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.

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