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What’s Happening to Writing Skills?

Written By Liz Colville
Last updated: March 1, 2023

With the advent of the writing portion of the SAT, schools have put more emphasis on writing skills. But are they actually being taught, and what happens when students reach college?

Putting Composition First

In August 2009, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit organization, released a report entitled “What Will They Learn? A Report on General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation’s Leading Colleges and Universities,” which shares college core curriculum guidelines in seven subject areas.

“Composition” is the first subject. Institutions, ACTA says, should include an “introductory college writing class, focusing on grammar, style, clarity and argument.” Ominously, it adds: “Remedial courses and SAT scores may not be used to satisfy a composition requirement.”

The report’s appendix lists institutions that did not qualify in those seven areas. “No credit given for Composition because the First-Year Seminars do not focus exclusively on writing,” it says of Bowdoin College. Similar descriptions of institutions’ failed writing requirements follow: “not expressly writing courses,” “only students with low standardized test scores are required to take a composition class,” “required writing courses are topic courses in a range of disciplines.”

Professor and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish highlighted ACTA’s finds in a blog post, “What Should Colleges Teach?” Though he has spoken out against outside “checks-and-balances” of academic institutions by organizations such as ACTA, he said, “I found myself often nodding my head in agreement when reading ACTA’s new report.” He feels most strongly that a core curriculum “include a writing course that teaches writing and not everything under the sun. That should be the real core of any curriculum.”

Evidently, the problem with the failed writing curricula is that they weren’t actually teaching writing. “We’ve now had decades of composition courses in which students exchange banal opinions about the hot-button issues of the day,” Fish blogged in 2006, “and student writing has only gotten worse. Doesn’t it make sense to think that if you are trying to teach them how to use linguistic forms, linguistic forms are what you should be teaching?”

The repercussions of poor grammar and composition happen in the real world, once students graduate from college. As Tony Long, the copy chief of Wired magazine, wrote in an op-ed in 2006, “[W]e have CEOs of major corporations who lack the basic writing skills to pen a simple, in-house memo in plain-spoken English. … We see company flacks churning out impenetrable press releases that no editor in his right mind would consider reading, let alone using.”

Background: Grammar’s decline

Sources in this Story

  • American Council of Trustees and Alumni: What Will They Learn?
  • The New York Times: Opinionator: What Should Colleges Teach?
  • The New York Times: Opinionator: The Writing Lesson
  • Wired: Literacy Limps Into the Kill Zone
  • The University of Waikato: The story of English grammar in United States schools by Martha Kolln and Craig Hancock (PDF)
  • UCL Division of Psychology and Lanuage Sciences: Department of Phonetics and Linguistics: The English Patient: English Grammar and teaching in the twentieth century by Richard Hudson and John Walmsley
  • U.S. News & World Report: Admissions Officials Shrug at SAT Writing Test
  • National Council of Teachers of English: The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests
  • Inside Higher Ed: Surviving the Essay

Fish’s “The Writing Lesson” describes teaching sentence form to a 31-year-old student who handed in a final paper rife with grammatical errors. Though Fish advocates better writing courses at the college level, the problem likely starts far earlier than that, and while grammar does not tell the whole story, it is a significant part of it.

In the 1960s, teaching grammar lost importance in several places. In the United States, Noam Chomsky and others were coming up with new theories on grammar, but soon after these worked their way into textbooks, reports including 1963’s “Research in Written Composition” concluded that grammar was detrimental to or “interferes with” students’ writing, Martha Kolln explains in “The story of English grammar in United States schools.”

“By 1980,” Kolln says, “the respected position that grammar had once occupied was no longer recognized” by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). “As a result, several generations of students have had no instruction in the parts of speech and sentence structure, neither in the language of traditional grammar nor in the new language of structural linguistics.” This has not only impacted K-12 education, she says, but teacher education as well, because “it’s certainly possible that these new teachers had little or no grammar instruction in their own middle-school and high-school experiences.”

Around the same time in England, English courses became “dominated by literature and the search for creativity in writing,” the authors of “The English Patient: English Grammar and teaching in the Twentieth Century” explain. Adhering to some of the same reports the U.S. was following, grammar was thought of as “mere mechanics, which children could be taught as and when it was relevant, or which they could just be left to pick up for themselves.”

The NCTE now has a branch called The Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar and “has begun to take ATEG’s pro-grammar message seriously,” according to Kolln.

Related Topic: The SAT writing portion

The College Board added a writing portion to the SAT in order to “appease critics of the high-stakes entrance exam,” U.S. News & World Report’s Eddy Ramirez wrote in 2008. Supporters of the new portion of the test say it helps make the SAT exam “less coachable,” Inside Higher Ed reported in 2005, following the first wave of SAT exams that included the new portion. But the reality is that “[m]ost students interviewed said that they had worked with test-prep companies, tutors or programs at their schools,” often shelling out extra money for a kind of crash course in composition.

A survey of college admissions officers released in 2008 showed that 32 percent said the SAT writing scores “have no influence on admissions decisions,” Ramirez reported. Some colleges “don’t require the writing test” as part of their applications because “they are not convinced that it translates into success in the classroom.”

The National Council of Teachers of English released a report in 2005 that expressed similar concerns about the impact of the SAT writing test on students’ writing skills, writing pedagogies and even “attitudes about writing and writing instruction.”

“We believe the writing test will be neither a valid measure of students’ overall writing ability nor a reliable predictor of students’ college performance,” the authors wrote.

Reference: Grammar and spelling refresher courses

FindingDulcinea’s Elementary English and Middle School English Web Guides are intended to point educators, parents and students to reputable sources on English literature and composition online.

In “Grammar Rules (And So Does Spelling),” the School Library Journal recommends a selection of books teachers can use to help their students brush up on their writing skills following the long summer vacation.

Charles Eames

Liz joined findingDulcinea in December of 2006. She has worked at JackRabbit Sports, a specialty running store, the Kind Group, a marketing and branding firm, and at an e-commerce start-up. She has also worked as a freelance music critic for Pitchfork Media and the former Stylus magazine. She has a B.A. in English, with a concentration in creative writing, from Wesleyan University. For more about Liz read her blog, Lizzyville.

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