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Writing skills failing?

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The post I spun off from mentioned a writing beltloop. This is definitely a good thing. I have been working at an after school program for the past few months. This past week I have been watching kids in the computer lab. I am stunned at how weak their writing and typing skills are. These are middle schoolers BTW.


First off, the speed at which they type is painfully slow. I take whole minutes to type a single sentence, even when they are copying what they already wrote.


Second, they are already learning to use spell check as a crutch. I wouldn't mention it if they were using it for hard words, or words that are commonly misspelled, but they are using it for two syllable words. Then they just pick the first word on the list, and most of the time it is not the correct word.


These first two can be attributed to weak computer skills, but the third is definitely a problem. Grammar, especially simple grammar, is non-existent. Today I read this sentence that expressed three separate thought with no punctuation. The word choice made no sense at all. I attempted to read it out loud for the student, but was unable to. I simply could not make the words come out of my mouth in the order he wrote them; neither could he. There was no verbs, and no clear subject. I could even say it was a sentence because it began with a capital and ended with a period.


Unfortunately that was not the worst sentence I have seen while working at that school.


I have looked at some of the student work that is on the walls and grammatically it is not much better. I read a paragraph about Lincoln's assassination; out of the 8 sentences not one used correct grammar. That paragraph scored 24/24.


I am frequently chastised by my english teachers for bad grammar. Most of the time I don't notice what the things that they tell me I am doing wrong. I say this to show that I am not an expert on the english language. I am an engineering major, and I only have one more english class that I have to take.


These students are not making subtle errors. These kids are putting random words on the page, then shuffling them around until they kinda sorta make sense. They are in 6th-8th grade and making mistakes that I was taught not to make in the third grade.


I've ranted for a while now, so I'll get to my point. Schools need to be doing a better job of teaching english. What do you all think? Am I expecting to much out of 11, 12, 13, 14 year olds?

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I note similar things at the college level. Their constructions are sometimes sufficient but many have nearly illegible handwriting. I fault lack of practice, mostly.


However, I also remember well that this was a problem back in the 1960s when my college-prep classes were shocked by stern, unforgiving, hard teachers who demanded strict performance and handed out grades accordingly. I acknowledged my English teacher in my first thesis. I still think about him. He didn't like me very much. I was terrified of him. But he left one of those strong impressions that made a huge difference. In retrospect, I know he was a good guy who really cared. He did make a difference.

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Hi SailingPJ. I agree with you, that it is scary. I was considered poor in English when I went through it (back in the day of the dinosaur.) But I know by the standards today kids are at, I was not as bad as all that! My high school skills today would have probably gotten me an A++.. (Still today, I have to guess at punctuation, look up harder and I love my .. or ?? or !!! at end of sentences when one would do just fine..)


I never saw my son come home in grade school with a list of spelling words at all, I had them weekly, and remember having to write them x amount of times almost daily for homework up to the Friday spelling test (although I never thought that was the best way to learn the word.). I do not think they should have gotten rid of the spelling tests, just found a different way to learn the spelling of the words over the week.


Have a question for you though. By Engineering major I take it that you are in College, while your after school program is in middle school. Did you think some things fell into place when you went to college??


My son was very bad himself up through high school, and I worried about him in college. Now he is in college I see an improvement (even when his fianc is not double checking his work, although I see remarkable improvement when she does.) But, I have proofed some of his papers before his fianc and in high school I would mark up whole paragraphs, put "What???" all over the place, fix painfully bad mis-spellings of simple words (or if done on the computer the obvious wrong word, that he selected from the spell checker).. Now with his college papers, there are only minor suggestions and occasional words..


I dont know what happen between high school & college that kicked some of this stuff in. But, I have seen it in others too. Just wondering if others have noticed this. Not sure if this light bulb goes off for the kids that do not go to college though..

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Sailingpj, I want to thank you for volunteering in an after school program. That's great. The fact that you are a little bit closer to these kids, age-wise, probably gives you more "street cred" than any teacher or parent. If you tell them that writing matters, they may actually believe you, especially since you are an engineering major and not a humanities or social science major.


As for addressing writing errors: try thinking about it in terms of lower order concerns, middle order concerns and higher order concerns (LOCs/MOCs/HOCs). Address these concerns in this order, high to low. This can help you, and the students, avoid feeling overwhelmed by the volume of errors, and it will direct your (and their) attention to the biggest problems, first.


For example, a HOC would be a paper where the student has no clear thesis or point, where you can't figure out what argument they are attempting to make. Usually, disorganized writing of that sort reflects disorganized thinking. They may not understand the assignment (have them explain the directions to you), or they may not understand the underlying course material, or they may not have spent enough time thinking about the material before they started just writing whatever popped into their heads.


Address that first, because technically perfect prose with no clear point is still dreadful.


