Can You Catch On?

In the article “The Writing Revolution”, by Peg Tyre, she addresses the issue of writing skills in high school students. Teachers from New Dorp in Staten Island, when trying to assess writing skills, noticed that students “were missing a crucial understanding of how language works”. Unable to write complex sentences and not knowing how parts of speech function in a sentence left these students without the skills to write a paper that would fulfill the requirements in the Massachusetts Frameworks that we have read and discussed in class. Teacher Fran Simmons asserts, “These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did”. Tyre goes along in the article to point out the lack of training in teacher’s colleges for teachers to teach writing and the shift over the years from instruction in grammar and sentence structure to creative expression. As a student in the public school system in the 1990’s I can agree that lessons in sentence structure and parts of speech were minimal. As long as I wrote well and made my intended point, it did not matter whether I knew how or why the words were strung together. Just as in math, it is essential to learn the fundamentals and reasons why you perform certain operations in order to be able to complete the more complex problems that come along in advanced math, students need to not only be able to write a coherent sentence but understand the mechanics behind it. The Massachusetts Frameworks seems to halfway address this problem by requiring 3rd grade students to be able to “Use linking words and phrases (e.g., because, therefore, since, for example) to connect opinion and reasons”, a problem mentioned by the teachers in Tyre’s article. This standard seems more like a way to test if a student can write about complex ideas rather than a way to teach them how to do so. The idea presented to give students a formula for writing that they can break out of later once they’ve mastered it seems like an appropriate solution, but is one that is usually frowned upon because writing is a personal creative process. I do not believe that having a formula to present your ideas is a bad idea for young students as long as teachers reiterate that the sentences do not always have to follow the formula, rather show them how to use it as a foundation to branch off from when their thoughts become more sophisticated.  








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2 responses to “Can You Catch On?

  1. Lindsay Durkin

    I agree that a lot of students are missing the crucial understanding of how lanuage works, and therefore are unable to write complex sentences. Many students don’t know how parts of speech function in a sentence – which at times can leave them lacking in skill and unable to fulfill a paper worthy of the requirements in the Massachusetts Framework. Through my own elementary school experience I can’t recall ever completely understanding how some of the parts of speech worked in a sentence. I do however recall becoming utterly overwhelmed when my teachers thrusted “formulas” at me in class – believing it woulld help me to understand. I think that “formulas” aren’t for all people. In my case, the formulas only gave me more anxiety about not understanding sentence structure etc – which made me learning process only more difficult. Formulas can immediately turn some students off – like they did for me. I found that at the time I had no idea what the teachers were talking about when they gave me formulas to create complex sentences, but over time I understood by working with sentences and writing on my own. I completely understand that sentences have particular structures in order to work, but formulas aren’t always the correct route when teaching students. When students are overwhelmed and anxious – they don’t tend to learn anything. I think it’s better to work with senteces and try to teach them the correct way to form a sentence through practice and discussion. I also think that everyone has their own unique style of writing, and by instructing them to write using a particular formula – their unique style could possibly be lost.

  2. christinaspinelli

    For anyone interested, The Atlantic is publishing daily articles for the next few weeks that are in responses to Tyre’s article.

    Here is the link:

    Many of the articles focus on the misconception that expository writing hinders students’ creativity and rather, can be interesting and creative in itself. Others, like “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students” by former 5th grade teacher Robert Pondiscio are more adamantly against focusing on personal writing for young students. He argues that creativity will naturally become apart of students’ written work after they clearly establish a foundation for effective communication. Vanessa, it seems like you would agree with many of Robert Pondiscio’s points.

    One particular part* of his article that rubbed me the wrong way, however, was this:
    “Earlier this year, David Coleman, the principal architect of the widely adopted Common Core Standards, infamously told a group of educators, ‘As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.’ His bluntness made me wince, but his impulse is correct. We have overvalued personal expression. The unlived life is not worth examining. The pendulum has swung too far.”

    Maybe David Coleman was having a bad day when he made that statement, or maybe I just like to believe the world is a bit more empathetic– regardless, there definitely should be a balance between creative self-expression and more analytic, standardized writing. And someone definitely should give David Coleman a hug or something.

    *There were a few questionable parts of Robert Pondiscio’s article. See: his ridiculous analogy to low-performing schools as “primitive peoples in the South Pacific” during WWII ineffectively trying to lure airplanes.

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