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Why Students Can't Write

  • Written by Anita Swigart
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Submitted by: Anita Swigart - English Teacher from Ohio


You've heard the question, "Why can't my students write?"  It seems that question is being universally asked.  However, the answer is less universal.  Some would like to blame it on too much texting, tweeting, and other uses of technology.  I don't buy it.   I've been teaching long enough to know that this problem existed before any of that technology existed.  I have my own idea as to why students can't write and it has nothing to do with technology; however, the solution might.

Think about a coach, teaching athletes how to execute a play.  What happens when a player makes a mistake?  Does the coach just say at the end of practice, "Well, you earned a 70% today," and leave it at that?  No way.  That coach is out there yelling whenever a mistake is made.  Then the player has to do the play the correct way until it's right.  This is called "immediate feedback" and it works.

Now I'm not suggesting that teachers yell at their students or make them do drills repeatedly.  What I am suggesting is that teachers have to give feedback at every step of writing...and give it as soon as possible and as clearly.  I know teachers in high school who don't put one mark on a composition except a grade.  What does that tell a student?  Unless the paper is perfect, it tells them nothing and gives them no opportunity to improve. That is not teaching.  That is scoring.  I know that we are all overworked: too many students, too little prep and grading time, etc. but if we fail to give our students feedback we are simply not doing our jobs and we have no reason to wonder why our students can't write.  We are the reason they can't write.

When my 10th grade students are assigned an essay, I assume nothing.  They must go through these steps: construct an outline, write an introduction, write a conclusion, then write the entire paper.  Every day they hand something in for me to look at and comment upon.  They get feedback on the same day that they submit their writing.  They may not go on to the introduction until their outline is approved (and their outline must have topic sentences that really are complete sentences).  This is a lot of work for me, but I cannot do it any other way.  But recently I've found a way to do this much more effectively and quickly.

First I started using a combination of Jing and screencaster.  The student would upload the document on Edmoto and I would use Jing and screencaster to suggest revisions.  However, you are limited to 5 minutes of comments.  More lately I've started to use screencast - o - matic.  That site gives you 15 minutes.  This has really increased the amount of work that I can do with each student and they don't have to try to read my scribbled comments on their papers.

I would encourage you to give this a try.  Don't just ask why your students can't write - do something about it!