Studies show importance of writing skills

The College Board’s National Commission on Writing for America’s Schools and Colleges has sponsored a series of well-publicized studies on the importance of improved writing among the younger generation over the past five years.

Surveyed leaders from business and industry, government, and education have been of like mind, seeing a sweeping crisis that merits universal attention if the United States is to remain a global leader.

“It is a matter of being competitive internationally,” College Board president Gaston Caperton said in 2003 with the release of The Neglected “R,” a study that Warren Buffet, the world’s richest man from Omaha, read and suggested that thoughtful Americans from all walks of life should study and act upon.

Clearly, the message is getting through, with teenagers and their parents now believing that “good writing is a bedrock for future success,” according to a new national survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the National Commission on Writing.

Eight in 10 parents contend that good writing skills are more important now than they were 20 years ago, and 86 percent of teens believe good writing ability is an important component of guaranteeing success in later life.

“We are encouraged in a significant way,” Bob Kerrey, former U.S. senator and chairman of the National Commission on Writing, declared after studying the Pew survey results. “We are all on the same page.”

Most teenagers – 87 percent – use some kind of electric personal communication and yet 60 percent of 12- to 17-years-olds said they do not think of these forms of communication as “writing.”

Because of the dramatic changes in writing that have resulted since the advent of the Internet and mobile devices, the writing commission thought it was both timely and relevant to partner with Pew on the research.

Interestingly, teens (82 percent) also said they would like to write better but feel disadvantaged because their teachers did not spend enough class time on sharpening writing skills. African-Americans and those from lower-income households were the most ardent believers in the value of writing and the likely payoff of more class time devoted to it.

More and more teachers are growing defensive of student and societal criticism of them in the area of writing, citing ever-increasing teaching loads at all levels of education. Some of them see creative and increased reliance on technology and argue for more teaching assistance in the classroom.

According to Richard Sterling, executive director emeritus of the National Writing Project, teachers are short-handed in the pursuit of better writing among the young.

In American schools, writing is a common activity with all teens doing some required writing for the classroom; 50 percent of them say they do some writing for school every day. However, most writing assignments are short: 82 percent of teens say their typical writing assignment is a paragraph to one page in length.

Teens do write for fun, with 93 percent saying they write for themselves outside of school at least occasionally. The challenge is, it would seem, to take students’ love for writing and use that affinity to help them write better.

In their utilitarian approach to technology and writing, teens use both computers and longhand depending on circumstances. Their use of computers for school and personal writing is often tied to convenience of being able to edit easily. And while they do not think their use of computers or their text-based communications with friends influences their formal writing, many do admit that the informal styles that characterize their e-communications do occasionally bleed into their schoolwork.

Young people in the survey do appreciate the chance to choose topics relevant to their own lives and experiences, and the chance to write for teachers and other adults who challenge them. Teens feel encouraged to by opportunities to write creatively and like having an audience for their work.

The National Commission on Writing believes the findings of the Pew study point to both success and challenges for policymakers. The 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress Writing Assessment shows improvement, though modest, at the basic level for eighth-and 12th grades students.

Success can be slow, but the commission asserts:

¢ Writing is critical and needs to be part of all conversations about school reform;

¢ Teachers need more support;

¢ Research is the key to understanding the effect of digital tools on learning and can help us determine what uses of technology develop skills that are useful in learning school curricula.