Stop the Presses

Communication, a continuing challenge


by Mike Kroll


Recently we learned that Galesburg school children continue to struggle with writing as measured by the statewide assessment test. This should come as a surprise to no one. As I have written before in these pages, the local school system does an admirable job teaching most of our children math and science but English is our Achilles' heel. Some local teachers have taken me to task for comments such as this in the past but I believe the evidence is clear to most that if Johnny and Mary become good writers they are in the minority of Galesburg children and they do so despite our local schools.

Why is this such a problem for the Galesburg schools? Well the point is that our local schools are hardly alone in this deficiency. Teaching children to write well is far more challenging than most realize and much, much harder to systematically measure. Writing is also a developmental skill that not only takes time and practice to improve but also depends upon intellectual growth in a range of seemingly unrelated skills and knowledge. Writing prowess grows alongside one's vocabulary and is heavily dependent upon the development of critical thinking and reasoning skills. And, perhaps most importantly, good writers develop through exposure to good writing and no one ever became an accomplished writer without first developing the habit of reading.

Another issue is that unlike most other subjects the responsibility for teaching writing cannot reasonably be left solely to composition teachers. Written communication, just like oral communication, must be nurtured throughout the entire school curriculum. One of the glaring weaknesses of our local schools is how little writing we ask of our children and how little constructive feedback they receive.

Today's school children write far fewer papers than in my youth and despite the clear editing advantage offered by computers today guided rewrites are almost unheard of. Hell, when my sons took sophomore composition at GHS their final exam was multiple choice! Nothing has done more to reduce the development of writing than the almost universal adoption of multiple choice tests.

There is but one reason for the existence of multiple choice tests and that is the ease and apparent objectivity of their evaluation. They reduce the amount of a teacher's work involved in a grading but they also deny our children not only the opportunity to express themselves in writing but they simultaneously deny them the valuable feedback and shaping that can only come from well considered teacher comments written beside written responses. Multiple choice tests don't elicit evidence of conceptual understanding but rather recognition of “facts” memorized for the short-term. In many cases our children never even see what questions they missed or get the opportunity to discuss why one answer was better than the next.

If I were king of our local schools the very first thing I would do would be to drastically curtail use of multiple choice tests and to begin requiring teachers in nearly all academic subjects to begin using short-answer essay tests and returning graded tests with useful comments to students. This will certainly require more work on the part of many teachers as well as students but if our teachers are truly determined to address the sorry state of writing skills this is a challenge for which student, teacher and parent alike must step up. This approach will also mean that we must put more emphasis on the writing skills of our teachers-- all of them, not just those who teach English.

As I mentioned earlier reading and writing are interdependent and complementary skills. While developing a strong reading habit early on in our children is essential to strong academic progress they do not become good readers solely by reading. Perhaps the most critical skill for both reading and writing is the almost ephemeral one of the development of intellectual curiosity and critical thinking. As our children absorb information from books they need to evaluate and digest it to learn the very valuable life lessons that (a) just because it is in writing doesn't make it true, and (b) a true scholar learns that “truth” is an inductive entity more commonly found in shades of gray than black or white. Our children must learn to challenge ideas and our teachers must rise to the occasion and welcome thoughtful challenges in the classroom.

It is critical to our students that they evaluate and communicate not only what they read and are taught but what this means to them and us in the bigger scheme of things. We have an obligation to teach our children that they must evaluate a wide range of data and not simply assume that something is true because they read it in a book or newspaper or on the Internet and certainly not just because a parent or teacher tells them so. Today most such communication is done orally through in-class discussions; an important and valuable teaching method but far from complete. Discipline and precision in expressing our ideas is seldom accomplished through extemporaneous oral discussion and often the standard of acceptable evidence is far too lenient.

Our children will become better students in general and far better readers and writers if we greatly increase the amount and range of both reading and writing they are asked to do. And all of their teachers must insist on high quality written responses from their students whether they teach chemistry or economics. The standard must be that written responses be in complete sentences and cogent paragraphs with the ultimate goal of expressing the thought rather than filling pages. We should never require our children to write ten pages of drivel when a single page of clearly written prose would suffice.

Reading and writing can and should be fun and both the goal and the evaluation of a written product should turn on how clearly and readably it conveys an idea. We need to teach our children that writing is not a mechanical and formulaic exercise because they already know that nobody wants to read such crap. There is no point in writing something no audience enjoys reading and individuality of expression is a key ingredient to good writing. Like any good art form good writing defies simple-minded “objective” analysis and will therefore never be properly evaluated through some standardized test, however cleverly designed.

Now we get to a real controversial but important issue. If becoming a good writer requires considerable experience as a reader what must we do to get our children to develop a life-long love of reading? The very least we can do is to alter the way we teach literature so as to stop telling our children that the only books worth reading are old and seemingly obscure and written in a form of English that may as well be a foreign language. We need to reward our children for reading regardless of what they might choose and need to incorporate well written popular novels that are both relevant and comprehensible to our children.

We also must reprioritize our investment in and use of school libraries. The libraries in our local schools today are an embarrassment. They are too small and their content is far too narrow and safe. We apparently chose books that are safe from controversy and affordable rather than for their academic rigor or general appeal to students. And we use our school libraries in a manner that actually undermines the goal of nurturing broader library use by our children. Nothing will teach out children to dismiss the general value of libraries better than for them to learn that their school library almost never has anything interesting or useful when they seek it out and access to that school resource is severely limited by design.

And finally as responsible adults and models for our children we need to demonstrate good habits of reading and writing for our children. I cannot tell you the number of homes I go into where there is absolutely no evidence of any reading material to be seen – no books, no magazines or newspapers, not even a TV Guide by the big screen television. Just about every home has a television (most likely multiple TVs) and it is often on most of the waking hours of the day.

As adults most of us simply do not read enough or express ourselves in any disciplined way orally much less in writing. Too many of us foster the idea that reading and writing are necessary exercises that must be tolerated as part of the obstacle course that is American education today. Yet we wonder why Johnny and Mary don't become good readers or writers and we treat that small group of children that master these key skills as somehow exceptional. We have institutionalized intellectual lethargy and illiteracy even as it becomes increasingly clear that the absence of such skills may well doom our children and community into a downward spiral. But hey, docile and accommodating dummies have their advantages don't they?