MOCs might include things like unclear sentences, fuzzy main point of a paragraph, poor use of supporting detail in a paragraph, weak transitions from one idea to the next (between paragraphs or even between sentences), etc. These are important, of course, but you can't really address these if the writer hasn't figured out the HOCs, first.


LOCs are sentence-level issues, like proper punctuation, spelling, word choice, etc. I am NOT making a case for ignoring these, but unless you want to be someone's editor (making them reliant on you), this is usually not where you want to begin. It is, however, where most of us start when we correct student writing. Why? Because it is the easiest. These types of errors tend to jump right off the page at us. It also takes us relatively little effort or involvement to see & correct these errors. MOCs and HOCs are not as amenable to a quick fix.


But here is the thing: Students whose readers focus mainly on LOCs tend to become reliant on their readers to clean up their writing, rather than learning to do it for themselves. We become nothing more than another type of "spell check" for them. Further, if you mark up every single spelling & punctuation error, the student may become overwhelmed and just throw up their hands when they get back a draft covered in ink. If your students' eyes glaze over, or if you see students take a quick glance at a marked-up paper and then shove it into their folder (or throw it in the trash on the way out the door), then you have wasted your time marking up all those errors, because the student hasn't really learned anything from your corrections. Mark up some examples of a problem - but make them find and fix the rest of the problems. Don't do it for them.


You are right that students won't learn to correct their own mistakes (or avoid making them), if no one teaches them the correct way to do things. So in any given writing assignment, maybe pick two or three common, glaring, errors (LOCs) that a student is making and teach them the "rule" for those errors. For example, you might want to teach them the correct usage for to/too/two and there/their/they're . Or maybe to use apostrophes only to show possession, not to make plurals (plural's?!).


Bottom line: When helping students to become better writers, prioritize. What are the biggest concerns? What can you do to help them express their thoughts, without becoming their editor?


And anything you can do to get them to READ, will also help. Students who are exposed to good writing will pick up good habits. Students who "don't like reading" always worry me - and they also tend to have very weak writing skills.









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I saw the same problems almost 20 years ago when I was working on my degree on the HS level, and again a few year backs when I was teaching college. LB gives good advice.


BUT my advice for your when you become a parent is to get involved with your kids, Encourage them to read and to do creative writing.


Maybe they'll write some stories of their cruises with you :)


Good luck with the tutoring you are doing.

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So, way back in the late 70's when I taught at the College level, (University of Southern Indiana at Evansville In) I taught Radiologic Technoly (X-ray tech). At the time we had a pretty rigorous entrance process and we consistently had students in the top 25% of their graduating high school class. Then again, it was Indiana. I was a bit taken back while grading the first test I gave. I asked how do you position a patient for a Chest X-ray and one student wrote:


What you try and do is...


If I had ever written "Try and do is...". Sister Alphonse from Second Grade, Sister Celestine from Third Grade, Sister Rochelle from Fourth Grade, Sister Anthony Mary (Sam to us, it was a stitch) from Fifth Grade, Sister Marilyn from Sixth Grade, Sister Lorraine from Seventh Grade and Sister Elicia from Eigth grade, Brother Richard from High School (Prepatory Seminary portion) and Sister LaVerne Raemaker from College (long story) would have beat my butt more red than any felt pen they had ever wielded in anger. And beleive, they could wield some red felt pens.


Every assignment had two grades, content and grammar and both were equally important.


To have a youth today string three coherent sentences together is quite the accomplishment

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Regarding typing - do these kids have computers at home? Unless they're at a keyboard regularly (not just at school), they're not going to develop those typing skills. And do they have smartphones and text a lot? I've hypothesized that traditional typing skills may be degraded as texting takes over as a primary form of communication (texting as the new typing), but don't know if that's true.


As for writing, I've found that the best writers are also the most frequent readers. Lisabob's final point really nailed it. If you don't read well-written sentences on a regular basis, you won't really know how to write them on your own. You have no example to follow. That principle also applies to the rules of grammar. If you don't read and see good grammar used daily, the stuff about commas and apostrophes and dangling participles that the teacher is putting up on the board is just gibberish. Words mean nothing unless you consume them regularly. (Yes, I mean consume. Reading is like eating - it's one of the necessities for life.)

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Irritated Yoda would be. Use proper grammar you must.


Matters word order it does, if small green muppet you are.


Agree with sailingpj I do. Eagle project proposals often dreadful are.




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Such irony, the grammar used in these posts is atrocious. Here are a few rules:

Rules for Writing Good


1. Each pronoun agrees with their antecedent.

2. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

3. Don't use no double negatives.

4. A writer mustn't shift your point of view.

5. Don't use a run-on sentence you got to punctuate it.

6. Avoid redundancy.

7. Don't repeatedly reiterate over and over.

8. About sentence fragments.

9. Don't use commas, which aren't necessary.

10. Don't abbrev.

11. Avoid redundancy.

12. Check to see if you any words out.

13. Eschew esoteric verbiage.

14. Computer spell Czechs are imperfect.

15. Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.

