Friday, March 28, 2014

The Death of Writing: Back to Dictation.

I promised myself that whatever happens, today there would be a blog post on the Broo. I also made a commitment to start posting more regularly, at the very least every Friday.

But I woke up this morning still not knowing what the topic would be. When the time came for me to sit at my laptop, I searched through my draft folder, but nothing in it felt fresh or inspiring or ready for further elaboration. As the hours ticked by, I decided to turn to the news to see what's happening in the world, and to leave it to the Universe to send me the signal later. Sure enough, right there on the front page of the Daily Mail was a story about a scandal at the University of North Carolina where an athlete wrote an elementary level  one-paragraph essay about Rosa Parks and received an "A" on this "final" essay in African-American history.
The paper: This is the essay on Rosa Parks that received an A- that Mary Willingham produced as evidence of apparent academic fraud on an ESPN special timed to coincide with March Madness


On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the  white people section on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. 
During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. 
Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. 'Let me have those front seats' said the driver. 
She didn’t get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. 
'I’m going to have you arrested,' said the driver. 'You may do that,' Rosa Parks responded. 
Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them 'why do you all push us around?' 
The police officer replied and said 'I don’t know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.

Yes, it's pathetic. Many are asking, who's to blame? But the story and the whistle-blowers involved in telling it are really missing the point. They are making it seem as if this fraud only happens when it comes to keeping semi-illiterate athletes on the school's sports teams.  What the story is actually covering up is the fact that the writing quality of MOST young people born after 1980 is atrocious! The elephant in the room here is the clear shift in priorities that have occurred in educational institutions, a shift from being institutions of academia and intellectual growth and curiosity, to institutions that prioritize sports, help produce a population of Apple products-crazed young consumers, and offer degrees with major holes in them (no pun intended).

The sorry fact is that we have an entire generation of young adults today who can't write a complete paragraph if their lives depended on it!

When I began teaching in the early 1990s, Bill Clinton dictated that all schools and children of all ages should be wired and on the "Information Super-Highway"within five years (yes, the wreck started way before No Child Left Behind). It was after that time that I became the writing specialist at the school in which I worked. What got me this new position were the results that my ESL (English-as-a-Second Language) students were getting on the Virginia Literacy Test, which was the only standardized test for 6th graders at the time, and it measured basic writing, reading and math ability. When George Bush became president and brought us NCLB, students in all grades had to be tested on these three core subjects and more, on a yearly basis, starting in SECOND GRADE. As a result, children were given pens and computers in kindergarden and drilled in the alphabet and phonics and made to write....whatever..,just write. The idea was to let them write freely, even if their writing was incorrect and they had nothing to say.

At the middle school, a writing coach of sorts was needed to figure out how the school was going to meet the new writing standards at the new 8th grade level, and I got the position. My first task was to develop a writing curriculum that prepared students for the the state writing tests, because until then, there had been none.

Even though I was able to take our school-wide testing scores from "failing" to "average" in the first year alone, I still believed that the skill of writing was endangered in the next generation unless we stopped allowing students to learn how to write on machines before teaching them how to read and how to formulate thoughts and express ideas. I knew we had to stop forcing children to write before their fingers were big enough to properly grip writing tools and navigate keyboards. I knew that young children learned by emulating, and the less we spoke to them, the less they talked; and the more we placed them in front of machines, the more likely they were to start resembling machines.  This over-reliance on technology really scared me and caused me much professional frustration.

When I first started my career in teaching in the early 1990s, I was aghast at the lack of emphasis there was on grammar in the U.S. primary schools, but I still had the freedom to teach it. By the time the early 2000s rolled around, I started seeing student essays that mirrored text messaging and chatting language. And today, we have a Rosa Parks paragraph that passes for an A-worthy essay--perhaps when compared to a Twitter message it might be considered so.  Yes, folks, we have a new generation of T'writers quickly killing American literacy!

What we are witnessing is the emergence of an entire generation that doesn't read much beyond the 150 characters allowed by Twitter, or the short blurbs of nothingness on Facebook and in phone text messages they send and receive. Yes, I'm generalizing here, but most young people today don't read much beyond required school texts. They can't recognize good writing because they don't read good writing. When I was growing up, I remember my brother sneaking extra time reading chapter books under the bedsheets with a flashlight at bedtime. Today, kids spend endless hours under their bedsheets obsessively reading abbreviated gossip and nonsense that can seem to have no relationship to the English language.  The problem with the education system today, is that there is hardly any literature left in these young adults'  lives for them to have any literacy!

Though I left that position in 2005,  I hear that my methods and materials are still in use today. But things have clearly gotten worse since then, too.

So what did I do back then to help my students write better? Well, I had many tricks up my sleeve as I helped them to unlearn the bad writing habits they had developed as a result of early media exposure. But one of my best secret weapons, which was frowned upon and perceived as old fashioned in 'modern' education practices, was weekly DICTATION tests. Based on my my own learning experiences and on much research that I did in this area, I was convinced, that it was the best method for embedding the skills of grammar, proper sentence construction, punctuation, and idea elaboration without having to drill these skills in my students, which allowed me time to teach other important skills.

It's very simple and costs nothing extra (which are attributes public schools seem to dislike as opposed to money-wasting complexities that require wasteful teacher-training time and usually fail to make any difference). Basically, all I had to do was assign the students to study a relevant passage approximately 100-150 words long. They had to learn to spell all the words in it, recognize where the punctuation belongs, and use capitalization and homonyms appropriately. On the day of the dictation test, the students were handed a blank piece of paper, and they wrote the sentences down as I read them aloud in fragments. I repeated each sentence once, and finally I would read the passage in its enirety at the end of the test, giving them a few minutes to make any corrections before I collected the papers. It worked like magic. The students' writing became better in every way, and their interest in their writing improvement also soared! This method doesn't by any means replace teaching the writing process and composition skills, but it sure helps improve the quality of writing mechanics and vocabulary usage.

According to, "Dictation is a decoding-recording activity. It is the act or process of dictating material to another for transcription. Oller (1979) defines it as a "psychologically real system that sequentially orders linguistic elements in time and in relation to extralinguistic context in meaningful ways."

The vast merit of dictation has been underestimated and ignored in modern education practices. I can't think of anything else that can be as effective and cost-effective, and save the skill of writing, which is drowning in the ocean of information snippets we live in today.

If I was still in the business of teaching writing, I would be pushing for schools at all levels to return to dictation testing in every subject. It's a simple method that not only improves writing, but also greatly improves the lost art of penmanship, listening skills, and recording skills. Young children learn by copying. Let's give them high quality speech and high quality text to copy, rather than low quality abbreviated language that comes from addictive little machines. But I'm not in this business anymore, so I'll rely on certain Broo readers to help make the push (wink wink, nudge nudge ,TS).

Thankfully, my son attends a Waldorf school, where the mass media are unwelcome teaching tools in the classroom, and discouraged at home; and where the skill of writing naturally emerges in each student individually, after a strong oral tradition is laid out in the foundation of language acquisition.

How can we expect children to write, when they can barely read or speak in complete sentences anymore? Seriously, WTF?

Keep your ears on...