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Better Books, Better Writing Models


Q. You sure hear from all corners that writing skills have declined in recent years. Employers complain that nobody under age 40 can spell. Workplace mistakes are common because of weak writing. Mistakes make you look incompetent in front of customers. Why do today's college students not write nearly as well as the high-school dropouts of a couple of generations ago?


Not enough writing instruction and too much media may have addled our young people's brains. Their poor writing performance gives us a window into their thinking ability. It's not a pretty picture.


But the written word is still the most important form of communication, regardless of how widespread cellphones become or videocameras spread far and wide. The same thinking processes that were useful with a quill pen are still useful on a computer today.


Why do so many students, and so many adults, for that matter, "hate" to write? Probably for the same reason that people who have only done public speaking rarely and with no coaching "hate" to speak. With writing, as with everything else in life, you learn by doing. Practice - the right kind of practice, well-coached - makes writing enjoyable and satisfying . . . because you have become pretty good at it.


Schools should take a hard look at curriculum and activities that deny children this kind of well-coached daily practice. For example:


Filling in the blanks in a workbook with a word here or there - probably the most common school activity in the early grades - is counter-productive to the "flow."


If all the students are doing is scribbling down their personal feelings in a journal which is never edited or corrected, they become undisciplined writers who cannot compose a decent business letter or report on down the road.


If they are never taught the rules of spelling or given vocabulary enrichment, their writing will always be stunted at grade-school level . . . which appears to be where we stand, although as more and more parents discover this, it may change soon.


More than anything else, though, schools should take a hard look at the quality of the books in the assigned reading curriculum. In far too many schools, even at the grade-school level, the assigned books are dumbed down, heavily politicized, oversexed, high on action and low on literary value. They're a lot like the "junk TV" that so many kids (and adults!) are hooked on these days. They aren't at all what you spend your time on, if you love stories, love language, love ideas, and want to be able to communicate facts and opinions well in your adult life.


Don't you remember the old saying: garbage in, garbage out. If a student's role model for writing is a junk book, no wonder that student will write like junk. But if the student's model is one of the greatest books ever written, then the chances are much higher that the student will develop writing skill that, if it isn't exactly great, is at least good.


If a school really wants to turn out better writers, it ought to recraft its assigned reading lists so that 80% of the books are 50 years old or older, and only 20% are relatively new. You'll still have tens of thousands of books to choose from, but the timeless classics with little or no controversy or objectionable material will no longer be expunged from the eyes of the would-be writers - today's students.


Homework: A good resource on writing instruction for parents and teachers is the WriteSource handbook series,


By Susan Darst Williams Writing 20 2008


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