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Writing on the wall

Expert Douglas Reeves says kids aren't learning to write, and it's a disaster in the making.

By Carol Lloyd

"Michael’s class didn’t do that much writing this year,” mused a friend whose 9-year-old son attends a high-performing California public school. "Then I realized California didn’t administer the writing test this year because of the budget problems."

It’s an ugly equation: No testing = no curriculum = no learning.

But it’s one many parents around the country may be grappling with as budgets fall short and standardized tests rule the classroom. Of course, not every school allows its teachers to skip what their students won’t be tested on, but writing occupies a particularly precarious place in curriculum battles. No one would dispute that it’s part of the core curriculum, but it’s both time-consuming to teach and expensive to assess since you can’t test it through computer-corrected, multiple-choice questions.

Yet Douglas Reeves, an expert in educational standards and the author of Reason to Write, argues that these obstacles are no reason for schools to avoid teaching writing — even in elementary school. In fact, beefing up writing expectations across the curriculum may be the key to helping kids improve in other subjects as well.

GreatSchools: What is happening with writing standards? Is writing being taught more or less than when we were young?

Douglas Reeves: Writing standards are now lower. More than 60% of students never write a single term paper in high school. Universities are finding that a majority of incoming freshman don’t have adequate writing skills. Yet according to a report from Carnegie, writing is essential in teaching kids to be good readers.

