The Decline and Fall of Student Writing

by Robert Pondiscio
February 18th, 2010

Writing aids such as spellcheck may mean fewer technical errors in student work than a generation ago, but English professor Joel Shatzky’s comparison of student work from earlier decades leads him to the conclusion that the quality of student writing has declined markedly.  In a piece on Huffington Post, Shatzky cites samples of 9th grade writing from the 1950s and 1960s:

Color is rampant and the woodlands and countryside are ablaze with every hue of the spectrum; lemon yellow, bright saffron, tawny orange, lively russet, flaming scarlet, brilliant magenta, deep crimson, and rich purple… With such a prelude it is no wonder that the contrast of the weird subterranean world of the Caverns strikes one with tremendous impact. . . . Instead of the sparkling sunlight there is a Stygian darkness pierced by colored lights.” — Ninth grader, Crestonian, Creston JHS,1957 (SP class)

The drab clothing and scenery helped to set an unpleasant, solemn atmosphere and helped to annoy the captive audience a little bit more. Annoying the audience was probably what made this such a compelling moment in theater. With the lights, the sharp, harsh pounding of the gavel, and the drab atmosphere I began to realize I wasn’t being entertained and I wasn’t having a happy time of it, but rather I was being told the truth, the cold, blunt, horrifying truth.”– Review of “The Investigation,” Ninth grader, Inwood Chatter, Inwood JHS, 1967

Shatzky concedes the pieces he cite were probably edited, however they were written by public school children from average public school in New York City fifty years ago.  “Can we say that this is typical of the kind of writing students, even in the more ‘specialized’ high schools, do today?” he asks.   Shatzky notes there is no definitive study that firmly establishes a decline in the quality of student writing, however there is “increasing evidence” that vocabularies and ability to comprehend college-level texts are declining.

“Educational quality in a healthy democracy is not something that can be taken for granted, even among students who are fortunate enough to be in a “good” school whether measured by standardized tests, graduation rates, or even the rankings of the colleges such students attend,” Shatzky concludes. ”If you have doubts that the ‘dumbing down’ of America is a serious problem, just compare the writing I’ve cited from fifty years ago of public junior high school students with those today.”

Shatzky connects good writing with good reading, and cites writing guru Nancie Atwell’s recent Education Week essay which notes “our 13-year-olds aren’t reading well because they’re not reading enough.”  However (advocates for a “print rich” environment take note) an exhaustive recent study from UC San Diego found we’re actually consuming more text now than ever before.  Thus the issue is not whether kids are reading.  The problem is that the depth, complexity and vocabulary of what they’re reading is not particularly good or challenging.  

Shatzky doesn’t say so, but I have to believe that a process-heavy approach to teaching writing and de-emphasizing academic content in the elementary and middle school may also be a factor here.  Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review has long lamented how nonfiction reading and research papers have become endangered species.  Writing personal reflections about one’s own life and experience may engage students, but a steady diet of it surely doesn’t help develop the kind of mature, capable writers Shatzky sees disappearing from college campuses.

35 Comments »

  1. I too believe that writing ability has declined. Our school secretary recently showed me an essay she had written as an 8th grader in 1968 –elegant, articulate, error-free and in beautiful handwriting. Could any of our 8th graders equalit? I doubt it. I believe this may indicate a huge scandal, because if there’s one thing that middle and high school English has prioritized over the last two decades, it’s writing. Is there any evidence that the billions of hours we’ve collectively devoted to this enterprise have paid off?

    Comment by Ben F — February 18, 2010 @ 10:31 am

  2. While I certainly sympathize with Shatzky’s overall point of view, I highly doubt that the two passages he presents are typical of public school student writing in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m just not buying it. So where did all those splendid writers, now in their 60s and 70s, go?

