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Can Writing Be Taught?

Three-quarters of 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress.  Some say it's because teachers have inadequate training in how to teach writing and can't write well themselves ("Why Kids Can't Write," The New York Times, Aug. 6).  I say it's something else.

What does proficiency in writing mean?  Is it the ability to produce argumentative, informational and narrative essays that are free of grammatical errors?  I know countless highly educated people who can't do all three.  Does that mean their teachers have failed them?

When I was working on my M.S. in the Graduate Department of Journalism at UCLA, we were told that the best way to learn how to effectively write was to extensively read.  Doing so trained the ear.  That's why the highest compliment given by my professors was that a student's writing "sings." I realize that the success of students in the journalism program was largely the result of self-selection.  But there is much truth to the importance of reading.

The trouble is that most young people today don't read. As a result, they don't internalize the sounds of good writing. When I was growing up, reading was widespread among my peers. We read newspapers, short stories or novels.  Today, young people are hooked on electronic devices of one kind or another.  They text, but that hardly qualifies as reading or writing. 

When teachers assign reading, they can't count on students to follow through.  As a result, class discussion about how authors expressed themselves are futile.  Students want a recipe book on how to write.  These books contain some helpful information, but they are no substitute for actually reading.  Students have to do the hard work or they won't learn how to write.

That's why I don't think NAEP scores will ever show significant improvement. 

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