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Teaching Writing Poses Unique Challenges

In 2005, the College Board added a writing section to the SAT to provide admissions officers with additional evidence about an applicant's ability.  Test-takers were given 25 minutes to produce an essay in response to a question during the first part of the exam. Subsequently, the College Board announced that it would allow test-takers 50 minutes to write an optional essay during the last part of the exam. I question if either of the two formats allows valid inferences to be drawn about a student's writing ("Using an Op-Doc Video to Teach Argumentative Writing," The New York Times, Jan. 29).

I say that because I maintain that both are largely measuring the ability to write under pressure. If the goal is to identify future journalists, who have tight deadlines, that's one thing.  But speed is not the same as depth. For example, I doubt that Walter Lippmann knocked out his syndicated column in 50 minutes ("Walter Lippmann: Umpire of American Public Debate," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 15, 2014).

I also believe that making the writing sample the last section is measuring endurance more than anything else.  Don't forget that test-takers have already sat for hours before getting to the essay. How many students can sit for that length of time and produce quality writing?

The larger issue, however, is how to teach writing, whether for the SAT or for any other purpose ("Three lessons from the science of how to teach writing," the Hechinger Report, Oct. 27, 2014). The most important strategy is for teachers to provide students with frequent practice that is appropriate for the objective. The problem is the lack of prompt feedback. Otherwise, students don't know if what they've written is satisfactory. It's impossible to do so when English classes are large.  Unlike math or science, where multiple-choice responses can be swiftly corrected by means of an answer key, even mini essays take time to read and evaluate.  That's the reason it's imperative for the size of English classes to be capped at perhaps 15.  My high-school English classes averaged 32.

When I was working on my M.S. in the Graduate Department of Journalism at UCLA, the writing lab section averaged nine students.  The professor used to circulate around the room as students typed their stories on yellow paper, peering over their shoulders to offer immediate comments.  That's how I learned.  Contrast that environment with a typical English class, and it should be evident how unrealistic the present situation is.


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