16. Use apostrophe's right.

17. When dangling, don't use participles.

18. Never leave a transitive verb just lay there without an object.

19. a sentence should begin with a capital and end with a period

20. Watch out for irregular verbs which have creeped into our language.

21. Profanity sucks.

22. In most cases, be more or less specific.

23. Understatement may be better.

24. Exaggeration is a million times worse than understatement.

25. Dont forget to avoid redundancy.

26. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

27. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

28. Even if a mixed metaphor sings like a canary, it should be thrown out with the bathwater.

29. Last but not least, lay off clichs.

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Yes F-Scouter; I like your list.


When I was in grad school in '74, I had to choose between taking a writing and grammar course, or taking the skill test to avoid it. If you flunked the test, you still had to take the class; so I just took the class to avoid wasting the $50 fee for the test. This was a required class for anyone in the credential program, and all the 30 or so students were upper division of grad, so you would think they would have slightly better English skills.


I was in a twice weekly hour and a half class; and we wrote every day, as well as having regular assignments. The first day the professor gave a generic subject on which to write, due at the end of the period. The next session, the essays were given back, with the requisite corrections. There were only 5 passing papers, and the highest was a C+; I got a D, and was thrilled when I saw the overall results. The rule then was, write 3 A papers in a row, and you pass the class with an A; otherwise, you take a two part test at the end to include writing spontaneously, and a major grammar part. Fortunately, I was out by mid term, having polished up my basic skills to the needed levels.


Point of course is that these were advanced students, most of whom were planning on becoming teachers. Today, as I sub, I have to hold my tongue when I read many teachers' instruction to me, or to the class. I have also had one or two tell me not to correct student's spelling and grammar if it is not language skills. When I was in school, especially junior high and above, you lost points for poor grammar and spelling, even in history or science.


Today's messaging and other forms of short hand definitely are causing issues. But many of them could be solved with simple regular corrections by teachers as they review. Most kids seem to actually appreciate my pointing out errors to them, so I generally try to do it.


Interesting discussion. By the way "sailingpj", you might wish to remember to capitalize English when you write the word. Minor problem I suppose, but certainly important, especially in this thread.

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"Have a question for you though. By Engineering major I take it that you are in College, while your after school program is in middle school. Did you think some things fell into place when you went to college??"


Yeah a few things fell into place, mostly all the MLA stuff. I never really understood that until I took English at my first college.


I almost never see any students finished project. I am noticing this stuff while they are working. My job this past week has been to pace around the computer lab making sure the students are working and not just messing around. When everyone is working I will sit down next to someone and walk them through their mistakes. Most of the time all it takes is reading a sentence out loud and they fix the most noticeable problems.


A few times I have asked people what their thesis is and just gotten blank looks. Then I ask what the main idea is and get more blank looks.


I have only seen a couple students read at all. I know of a couple more who have talked about reading once or twice. We have ~150 students in our program.


Yes, almost all of them text a lot. Half of them do not have a computer at home, and they are the ones with the weakest skills.

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I was blessed with good teachers in both high school and as an undergraduate. By the time that I graduated from college I could write pretty well although I did not enjoy it.


Odd as it may sound, the place where I really learned to write was in the army. There was a point where I was assigned the task of writing an operating procedure for our headquarters for duty officers to follow when the word came down that world war III was under way. We were nuclear capable, and we had to have instructions that any officer could pick up and follow step by step error free. This simple writing assignment took several weeks. The payoff was that none of our duty officers ever screwed up a test message. This was also true for the units under us. People had their careers set back by screwing this up so it was pretty important.


Subsequently in Viet Nam in a different staff capacity I had access to a typewriter and carried on voluminous correspondence with various people, which further improved my skills.


I agree that the quality of the writing in some eagle project proposals I have seen is disappointing. Keep in mind that these young men are generally pretty bright and dedicated to what they are trying to do.




Like everything else this is clearly George Bush's fault.

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Very few people can write well, it's not a new problem. It doesn't matter if they are 12 or 52, it's a skill that only a few are truly proficient at. The writing I see from both kids and adults drives me mad, but I bite my tongue because I'm in a fairly unique situation. I am a professional writer, it's how my family earns its bread and butter. Yet, even I need an editor to write well enough for publishing. Add on all the styles to choose from for proper writing -- from MLA, AP, Chicago, AMA and Turabian, to name a few -- it's a miracle any adult can put together a sentence.


One thing I run into as a writer is everyone seems to think I have an easy job, and they always ask how they can get into it. People rarely seem to realize that good writing is a combination of innate skill and hard work, primarily hard work. If everyone could write well, I'd be out of business!

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