Writing skills

Oct. 21, 2014


In this venue and in the pages of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, I have argued and tried to show that success in college involves much more than academic skill. One person I like to quote to substantiate my argument is Dr. David Conley of the University of Oregon. Dr. Conley is a leading researcher of college readiness and has authored many papers and books on the subject. I ran across an October 2013 interview with him by Project Information Literacy of the University of Washington. The interviewer asks what it means to be college ready in today’s world.


Heartening to me, Dr. Conley said that eligibility for college and readiness for college are not the same. He explained that eligibility means that the student has taken challenging high school courses and done well, and has done well on standardized and admissions testing. Readiness, however, “implies that the student’s preparation is well aligned with the full set of knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education. The emphasis here is on being able to succeed, not just on being admitted.”


As Toward College Success stresses, those skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education also are skills needed to succeed in life. I simply call them life skills, and a young person needs to have the basics in life skills well honed when he or she leaves home after high school—for whatever is pursued. Without those skills, being admitted into college does not equal being successful in college.


Dr. Conley has construed a college readiness model that includes “12 components and 41 specific aspects that the college and career ready student needs to master to be fully ready.” They include cognitive strategies, content knowledge, learning skills and techniques, and transition knowledge and skills. Included within these are skills such as self-awareness, motivation, help-seeking, time management, and many others that are discussed in Toward College Success.


In the interview, Dr. Conley explains that testing, course selection, and grades are the components that easily convert into policy. The problem is that those components do not show the full capabilities or inadequacies of the student. Determining whether or not a student is truly “college and career ready” is more complex and much less easy to assess than a test—once again, this is a primary message in Toward College Success.


Dr. Conley also is asked about his insistence that teaching research skills is important for college success. He states that his research shows that most high school students are not assigned many research papers, and those that they are assigned are usually required to be several pages long. High school students are not learning how to investigate, analyze, hypothesize, and organize a shorter, accurate, concise well-written paper—the type of paper that is more often assigned in college. Then, unfortunately, once in college many of these students do not seek help with their writing because they do not has self-advocacy skills.


And on and on. I recommend reading the interview at http://projectinfolit.org/smart-talks/item/80-david-conley-deconstructing-college-readiness and looking for more of Dr. Conley’s work on the subject of college readiness. I also recommend reading Toward College Success!


Oct. 29, 2013

One of my biggest concerns has come up again in “education” news—that of the dismal writing skills of far too many students. Matthew Lynch recently wrote in his Education Week blog that a recent study by Michigan State Professor Gary Troia found that “K-12 writing standards are stagnant from a decade ago, along with student writing achievement.” Troia goes on to say that “nearly 25 percent of K-12 students in the United States are not performing at a proficient writing level.”

As I have written before, in his extensive research on college readiness, David Conley of the University of Oregon professor and Director of the Center for Educational Policy Research has found that proficient writing is the most important academic skill for success in college. I also have written that writing skills are critical communication skills, and that no matter what job or career a young person chooses, being able to write clear, well-organized, concise papers, emails, task orders, proposals, reviews, critiques, and even notes shows that the employee is professional, pays attention to detail, and strives for quality.

I also have written that too often middle and high school teachers skimp on writing assignments because they require so much time to grade, followed by corrections, rewriting, and re-grading. Yet, it is precisely during these years that students need to develop their writing skills.

Lynch made some good suggestions to improve writing proficiency in K-12.

·         Teach keyboarding earlier than third grade, as is the current standard. Lynch points out, correctly, that kids are savvy keyboard operators as soon as they are introduced. A recent National Public Radio story discussed how quickly toddlers under age two learn to operate a touch screen on Mom’s phone or tablet. Lynch goes on to say that as young students learn keyboarding, they also learn spelling, reading, composition, phonics, and improve memory skills.

·         Writing should be an interdisciplinary focus. There is reading material on every subject, so it follows that every subject should include some writing—and be graded on the proficiency of the writing as well as the subject matter. Lynch writes: “Writing is a must-have skill in the global economy and one that will be needed in some capacity for every career. We can’t let students off the hook if writing is simply not their strong suit. Writing is a skill that anyone can master with enough practice and its practical applications need to be emphasized in every subject area.”

·         Lynch’s last point echoes Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?: “College is not the place where students should receive remedial help on their writing.” Professors assign papers assuming students already have the skills to research, compose, edit, and meet assignment deadlines. Students without those skills will indeed struggle in college. Lynch challenges K-12 to put writing on the “pedestal it deserves. It is the foundation of K-12 academic success and workplace achievement. If we put writing on the back burner, it has the potential to damage every other subject area and hold our students back from their true achievement in school and life beyond the K-12 and college years.”