    In the 1950s, the Council for Basic Education published a collection of essays urging a liberal arts education for every child. (Again, I sympathize.) One essay writer lamented that his pubic high school in 1916 had produced far better writers than the debased “modern” schools were producing in the ’50s. (Perhaps, but I’m not sure.) Another writer, a Harvard literature professor, declared that his graduate students were “illiterate” and far inferior to the students who populated graduate schools in the ’20s. Some of those illiterates from the ’50s became my professors in the ’80s and ’90s, and they deplored the declining standards that had produced my sorry generation. And when my peers and I started teaching, we often told each other that we found our students very disappointing, indeed.

    We can trace this line of argument very far back. If we’re to believe centuries (or more) of complaints, then we’ve been in decline as long as we’ve been in motion.

    Now that I have that off my chest, allow me to contradict myself. I do agree that MORE reading of text is not necessarily a good thing. It is worrisome if students aren’t reading long, rich texts from start to finish–and carefully, with attention to nuance, argument and quality. And it’s worrisome if they’re not writing sustained texts that require mastery of content, reflection, analysis, synthesis, discovery, creativity, etc.

    Comment by Claus — February 18, 2010 @ 10:47 am

  3. I have 2 elementary aged kids who are told they need to write personal narratives each time they write. Kids at that age want to write about what excites them – magic, monsters, fairies and mythology. Why force them to write non-fiction (about your daily lives”) where they find ‘not much to write about’?

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — February 18, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

  4. I’m not suggesting kids shouldn’t write personal narratives, just not an exclusive diet of it. My 5th graders wrote fiction, poetry and all of the nonfiction writing was memoirs, “small moments” and personal narratives. Research papers and academic writing was “not authentic” despite the fact that they were going to be writing such nonauthentic pieces for the next ten years of their schooling.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 18, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

  5. Claus,

    I agree that it’s hard to be sure that today’s writers are worse, but, given the emphasis we’ve given to writing (at the expense of systematic grammar instruction, penmanship, and other disciplines) shouldn’t we be seeing much BETTER writers? And if we’re not, haven’t we misspent precious time and energy?

    Comment by Ben — February 18, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

  6. I am not a super-recent graduate (class of ’95) but those samples seem fairly similar to what I wrote in high school. Maybe not the reference to the River Styx, but I doubt that the average student in my parents’ generation (my dad was class of ’67) would’ve used that, the one excerpt cited by Dr. Shatzky notwithstanding.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — February 18, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

  7. Ben, I’m willing to agree with you. There are all sorts of forces out there that can work against all that we’ve been working for.

    I just worry about Utopian visions that are more fiction that reality. A Diane Ravitch has suggested elsewhere, there was no golden age, and there is no easy historical reference point for excellent policy or practice.

    Comment by Claus — February 18, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

  8. AJGuzzaldo–I agree that writing today isn’t what it should be, and I agree that changes to youth culture–and digital technologies–might actually be contributing to a decline, though the data aren’t all in. That’s the important point. There aren’t much data out there to suggest that Americans are achieving LESS than they used to. But there aren’t much data that they are achieving more, either–and that’s a big problem. As someone who used to teach writing to college students, I often gnashed my teeth at what I saw and deplored the state of students’ writing. We have to do better.

    I just worry that Utopianism sends us in the wrong direction–It sends us in search of some ideal past we should emulate, and I’m afraid that past just doesn’t exist.

    Comment by Claus — February 18, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

  9. Well put, Claus.

    I agree that it is a mistake to long for an ideal past that never really existed.

    I find that many educators are too quick to dismiss the idea that American education is in a state of decline and to conclude, then, that everything is fine as it is.

    As you pointed out, we have to do better. It doesn’t really matter whether students were better writers in the past. Right now, we have to do better.

    Comment by AJGuzzaldo — February 18, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

  10. As I sit here grading seventh graders’ short stories, I reflect on what an incredibly complex, high-level skill short story writing is. It almost seems ludicrous that we’re expecting seventh graders who have never read Maupassant or Munro, and not yet mastered punctuation, to be proficient at this. Yet it’s a California state standard. And it seems ludicrous that seventh grade teachers, many of whom have not read Maupassant or Munro either, are put in the position to judge the quality of these thirteen-year olds’ jejune fiction. Doesn’t it make more sense for writing instruction to focus on truly teachable and learnable fundamentals such as punctuation, and redirect time spent on the writing process to reading great models of writing –thus laying the foundations for fiction-writing competence later on in life? I suspect that spending ten hours of my week hacking through the underbrush of errors in these stories is not the best use of my time. Do any other English teachers feel this way?

