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Why Can’t College Students Write Anymore?

What other skills are being lost among students who demonstrate poor writing skills? Read More

I am an immigrant, so English

I am an immigrant, so English is my second language, and I love it. I am not a language purist, languages evolve and change. So maybe there is nothing to worry about.
However, I also believe that we cannot truly know what we believe, or think, until we write it down. Poor language skills may also represent poor thinking skills. I do blame technology for the decline in writing skills. What I notice in young people is an inability to pay attention. Young people think the same way they write, and the only way they write is through text messaging. If an idea cannot be conveyed in a few short words, then the idea is not worth paying attention to. A poor vocabulary is to thinking what color blindness is to painting.

Wuz he be talken bout? I

Wuz he be talken bout? I means like there be their? Dis guy be two wite fer me!

They cannot write because

They cannot write because they are no longer expected to write much of anything in schools. Also, they do not read much written in standard, grammatical English so they have little sense of what that is.

I have seen BS degreed people struggle for hours to write a simple paragraph describing a lab procedure. This kind of writing need not be lyrical, but it must be absolutely clear and unambiguous. Most younguns now believe that technical writing means using a lot of multisyllable words and as much verbiage as possible.

I believe that if you cannot write about something, then you do not understand it, either. There are a frightful number of degreed people who know a good deal less than they think.

Why Student Writing Ability is Declining

Speaking as a teacher of three decades, I think perhaps the move toward "testing" during the past 10-15 years has really affected writing ability. Why? Because there is only so much time in the day. To make time for testing, SO many other things have had to drop out of the curriculum. For example, teaching handwriting is one of those things. Foreign languages are another. I'm afraid writing is another. The amount of time spent teaching writing IN ELEMENTARY school is only a fraction of what was spent when I was in elementary school in the 1960s. We see middle school and high school students struggling with learning to write 5-paragraph essays. When I was in grades 5-6 we were expected to produce hand-written reports of about ten pages. Teachers in middle school and high school wonder why their students can't write. It's because completely insufficient time is devoted to it now in elementary school. Middle school teachers think their students have been taught in elementary school, and elementary teachers think they will be taught in middle school! Even traditional classes in spelling are just not happening in many schools. Spelling text books through the early 90s were still used, that had spelling lessons grouped according to a certain principle, for example, presenting their, there, and they're in the same lesson. A lot of schools aren't even using text books any more in order to save money. A lot of teachers are using haphazard things off the internet, and some students may never get these lessons at all. That particular lesson, on their, they're, and there, is usually presented traditionally in spelling text books in grade 3, grade 4, and again in grade 5, to catch all the students who didn't catch it the first time around. I don't think this is happening any more. Also, to teach writing properly, one needs to spend a lot of time correcting it and giving particular lessons. Many adults are not good writers, and that includes many elementary teachers, too (although some are). A few elementary teachers spend a LOT of time on writing, but those teachers are few and far between (and some of those who do greatly under-teach math, for example, because the TIME has to come from somewhere)!

Why Student Writing Ability is Declining

" We see middle school and high school students struggling with learning to write 5-paragraph essays. When I was in grades 5-6 we were expected to produce hand-written reports of about ten pages. Teachers in middle school and high school wonder why their students can't write. It's because completely insufficient time is devoted to it now in elementary school."
One of the paradoxes is that teachers spent such a lot of effort 100 years ago proving that they deserved professional status. A byproduct of this was "Education" as a new intellectual discipline, with its own corpus and methods, flagged by B.Ed, M.Ed. and PhD degrees in "Education." This lasted for most of the 20th century despite that suspicions arose that the whole enterprise was bogus, a mistaken disciplinarization of skills nursed and taught by teachers for 500 years.
We can perhaps detect the change in teachers' college curricula. A century ago candidate teachers had to know English, mathematics, languages etc., at least better than their future pupils, and on top of that learn Educational Method as well. Over the decades Method came to dominate the teachers' college curriculum, taking for granted that candidates knew before entry the English, mathematics, languages etc. that they would later teach. Perhaps justifiable in 1920 or 1960, this was no longer by 1990 a safe assumption, and tuition in Method could not make up for the reduction in knowledge of the core curriculum.

An Self-Indictment?

Your run-on paragraph and your propensity to blame others and circumstances beyond your control is really an indictment of the so-called education "profession". Education used to be a profession about forty years ago. Today the only way education is a profession is in the same sense that prostitution is the oldest "profession".

We are entering the information age, yet our schools have the entire growing season off and weeks off during the school year. There is little reason teachers do not have a 220-day school year just as people in the rest of the work force have a 220-day work year. Forty more school days a year might give teachers the time Ms. Diligent seems to think she needs which she believes has been sacrificed to "teach to the tests".

I have been hearing that claim about having to "teach to the tests" for at least twenty-five years. I have the same reaction to that claim today as I had years ago: If you teach and teach well, your students will do well on the tests. If you teach but teach poorly, you will find yourself having to teach to the test (and maybe even as happened in Atlanta help your students cheat on the test.)

Our schools have divided their days up into 50-minute segments with bell to announce the end of the period and the beginning of the next period. We appear to be training (not educating) the students for jobs in factories, jobs which largely no longer exist.

The teachers then try to carve the subject matter into nice neat 50-minute segments placing heavy emphasis on teaching to the test rather than teaching the core material.

