Why Kids REALLY Can’t Write

Steven Harper PiziksThe New York Times posted this article about students and writing. Go have a look and come back:


It’s interesting and shows a number of teachers who have different approaches to solving the problem of students who can’t write well.  But, as the article notes, people complaining of a lack of writing skill in America dates back to at least 1874.  The article also fails to point out the two biggest reasons we have that many students don’t write well, and I’ll address them here.

1.  Student Motivation  A lot of students–the majority of them–just don’t care if their writing sparkles and zings.  They really don’t.  They only want to know what they can do to earn a certain grade.  For some, this grade is an A, and for some it’s a D, and some don’t even care about that much.  Only a tiny handful actually care about learning how to be a better writer.  This describes the vast majority of the population, really.  Ask a thousand people on the street how many of them enjoy writing and want to improve their writing skill.  You’ll come up with a vanishingly small percentage.  A teacher can only teach what the student wants to learn.  A student who puts in minimal effort will see minimal improvement.  In my own classroom, I use a number of techniques and activities to cheerlead and motivate and attempt to persuade that they should work to improve their writing, but in the end, they have to want to do the work.  I can’t force them.  No one can.  It has to come from the students.

2. Class Size  A glaring omission from the article is the impact of class size.  Teacher A talks about identifying a great sentence in a student’s work, and Teacher B talks about having all her students read their writing aloud in class.  Very nice.  Then I look at my class lists.  35 students.  34 students.  37 students.  How the hell?  I simply can’t go through my students’ writing and look for “great sentences.”  And having my students read their writing aloud to the class?  I do that with ONE assignment per year, and it takes three full days, plus one make-up day for students who were absent.  I can barely provide feedback on essays by circling responses on a rubric.  I agree that teacher feedback and student rewrites are important to improving student writing, but when you have 34/35/37 students in class, with a third of them special needs, you just can’t do it.  Back in the days when my classes were 21/22/19, I gave a lot more feedback, and my students did a lot more writing.  Now?  I scrape by with the minimum because I can only evaluate so many papers at once.

You’ll notice that the above two situations aren’t within the teacher’s control.  Motivation ultimately has to come from within.  Class size is dictated by budgets.  If you really want to improve student writing, parents need to set an example for their kids to provide the motivation and vote to improve school funding to help with the budget.

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Danny Large

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2 Responses to Why Kids REALLY Can’t Write

  1. Time and class size seems to be a huge determinant. I am (as I think I’ve said before) in continual awe of teachers who have to teach in a system that seemed rigged against their doing so.

    In high school I had at English teachers in two grades who started virtually every day with a ten minute writing exercise: sometimes it was on a topic, sometimes it was free writing. Many of my classmates hated it (to no one’s surprise, I loved it). Maybe once a week people read them aloud, but most of the time you just turned them in and got a comment the next day (most of them were less than a page handwritten). I’m not sure how much work it was for the teachers, but it sure improved my ability to turn out copy. But those were also classes capped at 30 kids per.

    Mumble-decades later, my daughters had what the teachers called “do-now” work at the beginning of most classes–a 5-10 minute assignment that was supposed to consolidate, or set the stage for, the day’s work. I always thought that this was a better idea than homework, which never seemed to be anything but a huge struggle.

  2. Your two reasons match the experience of this ex-teacher.