Yes, as blasphemous as it sounds, students today spend too much time reading, at least in school. It’s understandable, of course, for four reasons:
1.) Writing proficiency is disappearing from the national education debate—with reading and math getting all of the attention—so there’s little incentive for teachers, school districts, and states to invest much time on it.
2.) Self-contained elementary teachers typically have to operate within a ninety-minute language arts block, but reading activities often encroach on time that should be reserved for writing instruction and practice; in addition, silent reading and journaling sometimes fill what little time is left.
3.) Although there are secondary English teachers who specialize in writing instruction, few, if any, secondary students are granted a full period of writing instruction (content formats and mechanics) on a daily basis during their many years of English courses; there just aren’t enough instructors.
4.) Secondary English teachers who are responsible for reading and writing, which is most of them, are in a real bind: How can they deliver quality reading and writing instruction to 160 students a day and manage to assess their work?
But meanwhile, the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 75 percent of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing. So, how should “the system” respond?
• Bring the subject of writing back into the national discussion. State departments of education know there’s a problem, and they need to get serious about quality K-12 writing instruction.
• School districts must define the elementary language-arts block as a period of time divided equally between reading and writing, and restore writing to its proper place on progress reports.
• School districts should consider expanding secondary class offerings to include more writing courses in order to take the load off of English teachers, even if it means hiring more staff.
• College and teacher-training institutions need to meet their applicants at the door and determine if their language skills portend success in the classroom. If not, these institutions must decide if the situation is remediable: At a time when many of our students aren’t even required to produce a proper essay to graduate from high school or get into college, how can we trust that those seeking teaching degrees will suddenly develop the writing skills they’ll soon be expected to pass on to their future charges?
• States need to require applicants for teacher licensure to prove their writing proficiency. It’s that important; writing pervades all subjects.
• Finally, teachers need training. They need to understand how we all—students and adults alike—find the inspiration and courage to express our truth. I doesn’t come from thick, well-meaning, industrial-strength curricula. It comes from the heart, and, when it does, we care about it enough to fuss with it, fix it, and share it with the world.
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