For a long time, professors on campuses across the country have complained that students are incapable of writing well. But what if the issue is actually with the writing instruction that the students receive?
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, columnist John Warner argues that “faculty members frequently ignore the real challenges to teaching writing and the impact of poor instruction that many students receive,” and that other problems include “the way standardized tests evaluate writing skills, and the reliance at many colleges on adjuncts to teach writing.”
Noting that “professors lamenting about student writing is as old as professors and students,” Warner says that research indicates that “the number of errors in student writing have been largely consistent over time.” Warner dismisses the often-hypothesized idea that technology is to blame for modern students’ writing problems, noting: “If anything, technology is causing students to write more than ever before.” New technology, Warner says, actually offers professors “an opportunity…when it comes to helping students learn to think and write in the ways we would like them to in academic contexts.”
Significantly, Warner criticizes academia’s approach to the popular, widely-known “five-paragraph essay:”
The five-paragraph essay is more avatar for the problem than the problem itself. There’s nothing troubling about essays with five paragraphs, but the “five-paragraph essay” comes coupled with some very troubling things.
The primary problem is the practices which attach to the teaching of the five-paragraph essay, and the totalizing system of accountability which privileges the teaching of the five-paragraph essay. Prescriptive rules such as: a thesis must be the last sentence of the first paragraph, the last paragraph must start with “in conclusion” and restate the body paragraphs, and each paragraph should have between five and seven sentences do not help students learn the basic skills of structure and argument. They help them create what I call “writing-related simulations” which pass very basic muster on surface-level assessments, but don’t actually help students learn to make better arguments or think in the ways we expect in college.
Effective argumentation is about learning to make choices consistent with audience, purpose and message (the rhetorical situation). The way the five-paragraph essay is employed as prescriptive practice actually prevents students from practicing those far more vital and complicated skills.
As part of the solution to student writing issues, Warner states: “We need reasonable class sizes, well-trained instructors who are given the time and resources to continue to develop their teaching practices, and professional pay that allows for the establishment of a stable teaching force.”
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