Someday — supposedly in 2015 — the common core standards will be implemented, and with them significant new writing standards that require nonfiction writing across the curriculum. But in the meantime, states determine standards, and when it comes to writing, they vary substantially. And because of budget cuts, a lot of schools have retreated from writing.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"I find it humorous that parents weigh in on such topics when they have never set foot in a classroom. How can you possibly criticize the teachers and schools when you do not know what actually goes on? As a parent, I encourage my child to write. Her learning is not just going to happen at school. She is not the only child in that class and there are things beyond the teacher’s control that do prevent something’s from happening. I as a PARENT extend the learning at home to ensure she has the best possible education. As a teacher, my students write. Daily. They will write for about fifteen minutes in the beginning of class about a topic and their thoughts. They also are required to write what we call�Critical Writing" every 5 days as an assessment that they understand the content they are learning. All of which make up 40% of the students' grade. However, the work that is turned in is horrible. The majority of the students take 45 minutes to try and figure out how to get out of the assignment. Constantly being asked, "How long does it have to be", "Why do we have to do this" among other comments and questions. If I call home, the parent does not answer or I am told "it is your problem" or "I don't have time for this" or "I don't care if they write" And this you say is because of the teachers? "
"I work in a highly technical environment where computers, networks, programs and technology rule the day. However, I am consistently amazed by the low literary standards and quality of many "educated" persons within my industry. Poor writing begets poor communication and poor communication leads to re-work, duplication of effort and therefore more time and expense. Someday one of these bright persons will figure this out and begin utilizing more "write-brain" persons in the "left-brain" dominated IT industry. At least that's what I'm shooting for! "
"I am very relieved to read this article. I have been struggling with getting my son to be as good at writing as he is at reading, mathematics, science, and ICT for several years now. While he was able to read, do maths, understand science, and generate Power Point presentations as early as age 3, his writing skills were abysmal. Instead of helping him to improve, however, his then school told me to teach him to type. I did this, but his writing skills were still almost non-existent. Now, in another school, his teachers comment on how poor his writing skills are in relation to his other academic abilities but, again, they give little in the way of either practice or suggestion. So, I took it upon myself to begin daily writing exercises with him. First, I used LINED paper, something his school does not seem to use often, and had him write and, importantly, re-write words until he could write clearly enough to have his writing read by an outsider. I did not stop there, ! however. I also took and began having him write lists for such things as What I would like for my birthday and The Super Powers I would most like to have if I were a super hero. Then, as he began to bring home proper non-fiction texts from school, I would not let him just run through reading them (at the age of 6 he has the reading ability of an adult), but would stop him after a few pages and make him write 5 sentences (paraphrasing) about what he had just read. Finally, I reached a point where I would ask him to write a paragraph or more to summarize things he read, be they fiction or non-fiction, and to give his input as to what he liked or did not like about them. His writing is still not as high-level as his other skills but his teachers have been left speechless at his ability to actually express himself clearly and legibly without sticking to spelling tests or "high frequency" words, for a purpose, rather than just to be getting on with the work at hand. It is very time consuming, sometimes frustrating, definitely tiring at first, and he has thrown many a fit when I ask him to erase and start again (especially when he has rushed through and the writing look like chicken scratch), but it is working and it is making him not only a better writer, but a better student all around. I also make sure he sees me writing on a regular basis since, as we know, we are the mold from which our children base themselves. If they only ever see us type, they will never see writing as an important skill. I continue to try to work with his school and advocate "writing for a purpose" with his teachers, but only time will tell if they pursue this line of thought and get all their students on the path of successful and expressive writing. "
"Our Kindergartener is learning - and sometimes really struggling - with writing, but we've been trying to support the classwork with at-home exercises. I'm adamant that we keep digital out and put the emphasis on analog skills. There willl be plenty of time later for tech.   I'm fully in support of teaching kids handwriting too!   The ability to write without the aid of a machine is a fundamental human capability, right up there with conscious thought, not quaint nostalgia. "
""It always amazes me how educators link curriculum problems to a lack of money and parents' lack of interest. Why is there always enough money for teachers' benefits and programs in sex education and bullying and diversity, but never enough money to ensure that children are prepared academically for life after graduation? Seems to me that educators have it backwards until the problem is so widespread that it can no longer be ignored. " I am so agree with the comment above. It looks like teachers do anything but needed, and what easier. I have experience of school in other country. Comon people, we had reading, writing and math every day, and equally important. Also we had about 30 student in class. By the end of 1st grade we learned by heart times table, we could read and write cursive nicely. We had other teachers, I miss them nuch, and I'm so sorry, my kids do not have such. "
"Some people seem to be confusing handwriting with writing instruction. This article is talking about writing instruction- not teaching cursive. "
"We are not spending enough time in the area of writing, and our children are not taking their time. It seem as if they are in a rush to get their work done. I do believe, if the children take their time spending more time writing the standard will increase. An even balance between writing and typing will prove beneficial, and I can take this bit of advice myself. AFCMSVO/NAPSP "
"The reason is quite simple. My son't 3rd grade teacher told me, because of the computer, and other computer technology, such as the Blackberry. It's only important for kids to master printing. Handwriting is no longer important. "
"It saddens me to know that our children are being short changed when it comes to their education. Instead of taking away certain requirements from our children, we need to find as many possibilities as we can to help them succeed in life. I firmly believe that all of the subject matters that was taught years ago should still be implemented in the classroom today. Why not have the children write about their day and read what they have written? There is no reason why the children cannot write a letter to one of their peers and have that peer read the letter out loud. We as parents and educators need to become more creative in how we teach. One way to become creative is to incorporate as many subject matters into one lesson as we can. "
