EDUCATION: More than job-training

Teaching Basic Composition in College

In an article making the viral rounds, college instructor John Maguire explains how he figured out “the way to turn poor writers into good ones.”

Maguire begins his article with a sample of badly written college freshman writing that contains “thirteen errors in fourteen sentences.”

The student’s passage is riddled with errors of subject-verb agreement, spelling and punctuation. Capitalization is random and sentence fragments proliferate. Maguire declares that after spending hours correcting such errors in freshman papers, he had “an epiphany.” Here it is:

These kids don’t know what a good sentence is. They attempt to write papers with bizarre strings of words that are not sentences, and they don’t know what the problem is. Their high school teachers let them write fragments, and now they think of a fragment as a kind of sentence. They have been trained to accept fragments, and I can’t get them untrained. Papers cannot be made from terrible sentences.

Maguire goes on to describe the way in which he taught these high school graduates how to write coherent sentences at last.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I cannot share in the enthusiastic feelings this article seems to have stirred in many readers. Having to teach college freshmen how to write complete sentences strikes me as bizarre.

Why were students who could not write complete sentences in his class to begin with? Don’t colleges have entrance exams?

Why were these students permitted to graduate from high school? For that matter, why had they been allowed to pass from eighth to ninth grade without having mastered such basic matters?

Their high school teachers let them write fragments, and now they think of a fragment as a kind of sentence.

Are college freshmen really such terrible writers because their high school teachers “let them” get away with it?

The colleges that are so fond of blaming high school teachers for the miserable state of freshman writing are the same colleges that are turning out teachers who are inadequately prepared to model or teach standard English.

Elementary teachers who have never had a course in true phonics or the history of English are taught that “learning to read is as natural as learning to speak.” On the basis of that false analogy they are trained in a “intuitive” method of reading instruction that elevates guessing above information acquisition.

High school teachers are trained to value “individuality,” and “multiculturalism” above accuracy and the English literary canon. Not surprisingly, they hesitate to insist on such elitist notions as correct spelling or standard pronunciation and usage.

And it’s not just the education majors. Professional journalists with college degrees make hash of pronouns and verbs in their reporting. Television scriptwriters create dialogue riddled with grammatical errors for college professors, D.A.s and math geniuses.

As long as colleges admit unprepared high school students at one end, and award diplomas to English-challenged graduates at the other, freshman writing is not going to improve.

“Educational Malpractice K-3”

“Teaching College Students to Write”

2 Responses

  1. Please excuse the typo in my comment. I meant to say:

    “It’s reasonable to object that these students should never have been admitted….”

  2. Allow me to respond to your critique.

    I think my article is “making the viral rounds” because it nails an important truth that is rarely talked about–that a significant percentage of students in a freshman comp class (maybe 25%) cannot write complete sentences, and cannot correct their own fragments and run-ons.

    It’s reasonable to object that she students should never have been admitted to college–but the last I checked, time does not run backward. Any writing teacher has to deal with the students who show up in the class. No writing teacher can go to the administration and say, “I’m firing you all because you are admitting incompetent writers.” I wish we could. We all wish we could.

    And it is also true, really true, that incompetent writers have been made that way by their barely competent high school teachers.

    It’s basic teaching and basic common sense that a young person produces behavior that is reinforced. When teachers give As and Bs to high school writing riddled with fragments, these students come to believe they know how to write. And that really, really happens. I face students who cannot tell a fragment from a real sentence, and they explain, “But I got good grades in high school–I never flunked.” Their inability is this entrenched: were I to tell them, “You have ten fragments in this paper that must be fixed” they would say, “I can’t tell where they are.”

    The wide variation in high school training can be seen in the fact that students from poor inner city high schools (for example, Lawrence, Mass.) attempt to write with incompetent sentences in a way that students from well-off suburban towns (Westford, Mass.) do not.

    I appreciate link and welcome debate on this important topic.

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