People, Some, With Words Have a Way

by Robert Pondiscio
August 25th, 2009

Law professor and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish describes becoming alarmed about the inability of his students to write a clean sentence–even those who were instructors in his college’s composition program.  What was going on?

I decided to find out, and asked to see the lesson plans of the 104 sections. I read them and found that only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization. These artifacts and topics are surely worthy of serious study, but they should have received it in courses that bore their name, if only as a matter of truth-in-advertising.

Unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, Fish writes.  Colleges, however, aren’t the culprit. The damage is done long before.  If he were to look in elementary schools, Fish might find the same issue, writ small.  Writing instruction–especially in “writer’s workshops” concerned primarily with student engagement and developing a child’s “voice” – tends to be more concerned with teaching a child to have something to say, rather than developing the ability to say it clearly, cogently, or grammatically. 

A commenter on Fish’s blog who works for a testing company describes his amazement ”that a ‘writing’ test often is scored without regard for punctuation, sentence composition or spelling. The instructions provided by the state for scoring these essays makes it clear that these factors should be disregarded.” 

Translation:  The war is over.  The bad guys won.


  1. Did Yoda write the title?
    Seriously, yesterday was the first day of my son’s English class. The teacher had the students write an “essay.” I wish I had her “instructions” with me to share. It reminded me of the post about the problem with having knowledge that a study subject doesn’t have. Her use of the word “language” actually meant “domain specific vocabulary,” but how many of her charges knew this? Here’s the punchline, though: If she doesn’t like the essay, she will drop the student. This is a class in how to write an essay.

    Comment by tmwillemse — August 25, 2009 @ 11:20 am

  2. My son placed out of the first of two freshman composition classes (and was 10 points short of placing out of the second). When he took the class second semester, everyone else had taken the first class. They almost exclusively did “workshops” with peer editting. He asked me what he was supposed to learn when the only feedback he got was from people who couldn’t place out of any composition class.

    Like the classes Prof Fish reviewed, my son’s class was structured around discussing current topics. For one assignment, they had to watch An Inconvient Truth and react to it. Of course, if your reaction was different than most students, they didn’t have a clue how to evaluate what you said.

    I gave my son a copy of The Elements of Style – that helped his writing more than the composition class did.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 25, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  3. On writing evaluation rubrics for middle school kids, it’s common to relegate spelling, grammar and mechanics to a small fraction of the grade. Loftier concerns such as “voice”, word choice, and organization are given, collectively, much greater weight. So kids who’ve never mastered the fundamentals of writing get the signal that it’s not that important if they don’t; it’s time to move on.

    It seems to me that the state of English in schools is really in disarray. Too often it seems to be about reading lightweight young adult fiction, inculcating questionable reading skills, and writing reams and reams of low-quality short stories, poems and essays, wherein basic mistakes are repeated year after year. I’d love to polish my skills at teaching grammar and mechanics, but the other stuff (e.g. grading papers; prepping high quality history lessons; etc.) consumes too much of my time, and I don’t feel there’d be much support from my superiors in really buckling down on the basics.

    Is it the cult of Bloom’s taxonomy that has made “lower-order” knowledge like grammar a by-word?

    Comment by Ben F — August 25, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

  4. The nuts and bolts of spelling, grammar and composition are disregarded from kindergarten onward. It’s all navel-gazing and journal-writing, with no correction. Back in prehistoric times, writing was built on a foundation of exposure to high-quality fiction and non-fiction and started with copying and progressed through dictation, along with instruction in capitalization, punctuation and sentence structure.

    Only then, did kids start doing significant amounts of independent writing, and that usually began by respondidng to content-driven questions in complete sentences. Teachers then applied red pencil corrections and errors were discussed. It takes many years to learn to write well. Now, we are at the point where a relative’s college-prep ninth graders, in a highly educated and affluent suburb, cannot reliably identify the subject of a sentence containing only one noun/pronoun.

    Comment by momof4 — August 25, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

  5. Lucy Calkins and Everyday Math are symptoms of a large problem: The lack of content in elementary instruction. I have a couple Lucy Calkins posts at my blog illustrating this problem.

    Comment by TFT — August 25, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

  6. From the perspective of someone reading lab report from college juniors and seniors, I’d place an even higher priority on organization and word choice than on grammar and punctuation.

    The basic inability to get ideas from what in their heads to something comprehensible on paper can be quite startling.

    Comment by Rachel — August 25, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  7. Robert,

    I’ve been a corrector for both tenth grade MCAS writing tests (for graduation) and the writing portion of the state teacher test (for certification) here in Massachusetts.

    Both employ the five paragraph foreshadowing model. In the first paragraph the writer states their position on an assigned topic. Each of the next three paragraphs substantiates the writer’s position with a rationale in each paragraph. The last paragraph summarizes the writer’s position (again) employing slightly different wording than the first paragraph.

    Spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. were disregarded in the scoring. The only thing that counted was the writer’s ability to adhere to the foreshadowing procedure with any modicum of rational thought intertwined throughout. It was borderline bizarre but I could see how it originated. It created one model for the correctors to follow. No one wrote a novel and no one was allowed to deviate from the foreshadowing procedure.

    It got to the point where I could correct one of these “essays” about every ninety seconds with a very high degree of validity (my scores had to match the scores of other correctors). As a result, correctors like myself were almost fanatically recruited by the state because if we returned the state got to spend a lot less money on training (new correctors) and more time on correcting the actual tests.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 25, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

  8. I’m really frustrated by how much of the writing instruction resources out there promote “writing by formula”. The individual who came up with the “5 paragraph essay” formula deserves to be crushed to death by volumes of all the historical masterpieces that do not follow “the rules” (just kidding!)

    Grammar, usage, and mechanics are easy for me to teach in our family’s homeschool. Organization and composition of interesting & comprehensible sentences are not so easy. I want my child to be able to express herself in a way that her audience can understand, but creatively rather than in a formulaic manner.

    To play off Tolstoy, mediocre writing is all alike, but every excellent author writes in his (or her) own way :-)

    Comment by Crimson Wife — August 25, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

  9. Many years ago, I was a test-prep tutor. One of my first students was a sweet young high school junior who needed help with the SAT II Writing exam. (This test was subsequently incorporated into to the SAT.) We went over words that modified nouns and verbs, and during the course of our work, I got the following reaction:

    “Oh! So *that’s* what an adverb is!”

    I swear you could have heard my jaw hitting the table. And the irony of situation? Her father was an English pedagogy professor at one of the local universities.


    Comment by Anonymous — August 25, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

  10. I’m kind of glad to hear that students that students are told to state their position in the first paragraph of a 5-paragraph essay. I sometimes think my lab students have done only story writing where the ending is supposed to be a surprise.

    Comment by Rachel — August 26, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  11. I think that teaching the 5-paragraph essay is useful, especially for students who do not like or excel at writing. Giving LD students in particular, for example, a clear and specific framework that will work for them for years–middle school, high school, and even generally in college if they’re not in a really writing-intensive major–is, I believe, a great gift to those students. It gives them confidence and clarity when they sit down to write “an essay,” making them feel that they’ve done it many times before and can successfully do it again. I say this from personal experience of watching one of my LD students work assiduously at mastering the 5-paragraph essay, and his writing became tighter, more controlled, and clearer over the course of a year.

    Teaching a 5-paragraph essay even to death won’t stifle the creativity of your brighter, nimbler writers, either. Indeed, the most creative writers in the class sometimes need a little structure and control themselves. I could write a 5-paragraph essay in my sleep, but I’ve also written many short stories, poems, blog posts, a novel, etc.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — August 26, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  12. The five-paragraph essay is a good structure, but it need not be used for everything. I have seen it overused. It is more important to structure the essay according to what is said.

    For instance, a persuasive essay might have: an introduction, a development of each of the key points, a refutation of possible counterarguments, and a conclusion. This would require no fewer than three paragraphs and as many as–who knows? it depends on the topic and the degree of depth.

    The five-pargraph essay is convenient for those who like graphic organizers, because they can make a graphic organizer with five boxes. I prefer the good old outline. With an outline we are required to find the structure of what we want to say; we don’t just plop it into boxes.

    Teaching the five-paragraph essay is fine; teaching only the five-paragraph essay is silly and possibly worse.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 26, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  13. “Teaching the five-paragraph essay is fine; teaching only the five-paragraph essay is silly and possibly worse.”

    Exactly. It’s a starting point, and a good foundation, but really excellent instruction in writing would go beyond that.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — August 26, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  14. Diana’s point–”teaching the five-paragraph essay is fine; teaching only the five-paragraph essay is silly” — is a construction that applies quite broadly to a lot of teaching. It would make for an excellent parlor game:

    Teaching [blank] is fine; teaching only [blank] is silly.

    Possible ways to fill in the blank: self-directed learning, constructivist math, discovery learning, vocabulary by context clues, writing with student-generated topics.


    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 26, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  15. Structure has never been the enemy of creativity (too many have been too creative within the context of structure to ignore), but, as has been pointed out, extreme repetition of one model is static. Most of those who are noted for having broken the rules well knew the rules in the first place; so much so that when they broke them they knew exactly what they were doing and what the effect would be. That’s why they are so notable.

    For my struggling students (I teach mostly at-risk), structure is comforting – they are able to succeed with it. (Creativity is often difficult without content or worldly knowledge to draw upon, without having come from a literacy-rich household, without having had instruction which facilitated mastery and automaticity of basic skills and vocabulary.)

    For my on-level students structure can be a little stifling, which is why I do my best to offer students a variety of topics to write on with common elements in mind, and common elements being assessed at whatever level they are able to write.

    Teaching creativity and self-reflection is fine, teaching only creativity and self-reflection is silly. (And may promote the type of self-absorption noted in the post following this one.)

    Comment by redkudu — August 26, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

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