Learning to Write: When Does It Actually Happen?

A federal report released yesterday says students in the United States lack writing proficiency. The study, conducted last year, tested the writing skills of samples of eighth and twelfth grade students. They were allowed to use a word processing program, complete with spell check (thank heavens), dictionary and thesaurus. The result? Twenty percent of eighth graders and twenty-one percent of twelfth graders scored “below basic”. Only twenty-seven percent of students in each grade level were considered proficient or advanced.

I wasn’t even surprised. I know what a chore it is to get my third-grader, who is very bright, to write a sentence with more than four words in it. And my seventh-grader, also a very good student, considers a page and a couple of lines to be a two-page essay. And then I can also remember my own school days—back when you had to hand-write reports. Remember then? Remember when your teacher told you write a five hundred word essay on the American Revolution, and you painstakingly wrote exactly five hundred words, pausing to count every few minutes to see if you’d written enough? Remember saying “very, very” so you could get two words for the price of one? (“The American Revolution happened in 1976 and it was very, very bad. Lots of people died.”) Remember all the adjectives you stuck in to help you obtain the required word count? (“The British wore really bright red coats with really bright white x’s across their chests, so Americans called them Red Coats.”)

(Ha ha. I laugh. I’ve been writing five minutes and have already achieved 225 words. And according to my spell check, they’re all spelled correctly, too.)

Even in college a thousand words seemed unachievable. I remember wondering how on earth doctoral students ever came up with 20,000 plus words to write about a single subject. I also remember the D I received on my first English literature paper.


So, really, I wouldn’t have scored too well on the national writing exam, either, in either eighth or twelfth grades. I learned to write in college. I can’t remember the name of the professor who taught me what it means to write a real research paper, but I’m very grateful he took the time to do it. I hope he knows I continue to put one word in front of another in my march along the literacy path.

What does this mean for the students of today? Is it hopeless? Is this another sign that our education system is broken? Nah. Teachers will continue to teach and students will continue to (albeit reluctantly) learn. As their brains mature, the smarter ones will grasp the concept of writing persuasive essays, just as they always have. If they take their writing to the next level, they’ll figure out how to leave out the adjectives. But most of this will come after high school, unless they’re lucky enough to go to a school that helps them obtain life experience before leaving the nest.

And hey, maybe some of them will even become romance writers. That would be very, very cool, don’t you think?

(For the record, this essay was more than five hundred words. And I wrote it in less than half an hour.)

(And, ahem, I found no less than three typos in the course of editing it!)

2 thoughts on “Learning to Write: When Does It Actually Happen?

  1. I was just thinking about something similar for the last couple of weeks and especially last night, which was when and how we learn to absorb what we read. My memory can be horrible at certain topics, or at digesting information presented in certain ways; yet I can remember a small little piece of writing for years if it strikes me the right way. I bet you are really on to something with feeling that people really learn as we get older.
    Haha, really, really. I do have a vague memory of using such wonderful, useful, and intelligent tactics.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Jennifer. I think you might be onto something about how bits of information stick with us when presented in a certain way. I believe poets and humorists are masters at this. After all, who will ever forget the Soup Nazi’s “No soup for you!”? And Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” should not be easy to remember, but I can quote bits of it from memory.

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