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Tyre & Weinberg: During pandemic, parents are learning their kids can’t write very well. The dirty secret: They weren’t taught how. Some strategies to help

Peg Tyre and Phil Weinberg | April 16, 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic means kids are learning at home now. But parents are also getting a new kind of education.

Historically, schools have functioned as a kind of black box. Many teachers and administrators wanted parent engagement — but it was available only to a point. Most commonly, parents were invited to see the results of the education process — an A+ on a test or a grade on a report card — but rarely were they invited into the educational process. Over the last few years, as some schools adopted electronic platforms, parents started getting more real time information about what teachers assigned and what their kids completed. But now, suddenly, all over the country, parents are working elbow-to-elbow with their school-aged children. They’re getting a full-on view of what’s new and what’s going right and wrong with their kids’ education.

One of the first things that parents might notice, at least in New York City where Phil used to work, is that kids need to know different content and a lot more of it than in years past. In New York and in other states where standards are high, teachers are knocking themselves out trying to get kids to comprehend a wide breadth of global history, a surprisingly deep understanding of science, the durable concepts behind arithmetic that open the door to more advanced math, and new and more varied examples of great literature.

The second thing parents might notice is that their kids likely can’t write very well. To be sure, they are not alone. Only one in four eighth and twelfth graders can write at a level the federal government deems “proficient.” As for advanced writers, their numbers are very small indeed and mostly clustered in affluent schools.

This deficit hits home for parents from all walks of life. Working adults know that there are few jobs that don’t require at least some form of email communication. And poorly written emails make a bad impression. We know we will eventually begin the long struggle to shake off the stunning economic downturn created by this pandemic. Therefore, the ability to express ideas with clarity and precision through the written word may decide whether your now grown-up child gets a job or not.

Why do students write so poorly? Mostly, it’s because they haven’t been taught how to do it. For the most part, teachers don’t provide instruction on how to use the building blocks of language to create powerful sentences that can be combined to form thoughtful paragraphs and wonderful essays. In general, writing itself is not assessed on statewide exams — it’s just the mechanism by which students are often tested. Much of what schools spend time teaching —and what grad schools spend time teaching pre-service teachers — is driven by what states assess.

Schools need to teach kids how to plan, outline and review. Why aren’t they being taught it? The dirty secret is this: We actually don’t know the best way to go about teaching writing. Unlike so many of the crucial areas of education, we do not have a clear set of standards regarding writing instruction. We have no broad understanding or agreement about what our students should be prepared to produce or when they should be prepared to produce it.

Until we figure that out, there are a few simple but important things that almost any parents can do to help their children become better writers. Look at their writing. Ask them things like, “What is your thinking behind this idea?” “What is the key thing you want your teacher/me/other students to know after reading this?” “Is there a better way to express that?” Ask your child why they chose a particular word and whether it accurately conveys their meaning. (Hint: Often, not so much.)

Make it clear that you understand that writing can be hard and that no one gets it right on the first try. Be vulnerable enough to discuss your own struggle to write well (it is something we all share). Moving your fingers over a keyboard looks like writing, but in fact, it’s only the first step. Reading your rough draft, sharing it with others, reflecting and revising — that’s writing. And go find your child some of the supplemental writing instruction tools that are currently online so that can help them practice. (Quill and Writable are good places to start.)

When U.S. schoolchildren return to their bricks and mortar classrooms, it is unlikely that the relationship between parents and schools will return to what it once was. Parents know more. And the hope is that knowledge will be power: They can advocate more forcefully and directly to make sure their children are prepared to write well so they will have real options when it comes time to choose a college and career.

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