    Comment by Ben F — February 19, 2010 @ 12:59 am

  11. Yes, writing has changed, however, the future will evaluate it. Children write what they read and what they read is different from my sixties upbringing. Is it good or bad? Does it matter? I will refer to the most tense arguement in today’s Christian religious circles. Which translation of the “Bible”? Today the bible is read very little in the King James as other translations are more clear. Why? We don’t speak the King’s English anymore. We have changed. We are different. For better or worse, tomorrow’s history will decide for us if our writing is of good, mature educational quality.

    Comment by Dee — February 19, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

  12. I’m echoing what some have already stated, but it disturbs me that the passages Shatzky cites are presumed to be representative and models of good writing. The prose seems flatulent to me, relying, at times, on pretentious vocabulary and too many descriptors. (Frankly, I wouldn’t want my students writing like this.) Moreover, how can we evaluate such passages without more background information about the aims of the assignment? Otherwise, aren’t we narrowing the definition of “good writing” to style, without regard to rhetorical context? This sort of study — assuming it’s been fairly represented here — reinforces the unfortunate notion that writing is about the surface presentation more than the strength of the student’s argument. I wonder: In what context does Shatzky believe the cited passages would be appropriate outside the classroom?

    Comment by Tom — February 19, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  13. I blame texting and the teaching of versions of Arizona’s Six Traits of Writing, which is too abstract to be of any use to young writers. They should be reading more fine writing, and not the mindless blathering of their peers on social networking sites.

    Comment by Jen — February 19, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

  14. Ben, You’re right. I’m not a teacher, but I do remember having not the faintest idea how to do a research paper when the assignment was given. We were given an outline of what to include and nothing else. I later became a secretary at one of the U. of PA. graduate schools and typed plenty of PhD professors’ research papers and boy did I learn how to write research papers! Learning he fundamentals coupled with reading wonderfully written literature works the same magic

    Comment by carolynn — February 19, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

  15. I’m not sure that Shatzky’s piece counts as a study. More like a lament. Tom, I’m curious about your final line. You wrote, “In what context does Shatzky believe the cited passages would be appropriate outside the classroom?” Am I correct in assuming you mean that to be a criticism of writing assignments that are not “authentic?”

    I don’t think this is teacher-bias, but I always find it odd when we dismiss writing that is not applicable outside the classroom (I suspect it’s yet another reason why research papers are rare; who writes research papers outside of school?). Writing for school IS authentic. It makes no more sense to me to ask “How will I use this outside of school” than to ask a swimming instructor “How will I use this out of the water?”

    I would guess that geometrically larger numbers of students will write papers for school than will write their memoirs, poems, or other forms of writing for personal expression. So if anything is inauthentic, it’s those forms, not academic writing.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 19, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

  16. Why can’t Johnny read or write? I blame the problem on English teachers who have no training in the teaching of reading and writing. I should know, for they are my colleagues. Every semester, my students from the previous semesters come to me, complaining about the horrible, talking head they have for English this semester, who does nothing but “discuss” the reading, give vague writing prompts, and return essays with comments that do little to help students improve. Often the requirement for becoming a teacher of writing is a degree in English, which too often means a degree in English literature or creative writing. Does a degree in literature or creative writing prepare one with the knowledge to teach reading or writing effectively to adolescents?
    Also, I don’t think the process approach is part of the problem.

    Again, it’s with teachers who keep doing things in the classroom that do not improve students reading and writing abilities. There have been studies done that list the instructional strategies that are most effective. Check it out:
    http://www.all4ed.org/files/archive/publications/WritingNext/WritingNext.pdf

    But do most English teachers read those studies? No, because their focus is on literature or creative writing. Or writing the next great American novel.

