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Dumb Kids Can’t Write

October 11, 2018

(image via wikimedia)

If you’re an English teacher, you probably don’t want to say “dumb kids can’t write.”  An English teacher would probably get fired for that (and maybe the teacher would deserve it).  An English teacher would be expected to come up with a more diplomatic way to express sensitive thoughts like that.

The reason I say “Dumb kids can’t write” is because educators in New York are freaking out over the  state’s standardized writing test’s results. As you can probably guess, the results aren’t good.  A lot of students are failing the tests, despite a lot of money and time spent preparing for them.  Some critics even say students’ writing is getting worse.

It’s not just New York that has this problem.  Every state with a writing test probably struggles with how to teach and grade writing.  I live far far away from New York, but my daughters have had to take writing tests and they usually get mad at the results.  They’re good writers (I should know; I’m an excellent judge of writing), but they get frustrated with the lame topics (very generic so that every student in the state can write about them), the length (there’s usually a line limit), and unclear directions.

Writing has to be tough to standardize.  Every other test can be run through a computer, but you can’t grade an essay without hiring a teacher (or somebody even more bitter) to read/grade it.  My daughter has shown me the grading system that our state uses, and it’s pretty complicated.  Explaining it would give me (and readers) headaches.

Besides, I’m not sure you can teach writing like you can math or science.  In most classes, there are formulas and steps that can be standardized.  There is no writing formula.  Test makers have tried to design formulas, but then teachers teach to the formula and the writing becomes formulaic, which then makes it bad writing.

Plus, the scales of grading writing are confusing.  Adults think grammar, spelling, and punctuation should matter, but students are told that their ideas matter more, but without grammar, spelling and punctuation, ideas can’t be understood, so then everybody is confused.

The grammar, spelling, and punctuation is the formula that could make writing standardized.  Yet it seems like schools are getting away from that.  I don’t blame the teachers.  The administrators or school boards tell the teachers what to teach, and it’s usually a good idea to do what the people paying you tell you do, unless it’s unethical or illegal.  Maybe it’s unethical not to teach students more grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but I haven’t thought about it enough to have an opinion.

It’s probably easier to grade writing when you don’t have to focus on the grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  English teachers probably get headaches from red-marking all the grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes.  Some teacher 50 years ago probably got tired of getting headaches, so he/she became a specialist/consultant/expert and just made up stuff about how unimportant grammar, spelling, and punctuation are.   Now fewer kids can write.  And insensitive bloggers like me are calling them dumb.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more skeptical of consultants/specialists/experts.  A lot of them just make stuff up, and then a bunch of people who should know better nod and agree because they’re getting paid to nod and agree.  If you don’t nod and agree, you get fired.  That’s the position teachers are in.  They know the standardized test stuff is a bunch of nonsense, but they have to nod and agree.  Even if they don’t physically nod and agree, they have to comply.  Then they have to make students comply.

I’m not badmouthing teachers.  Almost every job requires you to comply.  That’s why employees get paid.  Nobody likes to comply for free.  That’s the great thing about our governing/economic system.  Most people throughout history have had to comply and have gotten nothing but tyranny, poverty, and abuse.  At least now in the United States, we can get paid a decent salary to comply.

Anyway, back to writing.

I shouldn’t use the word dumb to describe students who struggle with written expression.  I should say students with below average verbal skills, but nobody would read a blog post with that title.  Instead of being taught grammar, students are taught to think critically, but students with below average verbal skills probably have a tough time expressing original thoughts.  And I’m not sure you can teach kids how to have original thoughts.  Where would a teacher start?

I don’t think I had an original thought until I was 17 (and even then I’m not sure the thought was truly original).  I was always told that I was a late bloomer.  To be fair to myself, I wrote a couple original pieces that impressed English teachers enough to put me into a writing contest, but I blanked when the pressure was on.  That’s why I like blogs.  No pressure.

Even though my verbal skills are way above average (at least they were 35 years ago), I probably wouldn’t score well on a writing standardized test today because I don’t use clear topic sentences, and I don’t use concrete examples (I’m often intentionally vague), and I ramble.  I can write sentences that are grammatically correct and I spell reasonably well (and I know the difference between the words good and well), but that doesn’t seem to matter much in today’s standardized tests.

I’m glad I’m not a student today.

*****

What do you think?  Are there any English teachers out there who can explain some of this standardized writing?

18 Comments
  1. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more skeptical of consultants/specialists/experts. A lot of them just make stuff up.” I agree. I even read a book not too long ago by someone laying out a process for acquiring a modicum of knowledge in a trendy subject and then establishing oneself as a self-appointed consultant/specialist/expert. Made me want to throw the book across the room.

    • If you throw the book, at least aim it at a consultant (but make it look like an accident so that you don’t get arrested).

      Just so you know, I don’t really condone throwing books at people. I was kidding. I mean, you know I’m kidding, but other people might not, so I’d better make it clear.

      It’s a metaphorical throw at the consultant, not a literal throw.

  2. I know a couple of teachers and their main problem seems to be actually getting the kids to 1. attend their classes and 2. stop playing with their phones long enough to learn something. I would imagine that accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar come a long way down the list….

    • If we could program the phones to do only school-related stuff while they’re at school, that would probably get kids off their phones.

      I’m sure tech companies could figure it out, especially since it’s something the Chinese government would probably be interested in. Hahaha!