Well said. Writing skills are essential to college success. To read Lynch’s article, go to: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/education_futures/2013/10/improving_k-12_writing_standards_what_will_it_take.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW

July 30, 2013

Before long, students will be back at school learning their new schedules and getting their routines down. And while many seniors will be filling out college applications, this is a good time for younger students to consider that college application. No need to fill out an application two or three years in advance, but it is important to consider how equipped your student will be to complete a winning application. What younger students do with their “free time” is almost as important as their grades in securing a spot at the college of choice.

College applications not only ask for grades and test scores, the school also wants to know about the student’s extracurricular activities. Colleges want well-rounded students who are used to being involved in organizations, participants in school and community events, and who volunteer for causes of all kinds. They want students who already know how to seek out service or activity-related groups that interest them. Students who get involved on their college campuses have a better chance of success than loners or those who hang back.

In a recent GoLocalWorcester College article, writer Cristiana Quinn listed 10 activities that colleges like to see on student resumes. Student government, debate teams, and academic teams such as robotics or science were among the academic type of activities that score points with colleges. Involvement in such groups or clubs indicates leadership, critical thinking skills, and the willingness to work hard outside of class time to achieve a goal.

Also on the list was participation in the arts, with the school newspaper or literary magazine, and in clubs that supports diversity, such as a gay-straight club. The arts show creativity, contributing to the school newspaper shows an interest in writing—the academic skill most needed in college—and participating in a diversity club indicates a student that is tolerant and open-minded. Again, all skills that lead to success in college.

Of course, community service made the list. Quinn stated that community service is actually a “must,” and that most colleges want to see at least 50 hours per school year. The activity doesn’t matter, so a student should find somewhere to volunteer that matches her passions or interests. She could be a side walker for a horseback riding therapy clinic; he could volunteer at the local animal shelter; she could read stories to children at the library—the opportunities truly are endless. Community service indicates a student willing to lend a hand, make a difference, and be involved—characteristics that appeal to college admissions officers.

I was happy to see that Quinn included part-time jobs on her list. As she pointed out, many students need to work to help out their families or they just want the independence that earning their own money allows. Colleges recognize that holding a job also hones skills that lead to college success, such as time and financial management, commitment, and taking responsibility.

High school students who hope to attend college will improve their acceptance chances if they include meaningful extracurricular activities that improve the skills they will need to be successful in college and beyond.

To read Quinn’s article, go to http://www.golocalworcester.com/lifestyle/college-admissions-10-extra-curriculars-colleges-want-to-see/

May 21, 2013

In keeping with my recent posts, I want to praise another student. This student, however, is an non-traditional student—she is in her 30s and raising two kids on her own—and she is the first in her family ever to attain a degree higher than high school. Antoinette recently graduated from Front Range Community College (Fort Collins, Colorado) and achieved an associate’s degree in computer information systems. Not only was she successful in her first college experience, she wants to continue her studies and earn a bachelor’s degree.

 I know how hard Antoinette worked for this because I tutored her through an English composition course, and because I know her background. Antoinette and I became acquainted through the “Circles Initiative,” a program that teams individuals living in poverty with individuals living in economically-stable environments. Antoinette is my “Circle Leader,” a young woman living in poverty that is motivated and committed to changing her situation for the better. I am one of her two “allies,” meeting with her regularly to offer support, suggestions, and friendship.

 Antoinette studied and built her knowledge of computers, but she panicked when it came to writing a paper for English. It was a delight to watch her improve and grow more confident as I helped her gain confidence in writing. I found that what she needed most was just to brainstorm and have someone to talk over how to get started. Once she got started, she did well—save a misplaced comma or two. In fact, she was awarded 100 percent on the major paper of the semester.

 As relieved as she is to be finished with this semester, Antoinette has bigger dreams. She wants a four-year degree in computer networking management. She had already discovered that the only university in close proximity that offers an undergraduate degree in computer networking management is Regis University. She is determined to get this degree and continue to raise her employability and earnings potential.

 I want Antoinette to be successful in this next college phase, so soon I will sit down with her and help her figure out the finances for attending Regis. It is a private school and Antoinette will have to do some work to find scholarships to make this dream possible. Antoinette has already proven that it is never too late to achieve success in college. I’ve got the feeling she will get that bachelor’s degree as well and find herself on a path to success in her financial situation as well as college.

 To see a picture of Antoinette at her graduation, see www.facebook.com/towardcollegesuccess

April 9, 2013

My initial reaction to reading about software that grades student essays was, “bad idea—really bad idea.” As someone who has reviewed many middle and high school essays, and a lesser number of college essays, I am certain that no computer can give the kind of feedback I give. I also know that few teachers have the time to give the kind of feedback I give, but regardless, specific feedback to student writers is essential to helping them become effective communicators. And as the University of Oregon’s Dr. David Conley, a leading researcher of college readiness, states: Writing is the academic skill that is most critical to college success.