    Comment by Linda — February 19, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

  17. I agree 100% w/ Tom and others who question using these two passages as examples of good writing. The last time I checked the number of adjectives and adverbs used was not a formula equating to qulaity writing.

    Comment by Ben — February 19, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

  18. Robert, I appreciate your response, though I’m not certain I fully understand your line of argument. The analogy to swimming is particularly baffling. Let me explain.

    I teach writing because I want my students to appreciate language, to develop the skills necessary to analyze their own and others’ arguments, to have the confidence to contribute to societal conversations, to become actively engaged in societal discourse and not become passive receptacles for information (because they’ve never been taught, perhaps, to respond otherwise). In short — and without trying to sound like a cliché — I want them to be active citizens who can think and write in sophisticated ways because I’ve provided them with the tools to do just that. Isn’t that what a language arts class in a school system should be attempting to achieve — at least in part?

    Research papers are valid not because they’re academic alone; they help students deal with conflicting opinions, learn how to synthesize information, help them construct arguments related to the issue they’re exploring, teach them how to refute (or concede and qualify) an opponent’s objection, be exposed to some core knowledge, etc. No, they’ll never write a research paper of the kind we might assign, but they’ll certainly use the skills necessary to successfully complete any number of tasks outside the classroom.

    Just to be clear, I’m certainly not opposed to writing for personal expression. I think any activity that might help a student appreciate language and cultivate a love for the written word is a good thing. If, however, that becomes too much a part of the curriculum, I think that’s a loss — for the student and for society.

    I’m happy to discuss this further, of course, since I know you’re passionate about the issue. And you’re right to note that Shatzky’s piece wouldn’t constitute a study. That was poor word choice on my part. Take care.

    Comment by Tom — February 19, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

  19. I made an intuitive leap, Tom. An incorrect one, as it turns out. I labored for many years teaching the process-heavy TC Writing model, which prized personal expression above nearly all else. Lots of “small moments,” memoirs and personal narratives (each of these were supposedly completely different genres, although I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why). What rarely asked students to do, however, was write research papers or other academic pieces of writing. Book reports were especially frowned upon as “not authentic,” which meant simply, not part of the “living the writerly life.” (yes, they really talked that way to fifth graders). At any rate, I bridled against the blithe description of personal writing as “authentic” and research papers as “inauthentic” for the reason described above. There’s nothing inauthentic about writing that is read by teachers and classmates. I thought that’s where you were going in your previous comment. My apologies for the faulty assumption. It sounds like we agree about what students should write, and why.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 19, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

  20. I appreciate the clarification, Robert. I also wanted to commend you for such a thoughtful presentation in your article above. I was impressed that you cited studies with provocative results that didn’t necessarily support Shatzky’s position. The article encouraged me to think through — and reconsider — my own position in light of the information presented. So kudos for prodding me — and others. Take care.

    Comment by Anonymous — February 19, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

  21. Hmm … I’m not sure why the comment I just submitted is authored by “Anonymous,” but it’s surely me (in case you were at all confused). Perhaps I neglected to fill out the form.

    Comment by Tom — February 19, 2010 @ 11:51 pm

  22. Robert,

    I very much appreciate essays that explore what teachers can do to help all students write better. I fear, however, that Decline and Fall does not so far as I can tell add substantially to this particular discourse.

    To extend your own assertions, however well intentioned, about writing from Shatzky’s conclusion that “[i]f you have doubts that the ‘dumbing down’ of America is a serious problem, just compare the writing I’ve cited from fifty years ago of public junior high school students with those today” is problematic for several reasons. Shatsky’s assertion is fallacious. To find a sample from 50 years ago and say essentially that it is proof that writing is on the decline begs the question and commits the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

    While the Decline and Fall of Student Writing exhibits a not uncommon rhetorical move–here’s a problem, here’s the solution–, this pattern of argument in some respects tends to undermine its own effectiveness in this case. Made popular by the Nation at Risk, the move I think has become almost a cliche.

