaches language skills the old-fashioned way, that student is going to struggle with upper-level writing tasks, including the SAT essay that can make or break selective college admission.

 

Homework: Learn more about the effects on children's minds of technology and computers in the book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think - and What We Can Do About It by Jane M. Healy.

 

By Susan Darst Williams www.ShowandTellforParents.com Writing 19 2008

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