Writing is a constant in my life. I have in turns made my living as a writer and as a teacher of writers and writing teachers. As a researcher, the process of becoming a writer has always fascinated me. I admit this background certainly prejudices me to believe writing is not just an important skill, but an essential ability for students and professionals alike.
I am not alone in my belief that writing is a critical skill. According to the National Writing Project:
“Writing is essential to communication, learning, and citizenship. It is the currency of the new workplace and global economy. Writing helps us convey ideas, solve problems, and understand our changing world. Writing is a bridge to the future.”
Similarly, the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, “ developed collaboratively by representatives from the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, argues that the ability to write well is key to student success in college and beyond.
Educators are not the only ones who consider writing important. The NWP Annual Report notes that 3 out of 4 Americans think schools should put more emphasis on teaching students to write well. It is not only academic writing that is considered important. The National Commission on Writing report, “Writing: A Ticket to Work . . . Or a Ticket Out,” shares the finding that writing is a “threshold skill” for hiring and promotion in high-skill, high-wage, professional work. A recent report, “It Takes More Than A Major,” commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, relates that 80% of employers state colleges should place more emphasis on the ability to effectively communicate in writing.
Despite this agreement that writing is an essential skill, our education system does not make it a priority for K-12 or post-secondary education. “Writing: A Ticket to Work…or a Ticket Out” argues that in order to foster the kinds of “thoughtful writers needed” we must devote extended preparation across subject areas from kindergarten through college. However, those of us working on the front lines of education know that this type of sustained writing instruction is not taking place even though a decade ago the National Commission on Writing published “The Neglected ‘R’: The need for a writing revolution” which argued for just such a change because “writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential for the many.” “The Neglected ‘R’” pointed out that “both the teaching and practice of writing are increasingly shortchanged throughout the school and college years.” A few years later, Applebee and Langer reported in 2006 that not only was there a reduction in class time spent on writing, but that student writing was decreasing in length and complexity. Things have not improved according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the National Commission on Writing found that most teens report their average writing assignments range from one paragraph to one page in length. Similarly, 82% of teens responding felt additional in-class writing time would improve their writing abilities. Only 12% reported most of their writing assignments involved longer pieces of 2-5 pages.
If we are truly serious about the importance of writing in order to meet the demands of the new workplace, the global economy, and our information society then we must demand that our schools treat writing according to these needs. First, we must demand that schools stop the focus on on-demand writing to exclusion of other writing forms. Next, we must encourage the teaching and practice of authentic writing across the curriculum. Finally, we must focus on the writer.
Here in Kentucky the primary focus of writing instruction is the on-demand writing piece. As the on-demand writing test remains a large piece of the assessment pie, teachers are pressured to spend large chunks of instructional time teaching on-demand writing and on-demand writing practice sessions. Our National Writing Project site regularly receives requests to deliver professional development intended to solve the problem of low on-demand test scores.
This practice of focusing most (all in many cases) writing instruction on writing on-demand breaks my heart and frustrates me beyond measure. I have never been a foe of the on-demand essay and once upon a time actually taught it to my students. It is an useful skill to have in your writing toolbox – and not just for taking tests – but it has extreme limitations and it is only one skill. Teaching only on-demand writing is like teaching students to make rice crispy treats and calling them chefs. I love rice crispy treats but they are hardly appropriate fare for every meal (although I personally ague they are a breakfast food as well as snack) and every occasion. Worse, learning to make rice crispy treats does not even begin to approach the range of skills and knowledge necessary to approach more complex dishes. Teaching our students only on-demand writing is not going to make our students writers and it is certainly not going to prepare them for the writing demands of college and beyond. We need to focus first on making our students confident and self-regulating writers then they can handle on-demand writing tasks and other writing challenges that come their way. We need to stop the madness and make writing instruction and writing practice a part of every content area. We need to stop teaching for the writing test and instead focus on the writer. I believe if we create writers then they will perform on-demand writing when asked but can also achieve so much more, but if we only create on-demand writers then that is all they can do – and as test results demonstrate they won’t even be able to do that well all the time. Teaching for the test fails our students and creates a cycle of failure in every sense of the word.
But the challenge remains: how can we stop the madness and force administrators to listen to the teachers and writers on the front lines? How can we get our schools to focus more on writers and less on (on-demand) writing? How can we stop creating rice crispy writers?