    And your assertion that “a process-heavy approach to teaching writing and de-emphasizing academic content in the elementary and middle school may also be a factor here” similarly oversimplifies a complex set of relationships. The notion that process approaches de-emphasize academic content is also problematic. The dichotomy that you assert exists between process writing and academic content (writing?) is inaccurate. Whether our students are writing about themselves or the world, writing short stories or research papers, the writing they do does not suddenly appear full blown. It evolves over time as a sequence of complex processes.

    If you feel you have effective methods for helping teachers become better at teaching writing, great. I for one would welcome any of your positive suggestions.

    Thank you.

    Dan

    Comment by Daniel Sharkovitz — February 20, 2010 @ 1:37 am

  23. @Daniel

    “If you feel you have effective methods for helping teachers become better at teaching writing, great.”

    Robert DID offer a suggestion for how to help students become better writers – have them write non-fiction, content-based essays.

    While I appreciate your attempt to dissect the notion that process writing and content are dichotomous, I think you are missing the point.

    Elementary and middle schools have traded in content rich curricula for supposed “skill based” curricula (that include process writing). While process writing and content are not inherently dichotomous, they are treated as such by teachers and administrators everywhere.

    Consequently, the effort to teach students the process of writing often comes at the expense of teaching content, even in core content courses! I know many middle school social studies teachers, for example, who brag about the fact that they treat the course they teach as a language arts class (reading and writing skills matter, content doesn’t).

    Even if this dichotomy is illogical in theory, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in practice.

    Comment by AJGuzzaldo — February 20, 2010 @ 11:27 am

  24. I am currently homeschooling my 2 elementary aged children because there was a big push for writing in their public school. The problem was the use of spell checkers which does not help with meaning or homonyms, the lack of grammar (do not know the difference between a noun and verb in 5th grade), and absolutely no vocabulary or spelling lessons. The result was a 40% failure rate in writing on the state exam in an affluent school. Even after discussing this with the administration I received the “studies show…” comment that I have heard for every failing subject taught.
    My children are now thriving with a combination of k12 and Susan Wise Bauer curriculum that includes spelling, vocabulary, literature, grammar and writing.
    There are fantastic books out there that can assist in teaching these subjects. This isn’t rocket science. We really need to push a back to basics approach to education.
    S

    Comment by Mom of three — February 20, 2010 @ 11:46 am

  25. Daniel Sharkovitz,

    I think writing teachers today tend to grossly underestimate the importance of good models and background knowledge. I distinctly remember the sense, in my twenties, when I’d FINALLY figured out how to craft a strong persuasive essay, that I was employing mental templates derived from years of reading The New Republic. I’d also graduated from college and so could draw on a large fund of knowledge to power my writing. I think we are putting the cart before the horse with respect to writing. Have kids and teens read reams of great writing in all genres, including a lot of non-fiction. In doing so, they’ll be getting both templates and knowledge. Have them write a bit along the way. But don’t put writing process front and center in the curriculum the way it is now.

    Comment by Ben F — February 20, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  26. In ES and JHS, I remember writing newspaper articles from a given set of facts, writing a business or personal letter on a set subject and writing directions for walking or driving between given places on a map. I believe that the latter is/was part of the MD HS writing exam, which was first given to eighth-graders. These are useful skills, as is the ability to write an outline, summary or brief essay. The half-page (handwritten) in-class essay used to be a staple in HS history and English classes. Given a brief quote or historical event or person, identify and discuss significance. There were also 1-2 page homework essays. The only me-centered writing I remember was the ES-JHS first-day-of-school opus on the summer vacation. In schools where teachers needed to get to know kids, a this-is-who-I-am opus might be substituted.

    Momof3: an English teacher in (supposedly) one of the best school systems (affluent suburban) in the country that her new ninth-graders could not reliably identify the subject of sentences containing only one noun or pronoun.

