Why Kids Can’t Write


*Note – This was published by the Beaumont News in March of 2017

When I was in grade nine, my social studies teacher stated bluntly, “if you can’t explain it in writing, you don’t know it.”  During my school years, I shrugged off his exhortation because I thought it didn’t matter what I explained since I was an “A” grade social studies student.  But as an educator, I think back on it now and realize how true it is. I come across so many students who can’t clearly write their thoughts and who don’t organize their writing, who can’t punctuate their sentences, who can’t put three paragraphs together without an instruction booklet. Thirty years have passed. What has happened?

The answer can be found not only in programs such as reading, which do not teach grammar or structure, but also with programs like the Alberta curriculum which has collapsed all requirements for grammatical and spelling accuracy under the nefarious term “conventions.” Coupled with grammar- and spelling-checkers, technological advances and lowered demand have produced students who do not know the difference between a noun and a verb and who cannot write or think clearly.

Those of us over 40 remember English Grammar classes with varying degrees of satisfaction or fear and loathing; however, not only did we learn the parts of speech but we also learned to write and think during those classes. Our thoughts had to be expressed clearly. It was unacceptable to merely fill a page with writing and hand it in.

Our teachers demanded excellence! We had to try our hardest. The result of those old programs was that we learned to express ourselves in writing. It clarified our thinking and improved our comprehension. It taught us to think, to integrate, to understand and to explain.

Wait! If that is true, then what about the claims made by the “progressive educators” in the ‘60s and ‘70s? They said that those “old style classes” were dull, mindless repetitions of memorized material that was completely divorced from the new reality of the child’s life. The problem of engaging these classes to the child’s life had merit, don’t get me wrong. However, starting about 40 years ago, some claimed that those classes were reductionistic and did not teach the “whole child.” Then they drummed these structured classes right out of the school curriculum.

I don’t want you to think that I completely endorse those old grammar classes. In fact, I think that they were not an overly effective method of teaching writing skills. Teaching writing should be an integral part of every subject, not simply reserved for a grammar class. Students should spend time writing in history, geography and science classes. Even math class is an opportunity for students to write. When a student can explain in writing what the math teacher is trying to teach, you can be sure that the student understands the principle. Writing is more important than memorizing formulae or equations.

When a student is capable of clearly explaining a concept in writing, that student has demonstrated that he or she understands the concept and consequently will not have to memorize it. For example, in history class, if we crammed less stuff into our student’s heads (such as dates, times, and names) and asked them instead to understand, integrate and explain the process (the reasons for the sequence of events, the probabilities of other events being affected and the relationship that the events being studied have to previous and subsequent events), we would have well grounded students who actually understood what they were learning.

And there is a bonus. In addition to better-educated students, we would have motivated and happier students who could see some relationship between what they are studying and the world they are living in. That’s real engagement and motivation.

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