Naif Bennabi October 9, 2020 Math Worksheets
As kids across the nation head back to school, we're likely to hear the same complaints we hear every year about "why Johnny can't write." It turns out that this fear dates much further back than the famous 1975 Newsweek article of the same title, and - fortunately - may not be nearly as real as people think. Here are four common misconceptions about the teaching and learning of writing, busted:
1) Student writing is worse than ever before. This is actually the easiest one to refute; there's plenty of proof that people have been complaining about student writing for centuries. In 1874, Harvard University offered the very first "composition" courses, in response to what they saw as the appalling writing skills of its incoming freshmen. In 1988, researchers Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors published a study of error analysis of college student papers from 1911, 1930, and 1986. They found that the rate of errors had remained almost constant over 75 years, noting that "the great heyday of error-frequency seems to have occurred between 1915 and 1935." The researchers also noted that the average length of college student essays had increased 250% since the early twentieth century, and that the types of errors themselves had changed very little. In other words, student writing may not be getting significantly better, but neither has it gotten significantly worse. As Connors and Lunsford themselves put it, "Not losing means that we are winning."
2) People's writing is poor because they are reading less. If you haven't read the 2004 "Reading at Risk" report by the National Endowment for the Arts, you've probably seen re-hashes of it in popular media, echoing the cries of "Literacy is in decline!" A closer look, however, reveals that the report focuses exclusively on "classic" literature for pleasure. Thus the MEA completely discounts nonfiction, graphic novels, and online reading as part of "literacy," despite a documented increase in children and adults reading these types of texts. Ironically, the very same year the MEA released its study, a work of nonfiction - The 9/11 Commission Report - was at the top of The New York Times bestseller list.
Perhaps even more ironically, it took more than 200 years for literary novels themselves to gain enough social and artistic credibility to be taken seriously. Throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, many considered novels to be light, meaningless, even dangerous trash, more on a level with today's soap operas than great art. Genuinely cultured people were expected to read classical works such as Greek and Roman histories and epics, or philosophy, and might take care to hide the fact that they enjoyed a peek into fictional "romances" now and again. It's likely that today's throwaway entertainment may be tomorrow's great artistic medium - as an example, witness the rise in stature of comic books, now cloaked in the more respectable mantle of "graphic novels."
3) Social media and texting are eroding writing skills. Not so fast - what exactly are people doing on social media? With some exceptions, they spend the vast majority of their time online reading and writing. You'll hear people complain that "text-speak" is spilling over into academic (and even workplace) writing, but none of them ever seem to be able to offer actual examples. British language scholar David Crystal has traced the "urban myth" of texting-ruining-literacy to a single email first circulated in 2003. - supposedly a student paper so riddled with text-speak errors that the teacher couldn't even understand it. Crystal argues convincingly that this essay is "undoubtedly a hoax;" his research has yet to locate the original essay or the teacher who supposedly posted it online.
Remember how Harvard first required students to take writing-focused courses in 1874? Twenty years later, professor James Greenough published an article in the May 1893 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in which he declared the experiment a failure: "The schools are today paying more attention to composition than they did twenty or thirty years ago; and yet, notwithstanding this increased study and practice, the writing of schoolboys [sic] has been growing steadily worse... With all this practice in writing and time devoted to English, why do we not obtain better results?" (By the way, the new technologies that Greenough blamed for "eroding the art of letter-writing" were "the postal card and the type-writer.")
4) The best way to teach writing is through grammar instruction. And here we have the crux of the problem: the assumption made by Greenough (and countless others - maybe even one of your own English teachers) is that drilling in grammar, spelling, and punctuation makes students better writers. A mountain of evidence points to the contrary: not only does grammar "skill and drill" not transfer measurably to writing - students may do fine on a quiz or worksheet but still commit the same errors when asked to write an original essay - there's plenty of indication that they actually harm students' formulation of ideas and create an oppressive environment where students are more fearful of "messing up" the mechanics than in actually expressing ideas or engaging with research.
Is this a reason to stop teaching grammar and mechanics altogether? Not at all. Composition teachers have much higher rates of success using a method known as "embedded grammar" - that is, focusing on the relationship between structure and meaning. Rather than "correcting" students' "mistakes" (a depressingly common perspective among both students and teachers), the emphasis is on getting the student to recognize and understand how their choices of spelling or syntax will affect their audience and purpose for writing. With time and practice, writers become adept at spotting and revising their word choices. It's a complicated balancing act that involves a spot in your left frontal lobe called Brock's area, which is responsible for controlling syntax, math, and music. This is the part that seems to "light up" when doing basic grammatical tasks devoid of context - grammar thus becomes (in a way) no different than adding two plus two. Meanwhile, at the back of the brain, the angular gurus does much of the heavy work of reading and writing, interpreting and formulating ideas.
Of course none of these are mutually exclusive - writing is a complex task that involves simultaneous precognitive processes that are not yet fully understood. But trying to strengthen one area by drilling in the other is a bit like trying to become a better singer by taking bowling lessons. And here's some more good news: errors in writing can actually be a good indication that the writer - whether a novice or a professional - is thinking at a higher level than usual. John Bean, a composition researcher and professor at Seattle University, has found that "errors in student writing increase with greater cognitive difficulty of the assignment." This is equally true of writing in business, journalism, and every other form of nonacademic writing as well. Lunsford urges teachers and students of writing to view errors as "an active part of learning." That's a good thing to keep in mind when tackling any endeavor, along with some perspective from poet Nikki Giovanni: "Mistakes are a fact of life: It is the response to the error that counts."
Reports of the death of reading and writing have been greatly exaggerated.
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