  3. I always hated standardized tests in elementary school and high school. Especially when the teachers didn’t care about anything but the test. That was mostly in high school though.

    • I really remember only one real standardized test in school, and I don’t think the teachers cared about it because the results were considered a reflection of us (the students), not them.

      I just remember the teachers telling us to sit down, shut up, and take the test.

      • Yeah, pretty much. And “if you finish early, don’t move on to the next section.”
        I don’t remember if we still had regular class on those days in elementary school though. In high school, if we passed the standardized test, we didn’t have to take the final for that class.

        • “In high school, if we passed the standardized test, we didn’t have to take the final for that class.”-

          Now THAT’S an incentive!

          • I know right?! The only one I didn’t pass was Algebra II. But they were rolling out a brand new new version of the test, and it took longer to grade or something, so I don’t remember having to actually take the final.

            Needless to say, I was kinda bummed out when I got to college and realized I had to take finals no matter what haha

  4. “Adults think grammar, spelling, and punctuation should matter, but students are told that their ideas matter more, but without grammar, spelling and punctuation, ideas can’t be understood, so then everybody is confused.”

    Apparently this happens even at the university level: students are told that grammar and punctuation don’t matter, that the only thing that matters is how unique their ideas are. (The fact that unique — y’know, that word meaning the only one of its kind — is now being used as a relative term kinda freaks me out and often causes me to remark, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”)

    “Maybe it’s unethical not to teach students more grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but I haven’t thought about it enough to have an opinion.”

    I don’t recall ever thinking specifically that it’s unethical not to teach students at least basic grammar, etc., but it probably is. When I was a high school teacher (back in the 1990s), I was often frustrated both with the lack of adequate writing skills and the school administration’s insistence that these young people specifically should not be taught how to do better. “Most of these kids ain’t never gonna go to college anyways, so they don’t need to know all that stuff,” the assistant principle once told me. “They don’t need grammar to work at Walmarts.”

    “It’s probably easier to grade writing when you don’t have to focus on the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. English teachers probably get headaches from red-marking all the grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes.”

    Not really. If anything, it seems that grading according to a clear set of rules/guidelines would be easier, or at least less subjective. If papers were graded more according to grammar, spelling, and punctuation, there would be less occurrence of students getting failing grades simply because a teacher didn’t like the opinion expressed in their papers or because the student chose to write a report on a book in a genre that the teacher disapproves of. (I am forever grateful that, whenever we had to write book reports or even our own short stories in eleventh-grade English class, Mrs. L graded mine only on the mechanics of writing and basic coherence of the paragraphs, because if she’d graded according to her opinions of the subject matter — she despised sci-fi and fantasy, and I have a strong preference for such stories — I’d have failed the entire course. Mrs. L kept her personal opinions out of her teaching, but not every teacher is able or willing to do the same.)

    “[…] so he/she became a specialist/consultant/expert and just made up stuff about how unimportant grammar, spelling, and punctuation are. Now fewer kids can write. And insensitive bloggers like me are calling them dumb.”

    I’d never call a student who doesn’t know any better stupid or dumb; the6y don’t have the knowledge or experience yet to be able to tell when some “expert” is actually wrong. On the other hand, I often say that, or its equivalent, about writers (and ever more so about those self-declared writing experts) who think they can publish their writing, and ask people to pay for reading it, without ever bothering with making sure their writing is even readable first. The “experts” who go around telling everyone that “grammer don’t matter, all that matter is do readers like the story and can they relate to the POV?” are the truly stupid ones (and although I am not a violent man, there are times when I contemplate hitting such “experts” upside their heads with a chair or other blunt object — my clone-sibling’s rattan ax would do nicely).

    “Instead of being taught grammar, students are taught to think critically”

    If this were true, I wouldn’t mind as much that they’re learning less about grammar, but they’re not being taught critical thinking, either.

    • When I was in grade school, it was about getting ideas on paper. Grammar and spelling weren’t even considered until middle school. As a result, I’m good with grammar (or at least punctuation), horrible at spelling, and couldn’t graph a sentence if my life depended on it, although teachers and professors have always graded me well because they tend to like the subjects I chose to write about. That’s the key: find something interesting to you, and then think outside the box. The teacher has no option but to read it whether they agree or not because if you express yourself clearly (yay spell-check), they can’t put it down. And always work a moral into your paper. Doesn’t have to blatant or anything, just something that summarizes what you just wrote. If it’s a book report on a si-fi/fantasy book, what is the basic moral of the book? Work toward that end through the paper and even the most stuffy, hard-nosed teacher can’t help but find it interesting. I’ve had teachers who despise entire genres because of one book they didn’t like in 2nd grade. If you make it relevant to their thinking, or just make them think, they’re more likely to grade you well because it made them think.

      Good luck to your kids!

  5. I am a retired English teacher in Australia. I strongly recommend this.

  6. I used to ask our children to practice grammar in ever weekend from elementary to high school
    My husband who was a English professor, always asked the kids to come up with fresh ideas on writing essays
    To my opinion, grammar is the stepping stone and the latter you cam emphasize on innovative ideas.

    • “To my opinion, grammar is the stepping stone and the latter you cam emphasize on innovative ideas.”-

      That’s the way I was taught, as well. I’m wondering if experts will ever decide to go back to emphasizing grammar again. If so, how far back will they be willing to go?

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