Why These Children Cannot Write Anymore

student's writing

The Reason Why

Our entire education is based on printed text and writing, yet more and more kids are leaving elementary school without the ability to craft a paragraph. I am startled when I walk into an eighth grade classroom and see students produce work without any basic standards of traditional grammar. And I mean, basic grammar. Things like periods at the ends of sentences, capitals at the beginning, topic sentences to start a paragraph, and transition words to continue an argument. We are sending our youth to high schools across the nation and our children cannot write. I am talking about basic writing skills. I was dumbfounded as to why. And then I recently went to a workshop on “the writing process” and it all started to make sense. The reason why these kids can’t write is because the curriculum doesn’t allow them to build on basic writing skills.

Take a look at any Language Arts curriculum. Once you start to read through it you will notice that the overall expectations or big ideas are essentially the same from first grade onto eighth. Students learn and re-learn the same over-arching concepts year in and year out with little attention paid to a scaffolding process that learners must acquire in order to develop as writers. This ideology is unlike any other curriculum. Take math curriculum for instance, students in the primary grades learn basic numeration. They are given the basic tools to learn how to count, and from there go on to learn how to add and subtract. After they have developed those skills they then learn how to multiply. Once they have “mastered” the basics (I used the term “mastered” very loosely, especially these days), they start to learn about more complex mathematical processes that are built on what they first learned. This does not happen with Language Arts in elementary school, as one thinks it should.

We are in such a rush to teach kids how to create different forms of writing like recounts and stories that we forget that we need to teach them the basics of writing. I teach fifth grade and it scares me that the majority of the students come into my classroom without the learned ability to write a proper sentence! And I do not fault their prior teachers. These students are a product of a flawed curriculum. I fault the structure of the curriculum. A curriculum that is based on the assumption that these kids will innately pick up skills as they mature and move on to the next grade level, without any building on what was previously learned. Well, news flash – they don’t.

We need to revisit our Language Arts curriculum and re-think the paradigm of teaching language. Those who create the curriculum that teachers teach need to take a deep breath and accompany those forms of writing with some small steps of how to write. Students in first grade should be learning how to write a proper sentence through the same methods that they learn how count and then move on to doing addition. After they have mastered the basic concepts of a sentence, they can then be taught paragraph writing. These steps would mirror those seen in the mathematics curriculum, where a student first learns counting, then addition and then ultimately multiplication. The Language Arts programs need to follow those similar logical steps and apply them to the curriculum. Kids come to my grade with the ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide. So why can’t they write? We need to get back to basics with how we teach our Language Arts. Maybe then students will be able to leave elementary school with the ability to write a short essay. What good are great ideas that these kids may have, without the ability to write them?


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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