Student Writing vs the Education Experts

Two recent articles at Education Week illustrate the disconnect between educational pontificating and classroom realities.

headlines from Education WeekOne article, “Is the five-paragraph essay history?” discusses the pros and cons of teaching students to write the five-paragraph essay. The reader is told that the five-paragraph essay “has largely fallen out of favor among influential English/language arts researchers and professional associations. ‘Rigid’ and ‘constraining’ are the two words critics often use to describe the format.”

The other article, “As Teachers Tackle New Student-Writing Expectations, Support Is Lacking,” informs the reader that, although Common Core Standards call for the ability to write multi-paragraph “argumentative, explanatory, and narrative writing that draws connections from and between texts,” students in today’s classrooms are rarely asked to write more than one-paragraph assignments.

One passage that really curls my toes is this one:

Today, the debate about the form is intertwined with broader arguments about literacy instruction: Should it be based on a formally taught set of skills and strategies? Should it be based on a somewhat looser approach, as in free-writing workshop models, which are sometimes oriented around student choice of topics and less around matters of grammar and form? (from “Is the five-paragraph essay history?”)

Parents and classroom teachers need to put their fingers in their ears when “influential English/language arts researchers and professional associations” debate the value of “matters of grammar and form.”

They need to question the reasoning of educational consultants who believe that writing an essay should be a team effort accomplished entirely during class time. For example, a consultant quoted in the support article seems to be unacquainted with the concept of homework:

  • “with all the competing demands on teachers’ time, a limited amount of writing time [is] afforded to students, particularly blocks of uninterrupted time, which can be the most effective for practice.”
  • “When are kids actually being allowed to practice [writing]? Writers need a solid block of time to get into their writing.
  • “If [students are] only given short little snippets of time, we have some structures in place that are misaligned with the common core.”

Of course meaningful writing takes time to produce. The purpose of homework is to allow students time to practice concepts taught in the classroom.

Giving feedback on writing also takes time.

The freshman composition courses I taught at a state university required students to write five essays in a semester. Class size was limited to twenty. Before the final draft was due, I met with students individually outside of class to help them with their rough drafts. When the final versions were submitted for grading, I spent from fifteen to thirty minutes on each paper. The papers that took the longest to evaluate were written by college freshmen who had failed to master middle-school “matters of grammar and form.”

What’s the solution offered to high school English teachers who may have as many as 40 students in a class?

According to a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Teachers need to figure out how to multiply themselves. She seems to feel that, because English teachers are not given the time they need to teach writing effectively, the responsibility should be passed to the people who are in school to be taught:

[S]tudents could assess their own writing and give the teacher their best work to read, along with a written explanation of why they thought that piece of writing was worthy. Or students could share their work in small groups and have the group select the best piece of writing and explain why.

What nonsense.

The ability to write a structured, grammatically correct, and supported argumentative or persuasive article comes from at least eight years of preparation, beginning in First Grade.

Students who receive adequate language instruction in grades K-8 will be ready to write the kind of multi-paragraph papers required by the Common Core Standards when they pass into high school.

Tip to the experts: If you expect high school English teachers to teach writing effectively, ensure that

  1. They have the training and materials they need to teach writing.
  2. Their class loads do not exceed three sections of twenty students each.

Second Thoughts


This article was written before the advent of ChatGPT. My argument for home writing assignments may not be as valid as it once was. On the other hand, perhaps students will figure out how to use their own thoughts to create a draft and make use of artificial intelligence to give their work the “matters of grammar and form” they have failed to learn in elementary school.

2 Responses

  1. Kate Lacy,
    I certainly don’t assume any such thing.Throughout my teaching career I have maintained that All Teachers Are English Teachers.
    Nor am I advocating that everyone write only and forever the 5-paragraph essay. I’m pointing out that a 5-paragraph essay is better than no essay at all. I believe that if schools ensure that every eighth-grader has the ability to write a 5-paragraph essay before passing into high school, students will be able to be as creative and innovative as they like in high school and beyond. At present, huge numbers of entering college freshmen cannot write a supported essay of any kind.

    As for scientific writing, I have a huge admiration for scientists who know how to write and, one hopes, how to teach it to their students. One of the best prose writers ever was anthropologist Peter Farb.

  2. What makes you assume that only English teachers teach writing? How do you think Science Fair and History Day entries succeed internationally? Successful competition and technical essays don’t result from producing five paragraphs as taught by one stream of teachers. It’s interesting that creative writers often utilize scientific writing techniques to “tighten” their dialogue and plots.
    Be realistic. Support writing across the curriculum.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *