By Doug Ward
After third grade, elementary students spend little time on in-class writing assignments, even though research shows that additional time improves both the quality of writing and the comprehension of written work.
That’s the distressing news from the Hechinger Report, whose recent article explores research in K-12 writing instruction. In English classes, U.S. students write an average of 1.6 pages a week, and most assignments (in English and in other classes) usually require a single page or less. The main reason: Most teachers say they don’t have time to grade frequent assignments.
Research also shows that grammar instruction continues to diminish. Researchers say, though, that traditional grammar instruction – learning grammar rules and diagramming sentences – doesn’t help students in grades three through seven learn grammar and can actually hurt students’ writing ability.
“Grammar instruction has declined in U.S. classrooms over the last 40 years,” Hechinger says. “But that might be because there isn’t much writing instruction going on at all.”
Neither of those findings should surprise college instructors who work with student writing. My own school (journalism) is struggling with just that. More and more, we have to teach what would have once been considered remedial writing and grammar. We can no longer assume that students arrive at college knowing how to write clearly or read in depth. Those who can, excel.
Of course, curmudgeonly professors have for decades complained about students’ lack of excellence in writing, so it’s often hard to tell whether things are truly deteriorating or whether those of us who teach writing are just growing jaundiced with age.
One thing is certain, though: Most students need more practice – and instruction – in writing.
So how do we do that at the college level?
CTE offers several resources to help instructors use, evaluate and assess student writing. Nearly 40 faculty portfolios address use of student writing in some way. The annual publication Reflections from the Classroom frequently addresses writing, and CTE’s Essential Guide to Teaching at KU offers advice on such topics as developing and grading assignments, and engaging and mentoring students. I’ve included a few specific resources below.
Megan Williams of American Studies explains use of reflections over readings, online discussion posts and a group reflection essay to help students explore American identity.
Myunghyun Oh of math explains use of writing assignments in differential equations classes to help students communicate their understanding of course material.
Kim Glover of libraries writes about her move to smaller, scaffolded assignments to help students progress toward a longer annotated bibliography that served as the final project for an online class.
Judy Postmus of social welfare explains her use of critical reflection of scholarly ideas, layering of concepts, and adaptive assignments to help a wide range of graduate students improve their writing and critical thinking.
Stephen Johnson of English explains how he used small writing assignments that helped students build up to longer essays in Introduction to Poetry.
Sharon Bass of journalism explains a rethinking of her approach to teaching writing by focusing on high-quality writing assignments and feedback – things that helped students learn the most – rather than volume of assignments and volume of feedback.
Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.