kitchen table math, the sequel: 'Writing, writing, writing' - a skill lacking among too many college graduates

Thursday, December 15, 2011

'Writing, writing, writing' - a skill lacking among too many college graduates

Jeff Selingo wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about what he learned from employers who are having a difficult time finding qualified employees to hire among recent college graduates.  This was just one problem he found.
Writing, writing, writing. We keep throwing around the word “skills,” but it seems the one skill that almost every job requires is the ability to write well, and too many graduates are lacking in that area. That’s where many of the recruiters were quick to let colleges off the hook, for the most part. Students are supposed to learn to write in elementary and secondary school. They’re not forgetting how to write in college. It’s clear they’re not learning basic grammar, usage, and style in K-12.
Why are students not learning to write before they get to college?  Maybe a different type of writing instruction is needed?

(Cross-posted at Cost of College)


Anonymous said...

Maybe actually writing something....

What I noticed with my son was that by 4th grade he could type his papers, so his teacher let him. He rarely wrote anything out.

Grade schools don't like the idea of teaching mere handwriting--they're more interested in Lucy Calkins and "tell me how you feel." My joke several years ago was that my son was an expert on the letters in the sentence, "I played ball. It was fun."

They don't want to teach cursive because they think that's a waste of time, so a good number of hours just practicing for fluidity are pretty much gone as well.

Spelling isn't all that important because they'll just pick it up later. Unless they don't.

When my son reached 8th grade he could barely write out two sentences without his hand hurting. He still avoids taking notes like the plague.

Journaling taught him, once again, that bad spelling (not to mention bad syntax) was no big deal as long as you were expressing yourself. When I finally saw his year-long 7th grade journal that he kept at school I nearly had a heart attack viewing his many mispellings and mistakes that no one ever corrected, and that were basically seared into his brain.

I spent a good deal of eighth grade forcing him to write paragraphs, mostly summaries, by hand to flush out what he really knew or didn't. When were the errors one time things, and when were they true gaps? I realized that the teachers had no way of knowing.

State tests that help schools decide where to place your child next year are still handwritten. SAT/ACT essays are still handwritten.

It isn't just math you parents of young ones need to worry about.


TerriW said...


It isn't just math you parents of young ones need to worry about.

It was concerns about current math teaching methods that brought us to homeschooling in the first place, but over time I've come to realize just how many different things that are important to my family are downplayed these days. I think my head would explode if I had to deal with all that.

Explicit teaching of grammar, teaching of writing in the early years using copywork & narration, cursive, sentence diagramming, Latin, a daily "memory period" where we just recite the things we're currently working on memorizing.

Not that homeschooling is all sweetness & light, but the pickings are slim in the Twin Cities (and many of those slim pickings tend to have lengthy waiting lists or are across town) if you happen to share my educational values.

But, realistically, it's easy for me to get all worked up about schools ignoring the desires of The People when I'm here on KTM. But out in the real world when I'm talking to other moms, it's pretty clear they'd rather stab themselves with a fork than go down that path.

Child-centered! Child-Led! "Delight-Driven!" No Drill and Kill! Constructing Your Own Knowledge! Group Projects! Hands-on!

As it turns out, that's what a lot of people want. And to paraphrase Mencken, the districts give it to them, good and hard.

SteveH said...

What I had growing up, and what my son has now for writing are a bunch of process tools; outlines, webs, and organizers of all sorts. He is doing an essay on F. Scott Fitzgerald that requires 2 full drafts and a final copy. He is taught how to collect and organize the material, but I see nothing that teaches him how to write. When does organizing facts and creating interesting sentences turn into writing? What are the key skills necessary to turn facts and opinion into an instructive, moving, or convincing piece of writing? How do you create something that flows well?

Even as I write this post, I am struggling over what to say and how to say it. I am constantly rereading what I wrote. I am constantly going back to change and correct things. I don't like doing a complete rough draft and then going back over it. For most sections, I will keep redoing them until they "sound" just right. I may trash or change a section later, but I rarely do rough drafts. I see little that teaches what I might call this final phase of writing.

Anonymous said...


"When does organizing facts and creating interesting sentences turn into writing? What are the key skills necessary to turn facts and opinion into an instructive, moving, or convincing piece of writing? How do you create something that flows well?"

These are the same questions that I struggled with when, as a mathematician turned biologist, I had to write manuscripts and grant proposals. Luckily, my brother recommended two books: Writing with Power by Peter Elbow and Style:Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams. Working with them changed my writing immensely, for the better. The former helped with fluency - helping tame the "The Editor" who would sit on my shoulder and tell me "that doesn't sound right", "you should revise that sentence", etc. It also taught me to use writing as a discovery tool, figuring out what I really wanted to say. The latter taught me to effectively edit my own writing. Rather than giving a list of rules that are applied piecemeal, Williams' Style describes principles to apply to editing rough drafts. Knowing the principles, I am able to recognize when I am unclear and to immediately rewrite the sentence, paragraph, or section with a clear goal in mind.

These books have helped me and a few colleagues to at least write clearly, but writing gracefully is a life-long pursuit.

The problem with writing about writing is that "The Editor" can be quite loud and nasty - I have banished him in this post. Please excuse any "errors."

SteveH said...

The original problem I had was that didn't even have an "Editor". I am much more comfortable now, but whatever I do I had to create myself. I will get the books you recommend to see what I can learn and introduce to my son.

Catherine Johnson said...

I wish I could remember the details of a conversation we had with the director of The Jewish Museum in NYC. I think we were talking about selective schools, and he said that the museum hires from those schools because the graduates always write well.

Catherine Johnson said...

Carolyn told me a great story about the importance of being able to write. When she and Bernie were trying to switch from academia to the private sector, they had a hard time finding work. Eventually, she was hired (as a mathematician) because she said she liked to write.

Catherine Johnson said...

Last but not least, a mom in the next town, whose daughter is doing fantastically well, told me: The tech companies all need writers.

Her daughter majored in history at NYU, then was hired by New York City to do something having to do with technology....

I think she's featured in a Vogue article this month.