“Why American Students Can’t Write”

This week The Atlantic began a series looking at the question of why students in the US struggle to write coherent sentences. Contributors include experts such as writing guru Lucy Calkins, Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers fame, and a number of classroom teachers and educators. At the heart of the debate is the question: does favoring personal narratives and creative pieces over expository essays result in students’ inability to write correctly and persuasively? In my experience, yes, yes, yes, yes and YES.

Since Texas adopted the TAKS exams in the early 2000s, students are only required to write one type of essay for state standardized tests – a personal narrative. As a senior high social studies teachers my students needed to be able to write persuasive essays based on textual evidence. Without exception every single child I’ve taught in the past seven years has struggled to do this because until my class (in 10th or 11th grade) they were never asked to write anything besides a personal narrative.  Give them the prompt “What was your best day ever?” and my students could go on for 3 or 4 pages. Ask them to write about the causes of the American Revolution and even though they might have the historical knowledge to answer that question they would struggle to articulate their argument on paper. Throw in 4 or 5 primary sources and things became even more tricky.

Here are my tips for getting students to write expository essays:

  • Use sentence starters and formulas: Instead of telling students to write a thesis, give them a formula. A thesis must 1) answer the question and 2) make 2 – 3 defendable points. If you’re asking them to argue about the legalization of marijuana give them the starter “Marijuana should/should not be legalized because 1)_____, 2)_____, and 3)_____.” For a compare and contrast essay use the formula “A and B have many similarities such as both ____ and both ___; however, there are also many differences such as A is ___ whereas B is ___ and A is __ whereas B is ___.”
  • KETEAL: see my post on this great way to write and structure paragraphs here
  • Bait with non-academic topics to teach the format and then switch to an academic subject: Show students an example of the format you want them to use and then have them write their first essay on a non-academic topic. For example, show a compare and contrast essay on Twilight’s Jacob vs. Edward and then have students write a compare/contrast essay on themselves compared to a partner. Have them focus on getting the structure correct – including supporting details, using transition words, writing an introduction, writing a clear thesis statement, successfully closing the argument, etc. – and compare finished essays among themselves or grade to a rubric. Then have the next essay be on symbiotic vs. parasitic relationships. Bait and switch . . .
  • Always provide an exemplar essay, show how it meets your criteria, and then have students write: If you provide very clear expectations to students they are more likely to produce work at the level you expect. Don’t simply assign the essay – show them an example of what you want. This way, students can craft their own essay with your exemplar beside them. This isn’t cheating or making it easier, this simply allows them to access the format you want and clearly translate it into their own argument. Over time, this support can be pulled away but exemplar models are critical. Piece of advice: don’t write the exemplars yourself! Have a top performing student type up an exemplar a day or so in advance of when you want to show it to your classes. Edit it and print off a class set. Done. The exemplar also allows you to more clearly give feedback to students and show them where their own essay feel short of the expectations.

For more insight into the difficulties around writing, check out The Atlantic’s series on writing here.


5 thoughts on ““Why American Students Can’t Write”

  1. Nik says:

    Sadly, Abby, I have the flip-of-the-coin for you. In turn, our school has focused SO hard on persuasive (which we are just now coming to realize the importance of developing voice and creativity/less constricted POV’s writing) that students do not know how to write a college essay well – they do not know how to face the liberty of no mathematical formula for writing. In fact, it is a HUGE feat for them.

    So, maybe IDEA and DSST need to find a middle ground together – and share best practices. . .:)


    • I love it! I suspect there is a happy middle ground somewhere in the midst of all of this . . .

    • Jennifer says:

      In one of my grad school classes this summer, we talked a lot about complicating what counts as “academic writing,” and the fact that not ALL of college writing will fit the kinds of structures we are compelled to give students to get them off of personal narrative and into analytical writing. I think one way of backing off while supporting analytical writing is to provide versions of the sentence starters Abby talks about, but variations on them designed to model the language of effective academic writing for a given subject without suggesting/requiring only one way of doing it. Of course, the problem is that many students are not at a place with academic writing where we feel comfortable letting them “go off script” with it…but as Nik points out, they may really need to. Which students in which schools have the privilege to write in ways that are both creative/personal and academic?

  2. incubuspublishing says:

    Reblogged this on Incubus Publishing and commented:
    I’ve seen this first hand with the freshman that I taught…They also need lessons in grammar, sentence structure and just explaining their ideas!

  3. Amber says:

    Abby, what you described is just one of many reasons why teaching to a test is detrimental. Many English teachers have been teaching their students to write well across modes and genres; however, some have not. They have “taught to the test” which has resulted in their students writing only personal narratives. I think that students sharing their stories and their voices is an important part of writing, so I don’t feel that narrative or memoir should be completely replaced by expository and persuasive writing, but I am afraid curricula might swing that way since the STAAR had shifted the focus away from narrative. I agree with the comment above that a balance is the best option. Students should have practice writing in different genres for different audiences. Thanks for sharing the series from The Atlantic –very interesting!

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