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Why are you hurting my students?I teach college Earth science at a good school. It's...

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dgriffin | Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted November 11, 2009 at 6:41 PM via web

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Why are you hurting my students?

I teach college Earth science at a good school. It's the time of year when drafts big, high grade impact projects are due, and I'm spending hours and hours marking up horrifically bad prose, and tearing my hair out.

I'm trying to understand how my students--bright, high SAT scores, hard workers--learn to write the way they do.

In particular, I'm hoping some of you can answer these questions:

Why do they insist on using passive constructions to complexify the simplest phrases?

Why do they insist on using complicated tangles of words when perfectly appropriate single words would do?

Why do they insist on writing in 3rd person?

Why are they so devoted to the MLA citation format?

Do they do these things because this is the only way they've been taught to write? Or do they choose these approaches from a range of othe options, perhaps out of insecurity? I really need to understand this. I don't want to undermine their confidence as budding writers, but it's driving me nuts!

Thanks,

Duane

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dgriffin | Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted November 11, 2009 at 6:46 PM (Answer #2)

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I should've explained--the subject line was a question I got from a colleague whose advisees had complained that I was hurting his students' feelings with overly harsh/insufficiently supportive editing comments. Fair enough, though that wasn't my intention--I just want them to write well.

Thanks,

D

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linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted November 12, 2009 at 6:46 AM (Answer #3)

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They do those things because that's what they have to do in order to pass a state-mandated writing assessment and/or the ACT or the SAT essay portion.

My school offers dual enrollment courses to seniors in which they earn credits for senior English and college English 101 and 102. They have to pay for these courses, which are taught by visiting college instructors. A couple of weeks ago, one of my yearbook students who is taking the course said to me, "Our English teacher told us that everything we've learned about writing is wrong." No, I explained, he's wrong. We teach students to write a 5-paragraph essay because the people who score the writing assessments will not give a high score to a 4-paragraph or a 6-paragraph essay. We teach that they have to have three points or three examples or three reasons because the assessors will look for those three examples and give them high marks for organization. Anything less will not be well organized.

Standardized testing is ruining education. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would not be considered master teachers today because they didn't give multiple-choice tests to their students. Imagine answering a question with a question rather than teaching to the test! Bah!

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ask996 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

Posted November 12, 2009 at 4:03 PM (Answer #4)

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How interesting that linda-allen’s state assessments count off for 6 paragraphs. At a recent scoring conference for Missouri’s End of Course exams, state officials indicated that many students who constrained their writing to fit the standard 5 paragraph limited the quality of their writing.

As for Duane’s problem, it sounds as if your kids might be using good conventions for the English classroom, but haven’t been taught what is appropriate for different styles of writing. As teachers, we know that there is a difference between formal and informal writing. There is a difference between creative and more expository or persuasive types of writing. There is certainly a difference between literary and scientific writing. But (and correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not a science teachers) conventions such as imagery, sound devices, humor, voice, pov are probably not appropriate for most types of scientific writing projects. Have you taught them how you want them to write in your classroom? Have you modeled it for them and shown them anchor papers? This might help:D

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djwalker1 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted November 13, 2009 at 9:39 AM (Answer #5)

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In the real world, writing needs to be concise. No employer wants a 10 page essay when a one page summary will do. If there is any requirement on length, it always begins with "no more than" rather than "at least".

In school, we insist that a student reach a certain number of words or pages, regardless of how it effects the quality of the prose.

Thus we punish in school the very quality that is demanded in the real world. Yet another example of how modern education is disconnected from reality.

 

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readerofbooks | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted November 14, 2009 at 10:20 AM (Answer #6)

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Most students do not know grammar, even bright ones. In the past grammar was taught by studying Latin or Greek. Now, with the decline in Latin and Greek, many students do not know the rudiments of grammar. This has been my experience. I teach both Latin and Greek and my students always comment how they are learning about English in the process of studying Latin and Greek.

 

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dgriffin | Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted November 16, 2009 at 11:33 PM (Answer #7)

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Thanks for your insights.

There's something else going on as well. The following is a final draft (after 2 peer edits and one from me) from a student who sends me perfectly lucid emails, but flips into bizzaro mode whenever she has to write a paper.

" Few households boil their water because they simply cannot provide such benefits because of monetary reasons. "

This is just a random sample, but the whole paper is like this. I'm still not sure what her point is.

She's worked hard on this project, but in the end, it's a disaster--a D paper.

 

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mstultz72 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted November 18, 2009 at 6:19 PM (Answer #8)

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Why are you hurting my students?

