In a world of snaps, tweets, and texts, it’s no wonder many students struggle with writing. In an academic environment, this is particularly frustrating for students and teachers alike. Students often struggle to express themselves in the long-form fashion expected in school, while teachers lament the difficulties involved when helping students who struggle with writing essays but eagerly indulge in social media posting. In fact, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, cited in a recent New York Times article, three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing. That’s not a small number.
So how do teachers create an environment where students are able to master long-form writing? The essay isn’t going away, and long-form communication will always be an important method of analysis, argument, and expression. It’s a crucial skill in today’s society, where reports, speeches, and articles make up much of our communication.
While more students are struggling with long-form communication than ever, teaching them to write isn’t impossible. Here are a few strategies for parents and educators who want to help students become better writers.
Slow down and ensure mastery before moving on.
These days, long-form writing is not unlike learning a foreign language for many students. The method in which they are accustomed to communicating — via short text messages, quick social media posts, and non-written media — follows its own set of rules. And while these rules are valid for short-form, social communication, they won’t get students far when sitting down to write an essay.
Because long-form writing is so different from the way students are used to communicating, it’s important to approach the topic with patience. The successful creation of a long-form essay begins with the successful creation of a single sentence. These are the building blocks of writing well, and it’s important to put a strong foundation in place.
If a student is struggling to write an entire essay, it may be a sign for you to back up and slow down. Look at individual sentences as an initial method of instruction, and worry about stringing them into longer essays once this is mastered. Yes, even if they are older students who “should” have mastered sentences years ago. If they haven’t, it needs to be revisited.
Pay attention to the method of delivery.
Writing on a phone is inherently different from writing on a laptop, which is different from writing by hand. Each method of communication follows its own conventions. Students tend to be most used to writing through their small mobile devices, not by hand or even on their computer. This isn’t a failure on the part of educators, but rather a natural progression of society. Mobile phones are ubiquitous. They are a means of fast, constant communication, and following the rules of grammar and sentence structure often impede with the speed and ease of conversation.
While each method of communication has its place, students may need more practice writing a long-form essay on their computer or by hand. Take time to offer different methods of writing, so students can be accustomed to the different conventions and understand their purpose.
Offer a combination of both structured and flexible writing opportunities.
Few people enjoy grammar drills or sentence diagrams. And research has shown that sitting through a series of dull-drum diagramming exercises can do more harm than good. That doesn’t mean, however, that providing structure will not help students.
An understanding of convention is needed to understand why writing a certain way is preferable in long-form. Providing a basic structure is important. Rather than having students memorize a litany of rules, dive into the meaning behind the rules. Why is it important to include both a subject and a predicate? Why must verb tenses remain consistent? Why do abbreviations so common in mobile messages (LOL, JK, SMH, etc.) fall short when applied to long-form essays?
By encouraging discussion around these conventions, students are more likely to grasp the differences (even if they don’t always agree with them), and then remember them when writing for themselves.
On the other hand, allowing students the freedom to free-write, without regard for the convention is also important. Students need an opportunity to get their thoughts out without being hampered by the rules. In this case, providing brainstorming opportunities that are then revised to follow proper convention can be effective.
At the end of the day, it’s a combination of these two things that will lead to the greatest results.
As an instructor or parent, it’s important to remember that the world of writing is always changing. It isn’t a bad thing or a good thing. It’s simply the evolution of society as technology becomes more entrenched in our everyday lives.
These tips will help you establish the differences between writing casually and writing a long-form essay that meets academic expectations.
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