 The new software I read about grades an essay automatically and gives the student numerous opportunities to rewrite until he or she lands a grade that is acceptable. In a NY Times article, Anant Agarwal, an electrical engineer who is president of EdX, the company that created the program, “predicted that the instant-grading software would be a useful pedagogical tool, enabling students to take tests and write essays over and over and improve the quality of their answers. He said the technology would offer distinct advantages over the traditional classroom system, where students often wait days or weeks for grades.”

 I can see that it has an appeal for teachers and professors with large classes. But I also completely understand the view of critics: that “computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.”

 What I thought was particularly interesting in the Times article were the reader comments. There wasn’t a single one in favor of such a grading system. Comment writers pointed out that students will quickly learn how to “please” the computer grading program, turning out papers and essays that give them a good grade, but don’t stretch, challenge, or help them grow as writers. Others commented that writing is subjective and creative—two things that seem difficult for a computer to judge. One mother wrote that her 7th grade daughter, who loves to write, was frustrated by the computer’s scoring on her “poetic” writing style. The daughter changed her writing style to get a good grade from the computer, but later reworked the piece just for herself. The mother wrote: “What a computer cannot provide is an emotional response to students’ writing, however good it may be at analyzing the structural elements of writing. I can see using computer programs to help students build their skills and give them instant feedback. And maybe computers can be useful for teaching how to write informational reports. But at least some students need the learning opportunity of affecting other humans emotionally.”

 I agree with the mother of the 7th grader that the software could be one tool in helping teachers grade papers for specific elements. Yet how would the computer handle colloquialisms or quotes with intentional poor grammar or intentional nonconforming sentence structure or a number of other creative alternatives (such as all the ors I purposely put in that sentence)? I do think this tool will catch on; I only hope its shortcomings will be recognized. There are already too many students that graduate high school, and even college, without solid writing skills. Learning to write well is too important a tool for college and career success to be left solely to computer grading.

 To read the NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/science/new-test-for-computers-grading-essays-at-college-level.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0&pagewanted=all

March 5, 2013

Last week I was talking with a couple of friends, one of whom teaches classes at a nearby university, the other who grows and distributes fresh veggies through her community supported agriculture (CSA) business. My teaching friend explained her frustration last year when she was teaching an online course. She missed direct contact with her students and she found problems more difficult to resolve. She also explained that over half the students dropped the class—a percentage that was quite distressing to her, although she was told that high dropout rates usually occurred with online classes.

 She gave the example of a student who turned in a required paper that was full of grammatical errors, unorganized, lacking in citations, and, at times, incoherent. Instructions with the assignment clearly stated that she expected papers to be grammatically correct and properly cited (she is not an English teacher). She wondered how that student was surviving college with such poor writing skills. I wondered how he graduated high school and was accepted into college—who missed that? As I’ve said here before, good writing skills are essential to college success.

 My other friend said poor writing skills are common everywhere. She told us about a business associate with whom she corresponds. She described the woman’s writing as sloppy—full of grammatical and spelling errors. The woman is apparently well-educated—she just doesn’t take the time to produce well-written business correspondence—it doesn’t seem to matter to her. However, my friend noticed and she finds it unprofessional. Not only is it unprofessional, it diminishes the woman’s credibility and she comes across as someone who can’t be bothered with detail. Her poor writing skills can damage her reputation—good writing skills are essential not only for college success, but also for career success.

 I have written before that Dr. David Conley, aProfessor of Educational Policy and Leadership at the University of Oregon and who specializes in researching college readiness, has written that of all academic skills needed for college success, writing is the most important. Being able to compose organized, properly cited, coherent, grammatically correct writing directly influences a student’s ability to succeed in college. Those skills also are greatly appreciated in the business world where, it seems, few employees come equipped to write concise, consistent, well-organized reports, proposals, letters, and emails.

 Written communication is essential to college and business success. How do you rate your writing skills? How do you rate your teenager’s writing skills? Is she getting writing instruction in high school? Middle school? In researching Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, I found several middle and high school teachers who said they simply didn’t have time for students to research, write, and revise papers. With class sizes of 25, 30, or more, teachers find they don’t have time to carefully grade and give significant feedback to those students. In addition, teenagers often don’t see the relevance in writing. My vegetable-growing friend said writing didn’t click with her son until a high school teacher suggested he write about a subject significant to him. He chose to write about cooking; he is currently a successful culinary arts student.

 Is that the answer? Let students chose the topic? That may be a good approach now and then, but students also need to learn to research and write about a variety of topics—it never happens that a college student or someone in business always chooses their topic. Good writing communicates clearly, is mostly free of errors, and makes a statement about the writer. The teenager that learns to write well will increases his chance of college and business success.

