Better Books, Better
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
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
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
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, www.thewritesource.com