The Problem – Students are not being taught how to write
Has traditional essay writing fallen out of fashion? By “traditional essay,” we at EssayPop refer to the multiple-paragraph paper that begins with a focused introduction that presents a thesis, followed by several body paragraphs that support the thesis, and a conclusion that sums things up and puts matters into perspective.
The well-known five-paragraph essay is one such paper that falls into this category, but certainly is not the only variation. A three-, six- or even ten-paragraph paper would certainly qualify. There are those who suggest that this type of essay writing is a quaint, outdated skill; a held-over practice from a more conventional time. Actually, quite the opposite is true. Traditional essay writing is being emphasized more than ever before.
Consider what is prescribed by the Common Core College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing. Students are asked to:
- Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1).
- Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2)
- Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4).
And take a look at what the Smarter Balanced Performance Task (The writing portion of the Common Core State Standards-aligned test used in 15 states) assesses in its rubrics: Both the 4-Point Informative-Explanatory Performance Task and Argumentative Performance Task (Grades 6-11) require that “the response has a clear and effective organizational structure, creating a sense of unity and completeness. The response is fully sustained, and consistently and purposefully focused.” The rubric additionally asks that, “the response provides thorough and convincing support/evidence for the controlling idea and supporting idea(s) that includes the effective use of sources, facts, and details. The response clearly and effectively elaborates ideas, using precise language.”
As you can see, these summative performance tasks require students to write evidence-based compositions, organized into structured paragraphs in order to demonstrate their language arts competencies. In sum, they are being asked to write traditional essays. But are today’s students prepared to produce such writing? Much of the research suggests that they are not.
The Cold, Hard Facts
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) most recent assessment, only about one-quarter of students, grades 8 through 12, perform at the Proficient level in writing. The Atlantic Monthly’s, Peg Tyre, writes that, “based on the Nation’s Report Card, in 2007, the latest year for which this data is available, only 1 percent of all students in the 12th grade nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-organized essay.”
She goes on to comment that “high schools are still graduating large numbers of students whose writing skills better equip them to work on farms or in factories than in offices.” Again and again the research reveals that for decades, achievement rates in writing have remained low, and this doesn’t change when students enter college.
Universities are perplexed by newly enrolled students’ inability to craft a basic written argument in their research and analytical essays. As Soheila Battaglia of Demand Media points out, “Even before students are accepted to universities, they have to be able to write essays as part of their applications. Once accepted, they continue to write essays in courses across the humanities. Essays are assigned by instructors as a method for measuring critical thinking skills, understanding of course material, and writing skills.”
But many new college students simply aren’t prepared or able to produce these types of sustained and coherent multiple-paragraph compositions . According to Daniel DeVise of the Washington Post, “more than 80 percent of them have never written a formal five-page paper. Instead, they’ve churned out short essay after short essay after short essay. When asked to develop an idea or argument beyond two or three pages, they look dumbfounded.”
Take a look at any college or university website and you will find guides for basic essay writing that, more or less, focus on the same things — a tightly constructed introductory paragraph with an unambiguous thesis statement, several focused body paragraphs that present some sort of evidence that is coherently explained by the writer and a conclusion that revisits the essay’s main points. So why aren’t students able to write these kinds of traditional papers?
Where Does the Problem Begin?
Some say the reason is that students just don’t spend very much time writing in middle school and high school, and when they do, it’s either creative writing, journaling or short expressions of personal opinion. The Common Core education standards for ELA were developed, in large part, as a reaction to this, explicitly requiring students to write substantial, evidence-based expository and argumentative essays, not only in their english classes, but their history, science and math classes as well. While well-meaning and carefully-constructed, the problem with this new approach is not the standards themselves, but, rather, the fact that teachers don’t necessarily know how to teach them.
As Natalie Wexler of the Washington Post points out, “the authors of the Common Core focused just on the skills that students should have at each grade level, not on how to impart them. And few teachers have been trained to teach these writing skills, apparently because educators believe that students will just pick them up through reading. Obviously, most don’t.”
So, essentially, the writing standards are solid; they’re comprehensive and they are what university and business communities are asking for. What’s missing are the methodologies and the training to provide teachers with the tools to teach these standards. The teaching of essay writing is not explicitly covered in credential programs. Some teachers have figured it out on their own, but many have not. And herein lies the problem.
The challenge is that the essay writing process is very complex; it is not easy for the instructor to teach, nor is it simple for the learner to master. The textbook companies have given a nod to formal essay-writing instruction, but, really, they are more focused on reading development and standardized test preparation. Sure, they provide end-of-unit essay prompts that they expect teachers will be able to guide their students through. But if the teachers don’t have the training to create writing experiences that produce substantive papers, then the cycle of not being prepared to teach the skills and their students not learning how to write to the standards is perpetuated.
It is this reality that our blog hopes to address. We want to ask the hard questions about why students aren’t writing proficiently, and hopefully provide answers and solutions that teachers can use to propel and enhance their practices. This blog is a discussion. It is a support group and a resource center. We encourage your feedback, your comments and you’re own posts if you care to share a useful or interesting perspective.
It is hoped that through discussion and sharing and discovery, we can find an effective and unified approach to writing instruction that helps all students.