Why students find it hard to write

A gruesome pandemic drama, says VINAYAK CHAKRAVORTY

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Why students will not write and what we can do about it

There has been much made about falling writing standards in recent times. Numerous academics, teachers, and others have proffered views as to why this is so. However, not one article actually asks students why they think writing standards have fallen.

I asked a wide range of students of different ages, schools and school stages about writing and have grouped their responses. What they said is important and must be understood by parents, teachers, bureaucrats and politicians. Until their perceptions are understood we will not have a complete picture of the issues that need to be addressed to improve writing standards.

Students are afraid of the unknown

Many students express that they are afraid because they do not know what to do when given a written task. Some of these students are ‘perfectionistic’ in the sense that they will not try for fear of being wrong. Others are not perfectionistic but are confused and uncertain. These students say that some teachers do give them explicit writing structures and have clear expectations that these be followed. However, most do not. This means that students approach tasks under confident in most classes. A blank page can be daunting and if students are directed to ‘write an essay’ or ‘read and summarise’ they have no idea where to begin. Teachers, they assert, do not role model how to do this, though they will help in giving ideas about what could be included.

Each subject tells us something different

Students feel confused by the different requirements between subject areas. English teachers have an approach to writing that differs to that of History teachers, Science teachers, Social Sciences teachers and other teachers. This confuses students who want to do well in their subjects but do not know why writing requirements vary according to curriculum area. This fact is never made explicit because teachers do not address writing collectively, they only do so at a subject level in individual classes.

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Teachers may not mark the written work they set

Teachers who ask students to write, in many cases school English Departments asking students to write an ‘essay per week’ do not get their written work marked for weeks, if ever. Students find the whole exercise of writing under such circumstances completely devaluing. In addition, when work is marked students may be given a mark out of twenty and a few ticks and crosses, but they may not be given meaningful feedback that assists students to progress as writers.

It is not relevant in the real world

Students say that extended writing or essay writing does not reflect the real world. They say that in the ‘real world’ people discuss problems, they write structured reports and they have conversations, drawing on the expertise of those who know. In this context the idea of writing extended pieces or essays carries with it a sense of disconnect. Why should students write if it isn’t going to be discernibly useful in their lives?

My teacher screams at us

A few students report a rather disconcerting additional behaviour that reduces their interest in writing. They say, “my teacher screams at us if we do not write well.” They talk about teachers “telling them what to do but do not show them how to do it.” I do not know many students who feel more robust or more confident after being shouted at.

Some students are good speakers but not good writers

Some students find that they are much more confident speaking than writing. However, they are not encouraged to use ‘voice to text’ features available in word processing because teachers are not even aware that the technology exists. Moreover, when they do use it, their use of it is not understood because the feedback they get on their work is irrelevant to the processes that structure text around spoken drafting rather than handwritten drafting.

Using word processing is easier

The cut and paste functions on word processing means that students find drafting by computer easier and less daunting than by handwriting. It can be changed, shaped, corrected, subject to a word count and integrate research far more easily than any handwritten piece. They say handwriting is harder because the words cannot easily be moved around. They therefore leave large ‘white spaces’ between paragraphs in case they need to write more, but teachers’ critique ‘white space’ and construe it as being anathema to structured writing. To me it seems clever, in the context of low self-confidence in writing, to use white space.

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The world is changing

With the rise of smartphones, laptops in schools, widespread internet connectivity and social media over the past 12 to 15-years students do not read in the same way that was done in previous generations. Most student’s lives feature communications around short text, short messages, symbols and emojis, likes and so forth. Comments may be limited to 140 characters. Most students do not read books or extended pieces, and most do not even read aloud. They prefer video, aural texts and songs. Most information they interact with is in the form of visual media.

As a result, perhaps it is time for the education system to accept that we live in time of discontinuity. At such a time, if we are to embrace the digital world then then there will be adaptation to the styles of writing that must be accommodated. One such adaptation may be to change our expectations around long-form writing. 

Perhaps assessment too needs to adapt to a world where essays, though beautiful at some point in time, are most largely irrelevant. Teachers could be more aligned in understanding that writing can be taught across all curriculum areas simultaneously.

I find that students may be encouraged to write but their efforts should be marked, returned with constructive feedback that shows both ‘how and why’, given context and be done in consideration of the huge difficulty faced by students with respect to writing.