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Posted: 10:13 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014

Student writing: A long history of laments 

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Clare Lombardo photo
University of Pennsylvania student Clare Lombardo is a guest writer for the AJC Get Schooled blog this summer.

By Maureen Downey

Today, University of Pennsylvania student Clare Lombardo discusses the state of student writing in high school today, inspired by a recent post by local college instructor Rick Diguette.

In his column, Diguette wrote: "Every semester many students in my freshman English classes submit work that is inadequate in almost every respect.  Their sentences are thickets of misplaced modifiers, vague pronoun references, conflicting tenses, and subjects and verbs that don’t agree―when they remember, that is, that sentences need subjects.  If that were not bad enough, the only mark of punctuation they seem capable of using with any consistency is the period."

Lombardo is a rising sophomore with aspirations in journalism and an interest in education who is contributing blog entries this summer. You can read her most recent column here. 

By the way, Lombardo is a panelist at Tuesday's debate between Republican school chief candidate Richard Woods and Democratic candidate Valarie Wilson. It will be held Tuesday, Aug. 19, 10 a.m. - noon, at Georgia Pacific, 133 Peachtree St., NE, Atlanta 30303.  All Georgia Partnership Forums are free and open to the public. You may register online here

By Clare Lombardo

I’m in no position to judge whether or not student writing is getting worse.  I do, however, think an assertion like the one recently made on the blog by college professor Rick Diguette – that students are entering college with poor writing skills, due to the “subpar job of our public schools” in preparing them --  warrants some critical thinking.

Diguette’s criticisms of student writing are premised on the notion that we all agree on what “good” writing is. And, while most people agree that correct grammar and clear ideas are essential to communication, in high school, “good” and “bad” aren’t always clear-cut categories.

Early on in high school, students learn how to structure essays. Different teachers teach essay organization differently, and some grade more strictly than others. Some are sticklers for grammar and others ask for students to follow sentence-by-sentence structures.

A student in one class might end the year thinking that paragraphs must be three to five sentences, while another student might have noticed that she reads paragraphs everyday that are shorter and longer than that.

Which one is a good writer?

For some students, standardized tests play a part in this confusion, which is why I appreciated University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky’s reference to them in his blog post in response to Diguette's essay. In AP classes, teachers often tailor writing instruction to the format of AP tests, which differ based on subject.  A perfect essay for AP Language and Composition isn’t a perfect essay for AP Literature and Composition, and the structure used on either of those wouldn’t garner high marks in AP World History.

 Each of these is formulaic and timed, and they’re all organized differently than the papers students write outside of class. While these writing tests encourage students to write in various disciplines and learn more than one way of organizing their work, they can leave students with conflicting ideas of what “good” writing is. Not all students are in AP classes, but even in college prep classes, students learn to write essays with a structure that future college professors may or may not agree with.

I offer this explanation because if students really are writing horribly, as Mr. Diguette says, there might be a more nuanced explanation than lack of preparation in high school. Before we have that conversation at all, let’s decide what “good” writing really is.

Mr. Diguette also grounds his argument in the idea that students used to write well, and now they don’t. One reader commented on his post that “the world has been declining since the fall of the Roman Empire.” It certainly seems that way. Professors have been bemoaning their students’ writing for over a century.

In 1892, a write-up in The New York Times told readers that students at Rutgers were to hand in written copies of their speeches to give them writing practice, because apparently “their writing and grammar are bad.”

The topic was especially controversial in the late 1930s and into the 1940s.  In fact, one journal, College English (which still exists today), featured a dialogue that sounds a lot like the one blog readers have had, speculating on the causes of this decline in student writing.

In an article in January 1940, a college professor named Alvin Fountain lamented, “all is not well with the English training now given in the high schools.”

One college professor wrote in to him with a comment that sounds as if it came from the Get Schooled comment section: “Teachers agree on the type of work which needs to be done, but they tell me again and again that the school authorities will not permit them to do the work, and require students to meet standards.”

Ultimately, the article’s author, Fountain, concluded that he believed “part of the trouble [with student writing] arises out of our modern belief that everyone must have a high-school education whether he wants it or not.”

The topic came up again in 1977, in an article called “The Decline in Students Writing Skills.” Apparently, the decline had “taken place in recent years,” even then.

I especially like the words of a husband and wife team in a 1939 article they co–wrote on the subject. “The attitude seems to persist that students should be ready to write essays when they enter the freshman course; that the teaching of freshman English is a drudgery to which the scholar should not be committed; and that the level of freshman intelligence is in the main so low that the teacher is wasting his time in the classroom,” they said.

“If colleges are places for students, then the college teacher's first duty is to teach his pupils what they do not know of his subject, the things that are necessary for successful participation in the affairs of the world.”


Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

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