What’s Wrong–And What’s Right–With Student Writing

Last week I got a reading-response journal from a high school freshman in my honors class, about an excerpt from Plato’s dialogue Crito (which I’ve described and quoted here before); her paper started off like this:

From Cristo was written by Plato. This story talks about this guy named Socrates whom was sentenced to presin for “corrupting the youth.” although he is inasant and trys to prove it, the juriry desides he is still guilty. He agrues for his inasance. But for all it was pointless. He had the chance to run away but he wanted to prove his inasance. If he would have ran away; other “cities” they wouldn’t welcome him with open arms because he disabad the law by running away. He is killed.

It took me a minute to figure out some of the words: “inasant” is “innocent,” and “disabad” is “disobeyed.”  What accounts for such awful spelling?  Easy–people write like this because their only real engagement with the language has been verbal.  Writing like this–with phonetic spelling, slang, fragments, etc.–comes about because the writer only knows what the language sounds like out loud. 

To put it another way, we now write like this because we don’t read anymore.  Exhaustive experience reading a language used formally is the only way to learn to write fluently.  It’s a simple formula, no more complicated or less effective than any Sunday School answer: if you want to write well, you have to read first.  A lot. 

This dumbing down of written language due to almost exclusively oral experience is especially problematic in students for whom English is a second language, or not spoken at home.  For the girl quoted above, notice how the Greek name “Crito” becomes the Spanish word “Cristo.” 

All is not lost here, however.  She does a few things right.  The second sentence ends with the closing punctuation inside the quotation mark, something which most of her peers do not understand, and the next to last sentence includes the words “would have,” which many of her peers would have written as “would of.”  And, although it’s fairly simplistic and has a couple of errors, she does show a decent understanding of a difficult passage. 

Most importantly, though, when I gave this back to her and said that it needed to be revised and fixed, she cheerfully did so, taking all my advice into account, and quickly resubmitted a much improved paper.  Such a mature work ethic is practically a guarantee of success, and will eventually get her to where she needs to be.  Writing well may not foster character, but character will help her work towards writing well.

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