"It always amazes me how educators link curriculum problems to a lack of money and parents' lack of interest. Why is there always enough money for teachers' benefits and programs in sex education and bullying and diversity, but never enough money to ensure that children are prepared academically for life after graduation? Seems to me that educators have it backwards until the problem is so widespread that it can no longer be ignored. "
"There are so many good comments here. I have one 18 year old no longer in high school and twins who are in high school. I've been complaining for years that the schools are not teaching. My daughter is a straight 'A' student in honors classes yet her skills at writing still lack what I would expect for a sophomore level high school student. Do you start blaming our elected representatives for cutting back on funding for education? There's fewer teachers and more children per class. Do you blame the education system itself? There is so much emphsasis on teaching to the state standardized testing that writing seems to take a backseat to the social studies and science. Do you blame the teachers who give assignments and never bother to grade them? Is part of the problem that children spend so much time on video games that homework is done quickly so more time in the evening can be spent playing their electronics? Are we, as parents, part of the problem in that we're not spending enough time with the children to reinforce proper writing skills? My guess i that it's all of the above (ah, another multiple choice question)? When many of us were in school, years ago, there was considerable time spent in junior high school teaching us the necessary research and writing skills to compose well written research and essay papers. Two of my children entered high school without ever having written an essay. So, what's the solution? "
"I teach writing in my first grade class everyday! We have a specific writing time which lasts for about 40 minutes. I teach a writing lessons, my students then have independent writing time while I teach small groups on a writing concept or conference with individual children. Then we group back up and summarize/share our writing. We also have another 20 minute period of writing each day. I do teach mechanics, such as, periods, spaces, capital letters. So, before you write your next article, please do not make sure large assumptions about all teachers. "
"I'm horrified at the writing ability of some my kid's teachers, why would I expect them to be able to teach the mechanics of good writing? That aside, there seems to be so much focus on reading comprehension and not so much on writing. Somebody must think our kids will learn to write by osmosis. We have these idiotic "read-a-thons" where kids lose whole days of instruction so they can read their favorite comic books during school. They could spend that day doing intense 1-day writing seminars! "
"that.s true. Too many children in one classroom. Too many pc at home and school. Poor time,s parents to help them. in my country in private schools they learn to spelling in english and they do correctly and so in spanish, but I have to agree that when I was a kid, we did many many homework writing and doing caligraphy. "
"I take exception with the statement: "Of course, not every school ALLOWS its teachers to skip what their students won’t be tested on..." Allows? As a teacher of language arts and a student of rhetoric, I am deeply offended by the blanket assumption that if we are not forced to teach writing, we won't do it. It is, in fact, often the opposite scenario: if it's not on the test, we are often questioned as to why we spend time on it. I have, in my 13 years, ALWAYS made writing a priority -- including the year I had 5 classes of 38-45 students, and 3 course preps. I don't know if attacking teachers was the writer's intent. If not, I'd suggest she learn a bit about writing and select her words more carefully. "
"Our school system says that don't teach writing anymore because the writing SOL (VA Standards of Learning) will be given on computer anyway. "
"Why such a brief mention of the Common Core Standards? Some states HAVE implemented the Standards, and some already have very high standards. I don't see in the article where Reeeves gets his data. The idea that children are not writing is a sweeping generalization. Some of the articles that you share seem to be presented as a fear tactic to use with parents rather than true information about what is happening in the schools. What do you have to back up your claim that, because of budget cuts, some schools are retreating from writing? How many schools have you visited? What research have you actually conducted? What a disappointing article. "
" The school my nephew goes to said he only needs to know how to print. I think he needs to know how to write not just print. I am a caregiver for my nephew "
"I am a high school English teacher in NC. We teach students to write to the best of our ability. However, we are stymied for a number of reasons. Our English class is only a semester long. Writing is a process and can't be taught in a semester-long class very well. The students we get from middle school know nothing of grammar and punctuation. Grading papers is a time-consuming process. We are forced into so many meetings, so much administrative paper-work, so many duties that the time devoted to grading papers is seriously reduced. And the new generation of teachers in their 20s and 30s aren't willing to spend hours of time outside of class grading. "
"What nonsense! I completely disagree with the "expert" Douglas Reeves. As a first grade teacher who has taught many years, I do teach writing, and lots of it! We do the writing workshop approach with all the traits, and by the time the students exit first grade, they are better writers than students twenty or thirty years ago. In those years there were no expectations. Schools and parents were happy if the children wrote four complete basic sentences by June. In today's first grade the expectations are very high. The students do all kinds of writing: personal narrative, expository, persuasive, and so on. Now students are expected to be able to write using detailed and colorful descriptions and word choice, point of view,and more. A typical first grader is expected to write a well-organized paper (beginning/middle/end for narrative, topic sentence/ supporting evidence/conclusion for expository text) conveying a clear message with important details, sentence fluency and voice,! as well as standard conventions for spelling and grammar. For you parents who were in first grade twenty years ago, think back to what you were writing then. There is no comparison. "
"As a parent educated in another country, I'm so amazed that writing is not part of the curriculum. When I was a child I had to take writing class everyday, 5 days a week, and passing that class was part of the whole grading, and writing in cursive was the requirement. I hated when my mom used to tear out my homework when my writing was not clear and neat, but now, I thank her for that. Now with this technology era, basic skills have been swiped out of the map. Kids are more into games and computers, leaving out other skills such as creativity and social. I think schools should give a great attention to this. Writing is an essential tool, not only for studies but for life too. I hope politicians will really understand our concerns. We all want the best for our children, and education plays the major roll. "
