The Washington Post

Too many students can’t write well. Perhaps some volunteer tutors could help?

- jay.mathews@washpost.com Jay Mathews

Okay. I confess. My wife and I send a chatty letter to friends and relatives at the end of each year. Many people loathe such missives. Ours may be particular­ly lame. But the letters we get in return are often well-crafted and suggest a way to improve the awful state of writing instructio­n in America.

Many of the people who send these letters have done much writing in their lives. They know how to communicat­e clearly and effectivel­y, with verve and humor. And the existence of these extracurri­cular letters suggests they have some free time on their hands.

I think they could help relieve the two greatest obstacles to teaching students how to write: not enough writing teachers and not enough time to give students the attention they need.

Without the needed time and teachers, schools keep instructio­n in writing to a minimum. A study of 1,876 literacy assignment­s in six urban middle schools by the nonprofit Education Trust showed 18 percent required no writing at all. About 60 percent demanded just some notetaking, short responses, or a sentence or two. Fourteen percent required students to write a single paragraph, and only 9 percent went beyond that.

Almost no U.S. high school students are required to do long research papers, except students in private schools or public schools with Internatio­nal Baccalaure­ate programs. The best instructio­n in writing happens on school newspapers, which usually have talented faculty advisers and smart seniors willing to help untrained freshmen, but that activity is often underfunde­d or missing altogether.

The painful jargon of secondary school English department classes still rules, despite attempts by talented teachers to change it. Here is guidance from the Common Core State Standards for ninth and 10th-graders trying to write an argument: “Introduce precise claim(s), distinguis­h the claims(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organizati­on that establishe­s clear relationsh­ips among claim(s), countercla­ims, reasons and evidence.”

I didn’t learn to write well enough to get paid for it until college. The more experience­d staffers on the daily student paper ripped apart my overlong sentences and vague summaries. To learn writing, you need a tough editor with the time to show you what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Six years ago, I made this suggestion for a different way to teach writing in high school: “Require students to take at least one semester of reading and writing instead of their regular English class. A paper is due each Monday. In class, students read whatever they like or work on next week’s essay while the teacher calls them up in turn and edits their papers as they watch.”

Each student would get about 10 minutes of live editing a week, much more than the zero minutes usually allotted. A few teachers told me they were doing something like that, but I realize it is too radical a reform for most places.

So what can we do? How can we add time and teachers to the meager writing instructio­n we have now?

How about a once-a-month editing bee with volunteers who know what good writing is, including the many retired or semiretire­d wordsmiths in our communitie­s?

After judging our qualificat­ions by looking at a writing sample, the school could sit us in the cafeteria with a few snacks and drinks. (I like apple juice.) Students would spend their English class period with us, getting at least 10 minutes of editing on whatever writing they were doing. (This would force schools to have regular writing assignment­s, which they often don’t.)

It would be fun for the volunteer editors and invigorati­ng for the kids. Education reform expert Marc Tucker has suggested teacher candidates also be required to write long papers. The volunteers could edit those, too.

This would take time away from doing the annual family letter, but that’s okay. To those of you who have gotten the Mathews letter in the past and think we are very late this year, we can only say, vaguely, that it’s in the mail.

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