Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Our Students Can’t Write

Preparing K-1 teachers to teach writing is one effective solution.

A recent New York Times article entitled “A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction” (Goldstein, 2017) focuses on a major educational problem: Our students can’t write. In fact, this "wakeup call" isn’t new. We have been hearing this clarion call for more than one hundred years. The article zeros in on the current virulent debate about which approach is best—The Writing Process or Basic Skills. This worn out, tired, sleep-inducing debate has basically been put to rest by psychological research and neuroscience. So what do educators need?

We need to be child-centered in the context of meeting kids where they are functioning—when they enter kindergarten. We need to motivate children as writers. It’s crucial to teach basic skills like spelling and handwriting explicitly. Children need a dictionary of academic words in their brains that they can retrieve for writing. Children have to listen to or read poetry as well as good fiction and nonfiction literature to feed their brains as writers. Writers have to have academic vocabularies and deep knowledge for thinking. And vocabulary and background knowledge have to be taught—especially for children in low-income neighborhoods and for English Language Learners who don’t grow up in an English language-rich environment.

To accomplish these curricular objectives teachers need proven, evidence-based practices that have grown from both progressive education and basic skills movements.

The not-so-new wakeup call exposes an important education policy problem on which all educators see eye to eye: “The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves.” (Goldstein, p. 8) The problem—lack of preparation for teaching writing at their grade levels and lack of “knowing how to get started”—is evidence-based and reported by educators in both approaches' camps, with multiple studies showing that (1) how to teach writing isn’t taught in teacher preparation programs and (2) teachers in both camps report lack of confidence.

The Goldstein article poses the question: “Could there be a better, less soul-crushing way to enforce the basics?” For kindergarten and first grade teachers or anyone working with beginning literacy, the answer is “Yes, there is a way.”

Kid Writing in the 21st Century (Hameray, 2017), a just released staff development book, prepares kindergarten and grade 1 teachers to teach writing and monitor student progress from squiggles and pretend writing to proficient writing by the end of first grade, including poetry writing, narrative, opinion, nonfiction, coherent paragraph writing, and basic skills. It presents the specifics of how to teach writing in kindergarten and first grade that are the missing pieces in the more global K-6 Units of Study programs touted by Lucy Calkins (the Progressive group), and the more global K-8 work of Judith Hochman, the opposing founder of the Writing Revolution back-to-basics movement who espouses sentence-level mechanics, worksheets, and a less child-centered emphasis. In both cases, the programs being touted lack the specifics that K-1 teachers need such as showing exactly how to get started, how to integrate basic skills, what skills to integrate, how to monitor progress, and how to connect the child’s beginning writing to phonics, spelling, and beginning reading.

If you are an administrator who wants to help your K-1 teachers know how to teach writing, get Kid Writing in the 21st Century for your schools. If you are an academician helping prepare teachers to teach beginning literacy, use this book in your courses. If you are a parent worried about your child learning how to write, get this book for your child’s kindergarten or first grade teacher. If you are a homeschooler, get it for yourself. The book not only includes the evidence base from the latest work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, it is comprehensive and synthesizes the last twenty years of best practice. It addresses both camps in the virulent debate without being shrill or casting aspersions. It’s a child-friendly and teacher-friendly desktop companion any kindergarten or first grade teacher will use for a lifetime.

And if you are a follower of Lucy Calkins and/or Judith Hochman, perhaps it’s time to end the war between expressive, Common Core-aligned writing and explicit teaching of basic skills. It’s better to enhance your respective strong programs with this book that will give the specifics for accomplishing a surprising number of shared goals.

At the end of first grade, kid writers know stuff and they show it on paper. The Kid Writing book guides teachers by showing how to use child-friendly intensive and explicit instruction, how to observe and record each student’s developmental progress, and how to produce tangible outcomes parents and administrators can see. Kid writers enter Grade 2 with mostly grade appropriate spelling, handwriting, vocabulary, sentence construction, coherent paragraphing, and folders with pieces they have written in the expected genres demonstrating new background knowledge and voice. There is 2017 research that shows Kid Writing practices improve students’ end-of-first-grade reading scores (Ouelette & Sénéchal, 2017). Kid Writing in the 21st Century answers the call for a less soul-crushing way to enforce the basics and educate kids that can write.

J. Richard Gentry PhD, a researcher, writer, and consultant, is the author of 16 books and two textbook series. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.


Feldgus, E., Cardonick, I., & Gentry, J.R. (2017). Kid writing in the 21st century. Los Angeles, CA: Hameray Publishing Group.

Goldstein, Dana. A wakeup call on writing instruction. New York Times, 2 Aug. 2017.

Ouelette, G. & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology. 53 (1) 77– 88.