I teach college Earth science at a good school. It's the time of year when drafts big, high grade impact projects are due, and I'm spending hours and hours marking up horrifically bad prose, and tearing my hair out.

I'm trying to understand how my students--bright, high SAT scores, hard workers--learn to write the way they do.

In particular, I'm hoping some of you can answer these questions:

Why do they insist on using passive constructions to complexify the simplest phrases?

Why do they insist on using complicated tangles of words when perfectly appropriate single words would do?

Why do they insist on writing in 3rd person?

Why are they so devoted to the MLA citation format?

Do they do these things because this is the only way they've been taught to write? Or do they choose these approaches from a range of othe options, perhaps out of insecurity? I really need to understand this. I don't want to undermine their confidence as budding writers, but it's driving me nuts!

Thanks,

Duane

Why are so many students bad writers?

Ask George Orwell.  Read his "Politics and the English Language."   He said this in 1946:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.

What you can do in your class is not tear your hair out about it.  You should not be spending hours and hour marking up bad prose.  Good teachers of writing don't edit papers.  They don't spend as much or more time correcting or commenting on papers than it took to compose them.  That's counterproductive for both the teacher and the writer.  It's negative reinforcement and doesn't usually translate into improvement on the next paper.

Maybe it's the students' fault. And maybe it's their previous English teachers' fault.  And maybe it's your fault.

Not to be negative or nihilistic, but Orwell's right: There's nothing you can do about it.

 

 

 

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tsjoseph | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted November 19, 2009 at 7:51 PM (Answer #9)

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I taught high school and college and a lot of this I attribute to the malady of "trying to sound smart."  Tell students it's an essay and the awkward language tumbles out.  This was true in my literature classroom, so I don't think it's particular to non-English courses.

Something that worked for me was to have students paraphrase their papers to me or their peers.  80% of the time they are more articulate, clear, and concise.  I, or their peers, wrote down their responses.  This worked especially well for thesis statements.

As far as MLA...it's probably because they learned citation styles in their humanities classes.  I usually did a quick lesson explaining why certain citation styles are more appropriate for certain fields, and that generally did the trick.

More generally, I do think that the essay tends to be taught as a rigid form, which is unfortunate.  Its beauty is its flexibility.  I generally taught students a sort of template to work through as a starting place, but I never enforced that template as a rule.  But even in college, my students would wonder how to force their long research papers into 5 paragraphs!  Examples helped a little with this.  Once students started to see the variety of essays out there they loosened up a little.

Nonetheless, writing makes them anxious.  I've had very few fluent writers, even among English majors.

 

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scarletpimpernel | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted November 20, 2009 at 2:45 PM (Answer #10)

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I teach AP and college prep English classes, and I can speak only for my school, but the problem with passive voice is that when my students reach me (as juniors or seniors) they seem never to have heard of passive voice.  Because true grammar teaching has been cut from so many elementary and middle school programs, when I try to correct passive voice or unnecessary verb tense shifts, my students often can't identify the verb; so it's difficult to correct the problem when they can't see the problem.

You will have to encourage your students yourself to write in first person.  My students' previous teachers have told them "never" to use first person; so I spend time in my class teaching my students when first person is most effective, etc.  You just need to specify that yourself.  Most students will write to your specifications, but they must know what you want.

Finally, in regards to MLA format, that is standard for most high school English writing.  Again, if you want them to use footnotes, APA style, etc., simply tell them that.  The problem in my school is that my students write only for their English classes, and I'm not exaggerating. I have had numerous history, science, and math teachers tell me that they do not assign essays or include discussion questions on their tests because they don't feel like grading them.  As a result, students learn to write solely for their English classes.  The only exception that I can think of is that our AP U.S. History teacher teaches a great deal of writing, and the format that he teaches for his AP exam essays is different from mine, but I just tell my students how the exams differ and prepare them for being able to write to my specifications.  You can do the same.  It's hard work, but it's worth it if you truly want better results from your students.

It's easy to blame past teachers, etc., but the bottom line is that you need to set standards for your students, identify and model those standards for your students, and grade based on that.  The students who are willing to work hard will meet your standards, and those who are apathetic would not have met any standard any way.

One last note, with so many students depending on TV and poorly written articles for their sources or reading Sparknotes, etc., instead of exemplary writing, our number of fluent writers will continue to decline.

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cedalton05 | Honors

Posted November 23, 2009 at 10:13 AM (Answer #11)

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In the real world, writing needs to be concise. No employer wants a 10 page essay when a one page summary will do. If there is any requirement on length, it always begins with "no more than" rather than "at least".

