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Kara Miller

Failure to communicate

The inability of many students to write clear, cogent sentences has costly implications for the digital age

By Kara Miller
May 19, 2010

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WHEN YOU teach English to college students, you quickly realize two things.

First, many seem to have received little writing instruction in high school. I initially noticed this as an undergraduate English major at Yale, where I helped peers revise their papers. I saw it again in graduate school at Tufts, where I taught freshman writing classes. And it has also struck me at Babson, where, for the past two years, I have instructed first-year students.

The second thing English teachers realize is that correcting students’ papers is tremendously time consuming. I constantly do battle with myself to spend less than 20 minutes on a paper. At meetings, instructors are often urged not to exceed 15 minutes, but I frequently end up spending double that. This can be a genuinely frustrating experience: 50 papers stacked on the coffee table, 10 in the finished pile, and an entire afternoon gone.

But I can’t help it; there’s so much to correct. Subjects don’t agree with verbs. “Its’’ and “it’s’’ are used interchangeably. “They are’’ is confused with “their.’’ And facts too often function as topic sentences. Many of the students whose work I correct are smart, motivated, and quick to incorporate suggestions. But they have either forgotten the rules of writing, or they never learned them in the first place.

Some of the problem, of course, is carelessness. But much of it is not. I have read seniors’ cover letters — letters that aim to snag them a dream job — and they’re frequently riddled with both grammatical and stylistic mistakes.

Inadequate writing skills have led to concern in colleges across the country. In 2007, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that just 24 percent of 12th-graders scored “proficient’’ or better. That same year, more than 80 percent of students at the City University of New York had to enroll in remedial courses in reading, writing, or math.

Vartan Gregorian, the former president of Brown University, has expressed deep concern about the erosion of solid communication skills. “In an age overwhelmed by information (we are told, for example, that all available information doubles every two to three years), we should view this as a crisis, because the ability to read, comprehend, and write — in other words, to organize information into knowledge — can be viewed as tantamount to a survival skill.’’

Which leads to a serious question: why do so many students come to college without a command of fundamentals?

To some degree, it’s a mathematical problem. If it takes me all weekend to correct 40 papers, how can a high school English teacher begin to tackle 120 papers (four sections, 30 students per section) in a detail-oriented way?

The few teachers who do spend day and night reviewing papers deserve both a medal and a hefty raise. As they know, fixing students’ writing is complex; it simply cannot be boiled down to a multiple-choice test or a series of right-and-wrong answers. Which may mean rethinking the way writing is taught in high school — and, perhaps, the way teachers are compensated.

We often belittle English teachers — if you speak and read English, how hard can it be to teach it? — but those with strong communication skills are both rare and valuable. Recall that when Massachusetts implemented a teachers’ test 12 years ago, the public was shocked to discover that more than 30 percent of prospective teachers failed the literacy portion.

Though the media tend to focus on nationwide shortages of math and science teachers — which are indeed acute — finding, coaching, and retaining good English teachers is an underreported struggle. Indeed, as anyone who has received a poorly written e-mail, assessment, memo, cover letter, or report knows, writing — both good and bad — has real power. The National Commission on Writing (a part of the College Board) has calculated that “remedying deficiencies in writing costs American corporations as much as $3.1 billion annually.’’

In an increasingly digital world, writing acts as a vehicle for knowledge — giving it short shrift in the classroom is a serious mistake.

Kara Miller teaches at Babson College.

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