"I can summarize why children are not learning to write. First, the number of students in a language arts class is staggering. Just do the math: A teacher has 25 kids in a middle school LA class. The teacher has 5 classes. Middle school students should be writing one essay a week. Therefore, the teacher must wade through 125 essays a week. Now throw in the fact that the students have had little or no training in grammar, story development, sequential order, etc... How can one human ever wade through this many papers with this many necessities that need to be discussed? It is virtually impossible. As a result, the teacher becomes overwhelmed and performs at the minimum standard. In elementary school, the focus is reading, reading, reading. Even learning basic math skills takes a back seat in many schools. Writing is the red headed step child. In my opinion, you can't teach a child to write unless they are required to perform the task daily. Students today don't even know how to write in cursive, much less write. Ask your child to write in cursive. It is no longer formally instructed. If you want to try something else, ask your child to respond to word problems in math by writing a sentence related to the problem. Currently, only about 75% of my fourth and fifth graders are able to do this effectively. The solution to statements above is much smaller language arts classes (12?) and holding teachers accountable. If class sizes were cut in half, teachers could teach. However, you would still have the lazy teachers who don't want to do the job right flocking to the smaller class size. Therefore, all of the teachers should be held accountable. How? Principals should manage not just turn the blind eye to ineffective teaching. Secondly, students today are products of people who were 'socially promoted.' The whole issue of 'pass first, remediate later' is ridiculous. A student who lacks the skills for the beginning grade level they're entering, should have been held back. Holding students back is unpopular, because it is perceived as negative and the school usually takes a funding hit. Really, a child should be held back so they can master the required skills of the grade level. Ergo, we now have a bunch of parents (for the most part) who lack basic skills and cannot help their child if they wanted to. At least we can look a the positive side of that last sentence: The schools that passed people who couldn't function in a subject area still got funded. Education in America today is ugly. All politicians say they're going to 'fix the system.' They lie. Education is about money, not actually educating. Maybe concerns to 'fix the system' will surface when we're dead last in the world. By that time, I don't think the emperor will want the system fixed. Remember folks, forced ignorance is a form of repression of a race. That's why it was illegal for a slave to learn to read."
"I just want to say I appreciate this article and all the comments very much."
"When my 10th grade daughter was asked to underline the rhetorical devices in one paragraph of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, I told her to read the whole speech and then write an essay explaining how rhetorical devices made this an effective speech. I also insisted that each paragraph began with a different sentence structure. 'That's not the assignment, Mama,' she said. 'You want to go to college don't you?' I responded. She wrote the essay. The teacher never graded it. "
"My kids' middle school is still teaching writing. I hope it's not an exception as mentioned in the article. As we know, writing is a very important tool in training one to organize one's thoughts and to communicate them with others. This summer, we have our kids check books out from our local library, read and write an essay of any topic related to those books. It doesn't cost anything, except time. Have a wonderful summer. "
"I worked as a professional technical writer and then became a teacher. I feel that writing in schools today is a disaster. Let's evaluate one thing at a time: First, on test day, children in fourth grade are expected to write a well-structured, comprehensive, five paragraph essay on a given prompt whose content they have no clue; in a time period of 45 minutes. The content of this essay is NOT to be formulaic. This, in itself, is outrageous. In other words, we're asking our children to be ready for 'something,' but we don't know what it actually will be, on test day. Then, make sure that you write about it using metaphors, similes, transitions, advanced vocabulary, logical sequencing, killer opening and closing paragraphs... but don't write in a way that can be interpreted as 'canned.' Talk about stress! A fourth grader is NINE years old. Secondly, children are learning grammar instruction in sixth grade that I learned in eighth grade. Grammar instruction starts getting serious and boring in fourth grade. The level of grammar that a fourth grader is equipped with prior to the big test is adequate, if they are able to learn it all. Hence, kids get turned off to grammar at an early age. (Not that it was ever that fun.) Thirdly, student:teacher ratio. Flat out, it doesn't work. Teachers are expected to carry a student load that is staggering when one thinks that they are expected to manage and grade all of the papers. Let's take a typical middle school teacher down here in Florida. We'll even follow the 'class size amendment' even though he will be saddled with more students than that. If he has five classes of 25 students, that is a whopping 125 essays to wade through. The teacher is expected to oversee a process that involves pre-writing, rough draft,editing, re-writing, editing, final draft. To teach writing correctly, he will sit down at least two times with each student to discuss the paper they have in progress. In my private school, my student load last year was a total of 65 over 5 classes. When the time came to produce a non-fiction science paper, I sat down with students every day to guide and discuss. The maximum number of students I could turn was about 5 in a one hour class. This worked well, but I was working like a dog. Sitting and working on essays with students every day was required for this type of paper because of the content. It was difficult for most of them. Teaching Language Arts (not Reading) is one of THE MOST time consuming skills a student will learn. Most teachers just don't have the time due to number of students handled. It is just not humanly possible. A solution would be to hire MORE Language Arts teachers in the schools. Departmentalize that skill, so the teacher only teaches writing for a designated period of time. Then distribute the students into classes of 10 - 12 for writing. If we took this measure, then students would be able to write effectively."
"Sadly, it's reached the point that schools don't even teach proper grammar anymore. Students in foreign countries, learning English as a second language, get a better education in English grammar than our own children. In my daughter's sophomore Honors English class, the teacher became so frustrated that she put her curriculum on hold for two weeks so she could teach the students grammar. That was an HONORS class, smart kids, who couldn't write properly. Saying the schools can't do everything is fair, but they really should cover the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. "
"Everyone needs to be able to communicate thoughts and ideas. Writing is a essential tool. Good writing comes from emulating good writing, which comes from reading."
"I enjoyed this article very much. I am creating a writing porch at the back of our house, a place to bring pen and paper, and dream. Writing is magic, and in these days of testing, testing, testing, we are forgetting that."
"Budget cuts have little to do with not teaching children to write. How can teachers do it when many of them cannot write themselves. After 2 generations of poor teaching, what can you expect? My daughter attended a state college in the mid 1980's. She had attended parochial school since grade 5 and did a lot of writing in class. As a freshman in college, she was one of the few that did not need to take remedial reading or writing. Is it any wonder that our schools are in trouble? Parents should not have to do the teachers' job, but that is what it has come to. Instead of sex education, diversity education and all the art and music to fill up the school day, there is a desperate need to go back to basics. Until that is realized, traditional public schools will continue to fail. It doesn't say much for our future unless we change it."