In school, we insist that a student reach a certain number of words or pages, regardless of how it effects the quality of the prose.

Thus we punish in school the very quality that is demanded in the real world. Yet another example of how modern education is disconnected from reality.

 

Most writing programs teach a variety of approaches to the task, but young students often rely on the frustrating techniques mentioned because the students are inexperienced and unsure of themselves.  The passive voice removes them from the action, the 3rd person point of view tucks them comfortably into a group, and the MLA format protects them from being accused of plagiarism since they know they don't have profound independent thoughts yet and are relying on what they've read elsewhere.  Developing self-confidence is key to good writing, but most kids don't have that strong sense of identity until they're older.

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linda-mccelvey | College Teacher | eNoter

Posted November 24, 2009 at 6:58 AM (Answer #12)

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Why are you hurting my students?

I teach college Earth science at a good school. It's the time of year when drafts big, high grade impact projects are due, and I'm spending hours and hours marking up horrifically bad prose, and tearing my hair out.

I'm trying to understand how my students--bright, high SAT scores, hard workers--learn to write the way they do.

In particular, I'm hoping some of you can answer these questions:

Why do they insist on using passive constructions to complexify the simplest phrases?

Why do they insist on using complicated tangles of words when perfectly appropriate single words would do?

Why do they insist on writing in 3rd person?

Why are they so devoted to the MLA citation format?

Do they do these things because this is the only way they've been taught to write? Or do they choose these approaches from a range of othe options, perhaps out of insecurity? I really need to understand this. I don't want to undermine their confidence as budding writers, but it's driving me nuts!

Thanks,

Duane

I'd guess they use MLA because most of their writing is done in English class; English teachers use MLA.  If you want them to use a different style manual, teach them what you want.  Ditto for third person.  Formal essays, ala MLA, are written in third person.  As for passive construction, I'm still working on that in my own classes.  It's been my experience that a forest of words comes from the student trying to get his paper up to the assigned word count.

Suggestion:  find a good peer editing form, discuss it with your students, and let them peer edit.  That won't catch every error, but it will catch a few.

lmccelvey

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mathmatique | Student | eNotes Newbie

Posted November 28, 2009 at 8:40 AM (Answer #13)

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You're describing all the ways we are taught to write in high school using MLA, all the complex phrasing that wow-ed those teachers and always using third person.

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nancy-rich | High School Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted November 29, 2009 at 7:46 PM (Answer #14)

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I teach American Sign Language in high school.  My students are required to write several papers each semester from ASL I through ASL III.   Students always want to know "how long" the paper must be.  "As long as it takes. No less and no more."  When given a specific length students will often write gibberish for that space.

As teachers, we become aware of our students' voices.  We can generally determine whether the words are their own or the result of using the thesaurus in "Word".  I often ask for the meaning of a word in my feed back.

I have also taken to using Google to determine if a work has been plagiarized when the words or logic do not seem in line with the student.  This can be time consuming, but I would rather spend the time at the beginning.  Once students realize they are being held to a standard, they work up to expectation and ask questions rather than make assumptions about writing.

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kathyconley2 | eNotes Newbie

Posted December 3, 2009 at 12:14 PM (Answer #15)

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I get the best results when I am clear about my expectations, provide an example, and INSTRUCT my students how to write for the specific assignment and/or field. I teach and have taught almost every subject area, several at the AP and College Prep Level. I lamented the poor writing skills I inherited from previous teachers. When I began to teach what I wanted and provided an example which sometimes I wrote in front of them, I got excellent papers. Our job is to teach, not to slash and burn. I decided that the best learning activity for students is to observe and repeat--that's what modeling does for them. Try it sometime and see if you don't get better results.

Good luck!

 

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daisydharma | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted December 4, 2009 at 6:55 AM (Answer #16)

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I completely agree with the previous post.  Modeling expectations is very important in any class.  Most teachers want their students to come to class knowing how to write.  The sad fact is that many students simply don't know how to write.  While there my be standards in education, there is very little consistency.  This causes confusion and anxiety among students who never know which teachers expect what style of writing.  While the obvious question seems to be "Why can't the English teachers just...", the answer is not that simple.  As an English professional, I know that grammar and vocabulary instruction is important for development.  However, current educational theories and school philosophies are discouraging me from doing grammar/vocabulary studies with my students.  Even though I may not agree with these practices, I must follow the expectations of my school.  Who suffers?  The students suffer, but I can't afford to lose my job.

