The digital age offers many advantages for us and our students, but it doesn’t come without a cost. Between texting and voice command, spell checkers and Siri, many of our students have lost their way when it comes to communicating effectively in writing.
This year, I began working as an adjunct professor at local community colleges, teaching academic writing courses. I found many of my students – all high school graduates – woefully unprepared to represent themselves successfully in written form. For these students to be successful in the job market, their writing skills would need to improve drastically. As someone who has spent nearly a decade teaching students of all ages this important skill, here are the key steps I took to battle the writing decline.
1. Go Back to the Basics
Help your students walk before they run. In our standards-based educational climate, we have worked hard to teach our students high-level language arts skills. My college students can analyze, compare, contrast, conclude and more. Indeed, my students’ first essays were full of good ideas… I think. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be sure because I could barely navigate the run-on sentences, misplaced modifiers, misspelled homonyms and disorganized paragraphs. Nowadays, skills-focused educators don’t feel they have time to teach the basics of grammar, syntax and structure, and yet these foundations are vitally important. The spell checker, powerful as it as, cannot catch everything, and the multitude of online resources available are only useful if students know why it’s helpful to use them.
This is where my college students needed to start. Last week, we tackled run-ons, comma splices and subject-verb agreement. This week? Comma usage, connectors and transitions, and topic sentences.
2. Let Nothing Slide
I’m a tough grader; I told my students this the first day of class. But it turns out, they took that to mean I would harshly critique their content. (There was no need. Their content was wonderful!) Instead, students received essays back from me with little red commas scribbled all over, spelling corrections in the dozens and zig-zagging lines demonstrating the necessary organizational structure.
Too many teachers let the “small errors” go in favor of the bigger picture. Presumably, this is exactly how it’s possible for educated young people to not know the difference between “their” and “there.” Even if English is not your discipline, expect proper written communication from your students and, when you do not receive it, grade and give feedback accordingly.
3. Feel the Power of Writing
I am well aware that not everyone is as obsessed with proper writing as I am. (I have been called a “comma nut” by a few students and I openly have a favorite compound sentence format: the semicolon!) But even if writing is not your game, you are responsible for helping your students understand its value.
I showed my class two cover letters applying for a pretend job similar to the ones some of them will soon be seeking. The two fake applicants were similar in experience, education and other qualifications. But one applicant’s cover letter was clear, organized and error-free, while the other was a mess of mistakes and disorganization. I asked the class which applicant they would hire given the choice. “Are you dumb?” the students seemed to say with the looks they gave me. Obviously, they explained, they would choose the one who is smarter. I argued that their education levels were the same. How could they know who was smarter? That’s when they realized the point – written communication is often the only first impression you get with employers and others. Good, clear writing can be the difference that gets you the job.
A common refrain among educators is, “All teachers are reading teachers.” With how big a role writing plays in our lives, I highly advocate writing be added to that mantra.