Why Can't Johnny Write?

Schools struggle with America’s writing deficiency

Practicing what he preaches: Carmel Middle School assistant principal Dan Morgan reads with his three boys.

Photographs by Lane Johnson

While American high school students are performing better on math tests than they did 20 years ago, nationwide only one in four students ranks “proficient” on standardized writing tests. In California, 84 percent of students who enter community college must take between one and five semesters of remedial English classes before they are deemed “college-ready” and allowed to enroll in required freshman English classes. At City College of San Francisco, that number is close to 90 percent.

Writing well is a requirement in today’s complex world. The ability to convey ideas and facts in clear language that is free of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors boosts a person’s success in college and on the job. A strong command of writing skills is essential for communicating with bosses, clients, and colleagues. Like it or not, we are judged by how well we can use the English language.

So why are kids going to college without knowing how to write?

“Skills vary tremendously in freshman composition classes,” says Dr. Robert Cullen, an English professor at San Jose State University. “It’s easy to blame the problem on poor instruction in middle and high schools, but California is a tough place to teach writing.” Cullen cites large class sizes and a high rate of teacher turnover, plus a shortage of time to teach and practice writing.

“There is a fierce competition for a student’s time,” he says. “Not enough is allocated to writing.”

Judith Sutton, a retired high school English teacher with 40 years of experience at South Bay high schools, agrees. “Instead of focusing on just a few important things, teachers have to go though an enormous amount of material in a school year.”

Many public school teachers are under pressure to cover curriculum that will help students prepare for the standardized tests required by the federal “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001. The main provision of the act is that a school’s students must score better than students in the same grade scored the previous year. Known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, this scoring improvement makes the school eligible to receive federal funding.

As a result, many schools focus their teaching on the material that will appear on the test at the expense of longer-term objectives such as achieving writing proficiency. For example, if a teacher knows that the standardized English test will be comprised of multiple-choice questions related to vocabulary knowledge, then that teacher might not invest class time on the practical applications of writing clear sentences or paragraphs. This is commonly referred to as “teaching to the test.” 

Dan Morgan, assistant principal at Carmel Middle School, says, “There is too much emphasis on testing, and not enough on literacy.”

Additionally, “we live in a culture that does not emphasize being a good writer,” says Dan Goss, who tutored students with writing problems at South Bay community colleges from 2005 to 2008. “Many of my students were the first in their families to go to college. They didn’t always receive the support from home that they needed.”

Becoming a good writer starts with reading, and parents are “at least 50 percent of the equation,” Goss says. “They need to model reading and writing to their children, starting early.”

Morgan advises parents, “Start reading to kids early. Catch them at a young age, before the window closes. Take them to libraries.”

Over the last two decades, elementary and middle school students’ reading skills have stagnated, according to a recent release of federal standardized test scores.

Students’ proficiency in reading and writing often depends on the amount of funding a school receives, says Morgan. “Schools in affluent areas almost always have higher test scores. They can pay for early reading programs, literacy specialists, and tutors for individual students.”

In addition, affluent parents can afford to buy books for their children and have access to well-stocked libraries. Schools in urban areas, where property taxes (the largest source of revenue for schools) tend to be higher, generally have more money than schools in rural areas. For example, the Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union School District spends approximately $11,000 per student and has a 99.5% graduation rate, while San Jose’s Eastside Union High School District spends approximately $8,900 per student and has a 72% graduation rate.

Most educators see computers in the classroom as a modern-day necessity, but opinions vary on whether technology helps or hinders reading and writing skills. While students like using the computer in the classroom, too often they lose sight of its purpose as a learning tool.

“Computers teach instant gratification,” says Sutton. With extended digital media use in and out of the classroom, “students have no practice reading, and consequently [their literacy skills] do not improve.”

Texting and social media have created a messaging shorthand used by many students, with phrases like “R u dn wth tht?” Some experts believe the prevalence of texting lingo leads to a diminished concern for proper spelling and English grammar. But Cullen says that students who engage in texting are at least doing some form of writing.

“Bad writing is better than no writing,” he says. “It’s a place to start.” Cullen advises teachers to use social media to help students become better writers.

Anna Rainville, a teacher at The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, says that in the lower grades at Waldorf, technology use is kept to a minimum.

“We’re not anti-technology,” she says. “But we introduce it when children are ready.”

As at all Waldorf schools, a strong emphasis is placed on developing a trusting relationship between teacher and student. “The computer is a distraction,” says Rainville. “Children are natural bonders, and they can’t bond with a machine.”

Surprisingly, this teaching philosophy appeals to parents who work in the high-tech industry. Seventy-five percent of children enrolled at Bay Area Waldorf schools have parents who hold high-tech jobs at companies like Google, eBay, Microsoft, and Intel. According to Rainville, these parents are in no hurry to include computers in their children’s early education.

At Waldorf, lessons from all subjects are carefully integrated. Whether students are studying history, math, or science, “every lesson honors speech, listening, and the written word,” says Rainville.

As a private school, Waldorf does not receive federal funding and is not required to give standardized tests. The school’s measure of success comes at graduation: 94 percent of students who graduate from Waldorf high schools in the U.S. will go on to college, compared to less than 50 percent of students who graduate from U.S. public schools. But these results don’t come cheap: tuition at Waldorf starts at $17,000 per year.

Some students at public high schools can and do achieve competence in language arts. Judith Sutton taught poetry to public high school students who regularly won awards for their writing. She says her success was based on time and repetition. “I focused my students on something small that they could manage, and we kept reviewing techniques until the students mastered them,” she says.