I left teaching because the newly minted teachers were not well versed in their subject matter. They were well-versed however in political rhetoric and in making excuses for why Johnny won't learn. I suspected those excuses were often autobiographical. As quality older teachers retired and were replaced by the I-know-everything (even-though-I-know-nothing) teachers, I packed up my belongings and decided to use my doctorate in physics in a research setting. I discovered the average IQ of the people in the research laboratory (including the clerks) was about 30 points higher than what I saw in the teacher's lounge before the influx of the know-nothing-excuse-makers. When did I leave the classroom? 1978. Not quite thirty years ago, but close.


One can only agree that "our standards in literacy is similarly on the decline".

Good writers are good

Good writers are good readers. I would guess that reading amongst school age children is also on the decline.

Confirmation bias?

I'd be interested in seeing a controlled study, where papers from the past few several decades are evaluated by professors blinded to who wrote what paper when. Because your judgement that recent students write more poorly is likely due to confirmation bias.

Writing and Mind

Writing, a grand discipline, shapes the mind and heart. Those who cannot write do not read; and so their moral and intellectual growth is stunted. A student who cannot express ideas in a sentence or paragraph cannot think and cannot recall to mind the knowledge he may have acquired. That which he learns is lost. The great voices of history, philosophy and literature are silenced. Such wisdom as he may acquire is shallow, empty and useless. Text messaging will not deepen his character. Shakespeare's Hamlet, were the student able to read and comprehend Hamlet's struggle set in Shakespeare's iambic lines, would breathe into his soul a new life. If one is to learn the art of writing he must first learn. Students today have little to write about. Once, teachers used to refer to this intellectual sickness as ignorance. Today it is merely "cool."

"Why Can’t College Students Write Anymore?"

One reason may be that college instructors and the editors of Psychology Today no longer know that any more is two words, not one.

And then there are

And then there are highfalutin style with not much substance in writing. Ideas and arguments may also be lacking, despite the flowery words and expression, like something that can be short and concise is expressed in too many words. Do you also notice that?


Jezuz! Wood a noed dat a teach wood say not muh falt!

I've Noticed as Well

As a current student in college, I've noticed that many of my peers are often times decent to downright pathetic when it comes to writing standard English. I had an acquaintance who used "woman" every single time she should have used "women" in one of her essays.

I also love how someone above mentioned the bravado scenario as I like to call it, where people think that utilizing heightened diction alone takes their writing to another level, but the actual substance of their papers is inadequate.

The most disappointing thing, in my opinion, is that too many people shy away from the less popular punctuation marks, such as the semi colon, parentheses, and dashes. What's worse than that is what appears, for many, to be an aversion to utilizing commas. I personally would rather read a paper where someone used a few unnecessary commas as opposed to one where someone used too few commas.

I'm no writer, nor do I aspire to be one, but I think that I at least have an acceptable understanding of how to write standard English, one by which one can judge that most of my the mistakes I make are simple typos and not errors that are indicative of any serious, fundamental knowledge of English writing.

I've always considered formal essay writing to be an art, one that should bring structure and critical analysis together. The best essays I've read not only have great analysis of the essay topic, but they also utilize more complex sentences (the latter is, in my limited experience, more absent than the former).

a lifelong fractured attempt at surrealist pedantry

I agree. In high school, back in 2000 or so, i was appalled/startled/disappointed/terrified when i wrote a paper full of bs, to test a theory about my teacher, which later proved disturbingly accurate when the idiot teacher called it genius. i jstu kind of stared at her... my god. this self-absorbed creature is teaching us? My god. I know i sound like a troll here, but I was very shaken by this realization about this teacher and similar attributes across the board, in student and teacher alike.

What... do they not even see the shadows on the cave wall at Plato's place anymore?

I endeavour to believe this is all soem kind of evolutionary brink, that at the other side we shall glimpse rainbows and unicorns... and a return to competent contextual thinking, before the seething debacle starts pu again.


A complete mess

The problem is complex.

Elementary students spend far less time being read to (and reading) books for the pure pleasure of reading. Everything done in schools must be assessed via rubrics, and a child is far more willing to write a book report on a simple book than one with complex themes and challenging vocabulary.

Toddlers also are harmed by the increasing trend towards picture books with fewer (and simpler) words. Many parents report that they have little time to read to their children, and many specifically ask for books with mostly pictures (or the dreaded interactive computer apps). Half of the Caldecott winners and honor books in recent years have been entirely wordless books. Books we all know as classics of the past would likely never be published if they were submitted to publishers today. Fairy tales, fables, authors like A.A. Milne, books like Wind in the Willows. Books need a hook that makes them ripe for a Hollywood movie soon after publication. Many kids see the movies and skip the books. Tolkien is a great example.

Handwriting is also a contributory issue. There is a strong link between critical thinking and actual handwriting (not keyboarding). Schools encourage keyboarding for ease of reading and grading. Schools also have - as a whole - lost the battle over cursive writing. Fewer kids write cursive. Everyone is texting in short, non-grammatical bursts.

A complete mess. We're all to blame.

Everyone lives in a silo

and most of the writing they do is for friends, family and colleagues in that same silo (email, text messages, memos to team members). Since all these people already know most of what they are going to say, sharp writing skills are not needed to communicate the message. Because they get instant positive feedback on their texts (LOL, :+) OMG!!!) and emails and memos, they believe that their writing is more skillful than it actually is. Any teacher or editor who says otherwise is just a dumb curmudgeon. So they put no effort into learning the rules of grammar or standard written English. I am not a teacher so I don't know if things are getting worse among students, but I am a professional editor and I have definitely observed that the writing skills of beginning professional writers have declined, while their opinion of their own writing ability has gone through the roof.

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Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.


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