Only one-quarter of American students have solid writing skills

A recently released report (The National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 8 and 12) reveals that only 27% of eighth-graders and twelfth-graders perform at or above proficient level in writing.

I’m not at all surprised by these data, although I do hope that all students eventually improve their writing skills. Based on my daily experiences in the trenches teaching writing in corporations and organizations, I’m pessimistic about the national level of writing proficiency. Although my students are brilliant in their disciplines, they often struggle with focusing their message, writing concisely, and mastering grammar and punctuation.

Having taught writing to adult learners for many years, I also base my pessimism on my past teaching experience in middle school and high school. Back then, I had five classes of about 30 students per day, which meant an exhausting day of managing all that youthful, hormonal energy. If I assigned any writing, I had to take student papers home in order to provide feedback.

Well, you do the math. If I assigned two pages a week for all 150 students, and it took me 15 minutes to write my feedback on each writing sample, I was grading papers for 37.5 hours a week on top of 40 hours at school (the equivalent of working two full-time jobs). I was young and idealistic then, but that altruistic energy lasted only through the first year, after which I assigned the bare minimum of writing and gave less feedback, opting instead for easily graded quizzes and tests that did not address the real writing issues that my students struggled with. And I hear stories today of even larger class sizes.

I have always known that best practices for teaching writing involve providing a fun, interactive environment combined with extensive feedback on learners’ actual writing. Fortunately, some clients recognize the value of this curriculum and are willing to pay for the one-on-one feedback and coaching that really reinforces the learning.

Think about it: Could you learn yoga by having someone simply demonstrate the poses? Obviously, you would learn a bit more if you tried the positions yourself. But wouldn’t you get even better after a few one-on-one sessions with focused feedback from your teacher?

Or if you were learning chemistry, would you improve much if you just attended lectures ? Wouldn’t you learn a lot more if you experimented in the lab to apply what you learned in lectures?

Of course, providing an interactive, facilitated learning path costs more than some companies are willing to spend, but other organizations do recognize that effective training involves application and coaching. Unfortunately, I don’t think that this level of teaching is going to happen any time soon in our public schools, where larger class sizes and reduced spending are the norm.

Writing well is a crucial skill for the democratic and industrial success of any nation. We have a long way to go.

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