In english class, we’re taught to recognize motifs, literary devices, and analyze characters. But we’re not taught how to write. Schools believe that we’ll learn how to write by diffusion: read and write without instruction, and we’ll know how to write. But it doesn’t work. High schoolers suck at writing.
High schoolers suck at writing because our schools fail them. Starting from elementary school and through high school, english classes just aren’t providing the necessary teaching for kids to become good writers. Here are a couple things teachers can do in the classroom to improve writing:
1. Show kids how to write. The two teachers that I’ve learned most from both showed me how to write. They didn’t assume that I would just learn how to write through reading and their writing assignments.
Write an essay in front of your students in class. Go through sentence by sentence on how to write an essay. After every assignment, deconstruct and edit someone’s essay. Show them how to vary their sentence rhythm, show them how to write in the active voice, show them to write how they speak. Show them how to keep it simple. That’s how the best writers write.
2. Let kids write whatever they want. Kids shouldn’t write about something that doesn’t engage them. That’s how they lose interest in writing. They shouldn’t write about how a character has developed if they don’t find it interesting. Give them assignments that allow for flexibility. Give them assignments that they’d find interesting. An assignment on, “how can we improve schools?” is more interesting than “what literary devices are used in chapter 2?”. Let them voice their own opinions; don’t have them recite someone else’s. Show them that writing is a medium for conveying thought, for sharing ideas. Writing isn’t just tell what you read, writing’s a fun way to share your thoughts. And assign more writing than reading. More creative writing. Let students write about what they want — that’s how they’ll improve as writers.
3. Focus criticism on their writing. Teachers don’t grade enough based on quality of writing. They look at the paper as a whole — does it convey the right ideas, do they write about what we ask? But you should focus on the writing. Is it interesting? Can words be cut? Of course they can. Rip apart your student’s essay. Make them better writers. Forget about if they covered the main idea of the passage, or if they found all the motifs of the story. People don’t need to know what alliteration is; they need to know how to write well.
4. Don’t teach the five paragraph essay. The five paragraph essay style is useless. No one thinks in strict five paragraphs. It doesn’t help paragraph development nor does it help good writing. It makes kids falsely believe that this is how you should write: start with an introduction, have three supporting points in three paragraphs, and then have a conclusion. No one writes like this. Just break a new paragraph after every new idea. And each supporting point can have multiple ideas. Writing is an art; it needs flow, it needs flexibility, it needs personality. Don’t have your kids all conform to the five paragraph system.
Paragraphs also don’t need to be at least four sentences long. Two sentence paragraphs are good.
5. Get rid of the minimum word counts. Writing more doesn’t mean you write better. Writing more doesn’t even mean you have more to say. Writing more just means that your writing is convoluted and doesn’t have focus. Forcing a minimum word count encourages bad writing — kids write filler words to try and reach the word count. Kids will know when they’re done writing. If they have nothing left to say, don’t force them to say anything more. A smaller maximum word count is more effective: teach kids to write so every sentence counts, teach kids to be succinct and clear.
The focus of english class shouldn’t be analyzing literature. That’s a part of it, but we need to learn how to write. We won’t spend the rest of our lives analyzing literature, we might not even spend any time on it after school ends. But we’ll always be writers, we’ll always be thinkers. Teach us how to write so we won’t spend the rest of our lives being poor writers. Teach us how to write so we’ll be good writers.