Students lack practice in wide array of writing genres

Last winter, before covid 19 closed schools and eliminated statewide exams, I was tutoring Georgia students for the writing portion of the ELA state exams they faced.

Almost all of the writing portions of the exams required responses to reading.  A student would read a short passage and then be asked to answer a question about the passage.  A more complicated response might require a student to read two passages and combine information from both passages to answer a question.  Both kinds of writing tested reading comprehension.

In preparing for their exams, students might think that the only important writing required of them was responses to questions about reading passages.  “Why did the author call the dog “That Spot” instead of just Spot?  Use details from the passage to support your answer.”  “In what way was the bird in The Secret Garden similar to the horse in Black Beauty?  In what way were the animals different?  Use details from the passages to support your answer.”

The kind of answers required by the exams was short answer responses:  two or three sentences for some responses, or maybe five or six sentences for others.

Some students I tutored had been taught in school to start every answer the same, and to use a fill-in-the-blanks approach to writing.  “One way the bird in The Secret Garden is similar to the horse in Black Beauty is ____.  [Give a detail.]  One way the bird and the horse are different is ____.  [Give a detail.]

Unfortunately, high scores on the exams are so important to school’s and teachers’ reputations that the main focus of the writing program is how to answer these kinds of questions.  Almost no essays.  Almost no book reports.  Almost no responses to current events.  Almost no journal writing.  Almost no poems or letters or research reports.  Almost no science experiment reports.

For most of the students I teach, coming up with their own topics tortures them.  They don’t organize a topic because they haven’t practiced that skill in school.  Revising?  They don’t do it because they don’t know how.  A first draft is good enough.  Editing means correcting spelling errors.  All they know how to do well is answer short response questions.

We are teaching children to be skilled adults.  How many adults are asked to read a two-page passage and answer comprehension questions about it.  “Read this section of the debate between Vice President Pence and Senator Harris.  In what way were their responses similar?  In what way were they different?  Use details from the passage to support your answer.”

Teaching for the test is limiting our students’ ability to write.  It is limiting the genres they practice.  It is limiting the research they do and combine meaningfully in writing.  It is limiting the expression of their own ideas.  It is limiting their thinking.

The curtailing of state exams in spring 2020 was probably good for student writing.  Or rather, it could have been good if students instead practiced other kinds of writing.  Hmm.

What would Jefferson, Lincoln, and Kennedy think?

President Trump “might finish his presidential term without ever speaking a complete sentence—subject, object, predicate,” critiqued conservative columnist  George Will in The Washington Post two days after last week’s presidential debate on September 29.Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word

While Will’s words are an exaggeration, they contain a truth:  President Trump often speaks and writes in disjointed phrases rather than in complete thoughts.  Perhaps this is because his preferred method of writing is tweets—tiny bursts of information which dispense with the rigors of grammar. 

I wonder what past presidents would think of Trump’s fragments?  Cerebral Jefferson—who composed his classic sentences using elegant Eighteenth Century logic?  Plain-spoken Lincoln—who crafted beauty and compassion from one- and two-syllable Anglo-Saxon words?  Poetic Kennedy—who relied on myriad figures of speech to inspire his generation and ours?

What words of Trump will be remembered by posterity?  You’re fired?

You be the judge: good writing or bad writing?

Read the following and decide:  good writing or bad writing?

The magnetic shapes come in vibrant colors like red, orange, yellow, Kelly green and magenta.  They can be connected to form two- or three-dimensional forms.

 Kids can construct cubes, tetrahedrons, hexagonal prisms, hour glasses and hearts.

 This toy is made with 360-degree rotating magnets inside, so each side connects with a perfect fit to the side of another piece.

 With these geometric shapes of squares, triangles and hexagons, kids can develop mathematical and geometric understanding while playing.  Even three-year-olds can do it!

Here’s my take.  See if you agree.

  • The passage talks around a topic (a magnetic toy), but the passage doesn’t state a main, controlling idea. Is the toy new? Is it unlike any other toy?  Does it develop math skills in toddlers better than other toys?  What is the point of the passage?
  • The passage contains details, but they are presented in random order. Is the color more important than the forms the shapes can be made into? Is the magnets’ fit more vital than the toy’s educational value?
  • Without an overall controlling idea, a conclusion can’t emphasize it. The ending is fun, but does it state the point of the passage? What is the point of the passage?

So my take is that this is bad writing.

Show political leanings through dialog

From many studies* of how politicians speak, writers like you and me can glean insights into how to write dialog for fictional conservative or liberal characters we couple in discussion

Studies show that conservative and liberal politicians speak differently.  In general, conservative politicians

  • use simpler language than liberal politicians, and
  • prefer short statements—simple sentences—expressing one thought.

Liberal politicians, in general,

  • use more complex language than conservative politicians, and
  • prefer longer, more complex thought structures—compound and complex sentences—expressing qualified thoughts.

How can we use this information?

Suppose you have created a character—let’s call him Mr. Conti—whom you want to portray as a conservative.  Maybe he hails from Texas, votes Republican, accepts the teachings of a church which he regularly attends, wonders about global warming, and supports a pro-life organization—all qualities associated with conservative thinking in the US.

Suppose you have also created a character—let’s call her Miss Libby—whom you want to portray as liberal.  A native of Boston, perhaps she votes Democrat, has stopped attending church, teaches physics in a high school, and wears a mask everywhere during the covid 10 pandemic—all qualities  associated with liberal thinking in the US.

To further differentiate Mr. Conti and Miss Libby, you can use dialog.  For example,

Miss Libby:  Oh, this heat!  I heard on NPR that it might rain later today, but the showers will likely be scattered.

Mr. Conti:  Rubbish!  My arthritis is aching.  It’s gonna rain.

Miss Libby:  According to the meteorologists on the Weather Channel, satellite imagery shows a clear though humid atmosphere this morning.  Any rain later will be haphazard.

Mr. Conti:  Satellite battelite.  When my grandma’s bones ached, it rained.  When my momma’s bones ached, it rained.  My bones ache.  It’s gonna rain.

Miss Libby:  You demonstrate such confidence, such surety, about the weather, Mr. Conti.   Is it innate?

Mr. Conti:  Nothin’ innate about it. It’s in bones.

As a writing exercise, try writing dialog between a conservative thinker and a liberal one.  Choose a nonpolitical topic and see how you can show political thinking thought vocabulary and sentence structure.

*For more information on the studies, go to a recent article in The New York Times using this hyperlink:




black or Black?

In the 1950s and 1960s, the correct word was “Negro.”

In the 1970s, the terminology changed to “black” and then to “African American.”

Now in the 21st century, “black” has again predominated.

But with so much attention lately focused on racism and particularly unconscious racism, the question this summer is “black” or “Black”?

On June 19, the AP Stylebook, the longstanding rulebook for print journalists, changed its policy about referring to Black Americans.  Now using a capital B in “Black” is preferred in a “racial, ethnic or cultural context.”

In the two weeks since, several prominent news outlets have made the change.  They include The Los Angeles Times, NBC News, The New York Times, and the USA Today Network.

Why does it matter?  Media reflect culture.  Most large media outlets are owned and run by white males.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, they have used a lower case b which Black Americans have interpreted as condescending.  (In contrast, media focused on a Black audience such as Ebony Magazine have long used a capital B.)

Our culture is changing.  This subtle change in a single letter reflects this change by the most powerful media in our country.  They have looked at how racism can be shown in something as simple as a single letter.  And to their credit, they changed.

As Aretha Franklin sang a generation ago, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”—now with a capital B.