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melcarter | High School Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted January 14, 2010 at 6:15 PM (Answer #18)

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Having taught several AP history classes, I wholeheartedly agree with #10!  I assumed these "advanced" students would be able to write wonderful papers....I was completely wrong.  I learned very early on that I had to outline exactly what I wanted them to do, I had to give them examples, and we practiced repeatedly.  Finally, they figured out how to write a good historical paper.

Someone told me once that as teachers we can't assume our students know anything that we haven't taught them.  We take the time to teach students our classroom procedures and rules but then assume that they know how to write in a myriad of different formats.  The problem being- they NEVER learned how.  In too many schools, students only write in english classes and advanced curriculum courses.

Good luck with getting your students writing scientifically!

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kapokkid | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted April 16, 2010 at 7:40 AM (Answer #19)

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As an English teacher, I see many of the same things.  One of the difficulties is that many teachers do not teach how to write, they teach how to get good grades.  This will often mean pretentious diction (as you stated trying to say in thirty words what could be said in three) and all kinds of terrible habits.  Trying to sound smart instead of trying to get a point across as clearly as possible.

I spent a great deal of time as an English major learning to write for different professors instead of writing for a real audience.  I actually started out teaching doing the same thing.  Assign kids a book they should read and then ask them to write an essay about it regardless of whether they had anything to say.

They would then look on the internet for possible topics and sometimes plagiarize and I would give them zeros and we would have arguments and everyone was miserable.

As usual, I don't have the answers yet, but I think we could go a very long way to helping if we let students choose the books they wanted to read and found ways to help them write for real audiences rather than just for the teacher and their subjective (even though we try really hard we can't help it) way of looking at what is good writing and what is bad.

My students struggle to see writing as a way of communicating and instead see it as a way of getting a grade.  The two are absolutely not compatible.

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besure77 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

Posted May 31, 2010 at 7:21 AM (Answer #20)

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in addition, maybe some teachers do not know themselves how to write properly so they do not correct their students and teach them the proper way.

I see this all of the time. For some reason, grammar seems like it is not as important as it used to be.

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kvglynn | Elementary School Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted June 22, 2010 at 6:44 PM (Answer #21)

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I believe that many students write this way because they want to seem more professional and they think that it actually enhances their writing. Many of these students in high school read the likes of Shakespeare, Twain, Chaucer, and they associate the interesting language use with intelligence and therefore try to mimic it. This often comes across as unnatural and awkward, if not incorrect. When I was in high school, I took a creative writing class that really helped me balance a pure conversational and unacademic tone with an overcomplicated, awkward voice. Time and exposure to well-written material that uses a current voice will help students see the difference in their writing and true academic writing. The more a student writes, the better it will become.

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kamiegoldstein | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted October 15, 2010 at 5:02 PM (Answer #22)

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Students often do not feel connected to the topic they are writing about because they did not select the topic in the first place. This is a large reason why they write in passive voice.

As far as third person is concerned, students are told to avoid using personal pronouns in their formal writing. Phrases such as "I think" and "I believe" are not considered appropriate for standardized testing (the essay portion(s)).

MLA citation is the style that college freshmen are expected to know. High school English teachers teach MLA format due to this expectation of colleges and universities. The APA format is for science majors: MLA is for arts majors, as far as I have been told.

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K.P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted October 20, 2010 at 3:06 PM (Answer #23)

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Thanks for your insights.

There's something else going on as well. The following is a final draft (after 2 peer edits and one from me) from a student who sends me perfectly lucid emails, but flips into bizzaro mode whenever she has to write a paper.

" Few households boil their water because they simply cannot provide such benefits because of monetary reasons. "

This is just a random sample, but the whole paper is like this. I'm still not sure what her point is.

She's worked hard on this project, but in the end, it's a disaster--a D paper.

 

On a practical note, individuals write poorly often times because

(1) they don't understand how to use relationship words, cause and effect words and phrases and/or conjunctions, which explains "because ... because" in which the second "because" was probably filling in for "due to";

(2)  they don't know how to string related complex thoughts together in the somebody did something to someone somewhere at sometime somehow and for some reason or some purpose model often seen in dictionaries (e.g., Longman's Dictionary and Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary).

A remedy is to tutor in (1) prepositions while emphasizing relationship words like before, after, while, during etc.; (2) cause/effect words and phrases; (3) phrasing for reason and purpose; (4) and sentence structure models. Another remedy is to tutor in the (5) writing style you expect students to follow; APA and MLA are but two of several academic styles.

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