April 24, 2012

Eighty-four percent of middle and high school students and 77 percent of Fortune 1000 executive “strongly agree that there will be few or no career opportunities for today’s students who do not complete some education beyond high school.”

 That statement comes from the recently released Metlife Survey of the American Teacher: Preparing Students for College and Careers. The report, which surveyed middle and high school students, parents, teachers, and Fortune 1000 executives on the importance of graduating high school prepared to succeed in college, is part of a series that began in 1984 to “give voice to those closest to the classroom.” This most recent survey asks respondents to evaluate the importance of college readiness and what that means.

 Everything that I read about college readiness seems to confirm the focus of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? This survey is no different. I continue to believe that Toward College Success is an excellent resource for parents who want to be proactive in helping their teenagers be college-ready.

 Some of the highlights of this survey include:

  • Forty-eight percent of executives, 54 percent of teachers, and 73 percent of parents believe that “graduating each and every student from high school ready for college and a career” as one of the highest priorities of education. (Toward College Success will give parents ideas on how to boost their teenager’s readiness.)
  • In 1988, only 57 percent of middle and high school students expected they would go on to college. Today, 75 percent consider themselves highly likely to go to college. However, only teachers believe that only about 63 percent of their students will be college ready after high school, and they believe only 51 percent of their students will have the skills and sticking power to graduate from college.
  • And one near and dear to my heart: 99 percent of English teachers and 92 percent of math teachers rate the ability to “write clearly and persuasively as absolutely essential or very important to be ready for college and a career.” They rate that skill higher than they do for higher level math or science.
  • More students worry about how to pay for college as opposed to be accepted into a college.
  • Almost half of the parents believe their child’s school does not provide enough information on how their teenager can get into college or how to pay for it.
  • More than half of middle school students and parents believe their school does not provide enough information about requirements for getting into college. (Toward College Success stresses that parents need to begin evaluating and preparing their teenagers for college success in middle school.)

 As always, the message is: Be involved in your teenager’s education and in and out of the classroom. Evaluate your teenager’s education and get him help if you find deficiencies. Give them opportunities to learn the life skills they will need once they leave home. Help them find the path to success.

 To read the full survey, go to: http://www.metlife.com/about/corporate-profile/citizenship/metlife-foundation/metlife-survey-of-the-american-teacher.html?WT.mc_id=vu1101

March 13, 2012

I just finished grading about 120 8th grade papers on the Holocaust. No, I’m not a teacher, but every year for the last five, an 8th grade English teacher friend of mine, asks me to grade these papers for her. This teacher’s students supposedly build their writing skills toward this big Holocaust paper. In years past, I used to go into the classroom as an aide and coach the students through their writing. Now I ruthlessly mark up their papers, grade them on a rubric, and write them a personal note full of specific areas to work on, before handing them back to the teacher to actually award a grade. The teacher and I both hope that some of the students will appreciate and learn from the thorough feedback they receive from me—ready to move on to high school better prepared to be successful in their writing.

 Unfortunately, I am always dismayed at the writing skills of most of these 8th graders. Too many of them pay little attention to the instructions and lose points for simply not using enough quotes or sources, for not introducing their sources, for using first and/or second person, and for a number of other things for which their teacher gives specific dos and don’ts. When I used to meet with students, I always told them that if they completely followed their instructions, they were guaranteed at least a C. That advice also will serve them well in high school.

 I’m also dismayed at the poor sentence structure of rambling sentences, run-ons, or sentence fragments. I’m also discouraged by their lack of detail and description, and by their list-like attempt at examples. And grammar—well, I think it would surprise many of them that there are actually rules for commas, semi-colons, and apostrophes.

 In a recent Education Week article, writer Stephen J. Pytak, writes that “in the age of Facebook posts, emoticons, and tweets, English grammar may seem like it’s on the road to extinction.”  While those things do enter into “formal” school papers, I think the problem is deeper. Writing is difficult for many students, and when something is difficult, too many of those students work hard to avoid writing, become apathetic about it, or just blow it off by placing themselves in the “writing not’s my thing” category. Any of those approaches will ultimately hurt the student because good writing is necessary for academic success—particularly in college. It’s also necessary in business.

 I’ve written before on this subject, but I will repeat that research from Dr. David Conley, Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, shows that writing is the most important academic skill to master for college success. Good writing is a skill that students can learn if given the opportunity and feedback they need in middle and high school. Parents should investigate their child’s school to be sure that student is getting solid writing instruction and that their child is actually progressing. It is all part of that road to success in college and beyond.

 To read the full Education Week story, go to: http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2012/03/05/mct_patextlang.html?cmp=ENL-EU-MOSTPOP