    Comment by momof4 — February 20, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

  27. I guess I can’t find a verb! The teacher FOUND that…

    Comment by momof4 — February 20, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

  28. To all of you who have responded to the post concerning my article: whether I agree with you or not I am gratified at the number and quality of responses. After over 45 years of teaching writing, I often feel humbled at how much more I need to know to feel I’m doing “the right thing” in getting students to write well. I will be teaching a short story course in the Spring semester at a community college and I both have my students writing about literature and writing their own short story. I use collaborative discussion techniques, peer editing, lecture-discussion, journals, samples of my own work, and class-wide discussion of their own. I give them the best examples of the short story for them to model. Anything to make them be INVOLVED in writing.P.S. I “publish” their stories through a professional printer so each of them has an anthology of their own work at semesters’ end. I believe that contributes to their feeling of “ownership.” I would welcome any of your own strategies to promote good writing to share either on this blog or my own on Huffington Post.

    Comment by Joel Shatzky — February 21, 2010 @ 11:24 pm

  29. I am addressing this to those who teach writing at any level. Some pople just don’t like creative writing. I know that’s considered heresy, since creativity seems to be an absolute virtue in the ed world, but some of us are like that. I have always been a reader. I am happy to write personal letters, business letters, memos and newsletters. In school, I happily wrote reports, in-class essays, out-of-class essays and research papers. In college, I continued the same, in English, in History and in French, along with various professional writings. I wrote a Master’s thesis and a dissertation. Teachers, please offer options for those who don’t like creative writing. For example, either write a short story or analyze one. I took an grad-level English class on the Romantic poets; we analyzed poems, not wrote them. Just keep us in mind and give us a choice, please.

    Comment by momof4 — February 22, 2010 @ 11:32 am

  30. That’s a great suggestion, momof4. I need to keep that in mind. I admit that I love teaching creative writing and even look forward (!) to reading my students’ writing, but I will admit a tendency to ASSume that all my kids enjoy it. It would be prudent and helpful of me to offer an option.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — February 22, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

  31. Of course, there are students who don’t feel comfortable writing fiction. They choose to write an essay on a short story or a memoir if they want. The important thing for them is being “published” and having something they can keep as evidence of an achievement, not just a grade and some papers they will probably soon discard.
    Incidentally, only about two or three have taken that option. Most of them, at least in my experience, love to imagine something, even if it partially autobiographical. It’s often the only opportunity they have to “make” something entirely their own.

    Comment by Joel Shatzky — February 22, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

  32. I was about to share this post on facebook; however, there are errors in your use of “however,” so I can’t share it. Is there any way you can fix those? Thanks!

    Comment by Bob — April 19, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

  33. Good post! I agree that writing ability has declined too, but it’s not too late to fix this. Making students read and write more will help improve their writing abilities, because the more you read the better you understand how to write

    Comment by professional research paper writers — January 12, 2011 @ 7:56 am

  34. The skill of old people saying how everything used to be better and then cherry-picking anecdotes to demonstrate how right they are is among the endless list of things that keeps getting better with every generation. Also among that list, I suspect, may be writing. One thing that never gets better is the ability of the “writng class” to think rationally and apply reason to analyze a problem, or whether there is a problem or not. People keep citing passages from 8th graders circa 1950 and challengin us to to find an 8th grader who can write that now. Piece of cake, but no one ever does it, and when they do, the citer will say “oh, but they are the rarity, not the norm” as if the 8th grade writing sampe that survived 60 years of office cleaning was, at the time, the norm. Show me some real data or shut up.

    The problem exposed is not in writing in the young, it is in reason in the old. Yes, some things have gotten a lot worse since you were young. But most things have gotten better. I am now old enough to know the most significant thing to decline is, obviously, me. My attitude, my optimism, and my patience with the process of other people’s learning. I am not irrational enough to take my internal truculence to be a sign of societal decay.

    Comment by NYC Teacher — November 6, 2011 @ 10:07 am

  35. Great article..I agree that writing ability has declined too, but it’s not too late to fix this. Making students read and write more will help improve their writing abilities.

    Comment by candice olson bedding — April 2, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

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