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Students' Writing Skills

May 24, 2003

I have been teaching high school English in the public school system for 29 years and have witnessed the decline in expository writing skills cited in "2 Rs Left in High School" (May 19).

Part of the reason writing is so wretched is that reading is nearly nonexistent. Outside of a few core novels, most students do little to no reading in high school, certainly not the texts in their content-area classes. I know because I have asked them and surveyed them. Most classes are entirely oral experiences for students. That is, teaching is talking and learning is listening.

This oral education has a profound effect on writing skills, which are partly the result of deep and broad reading. Such reading embeds sentence patterns and is the primary vehicle for vocabulary acquisition.

Years ago, I could read long papers, making one to two marginal notations on each page. Now, virtually every sentence is flawed. No teacher can repair every sentence on every page. Even some bright students with high test scores are virtually disabled at expository communication.

The textbooks themselves are part of the problem. They are filled with color and graphical content, icons and discontinuous text boxes. They look like no other book in the world. They mimic Web pages. Open them and take a look. Ask your teenage sons and daughters, or your neighbors' children, how much reading they are doing in their content-area texts. Be prepared for the troubling answers.

Jack Farrell

Newbury Park High School

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I felt compelled to write in response to the article about high schools and the demise of term papers to dispel any negative impression left by Stephen Miller about Santa Monica High School. (I note that the education Miller gained there will enable him to attend Duke University next year.)

I have two children, one currently a sophomore at Santa Monica High School and one a graduate, now in her second year at UC San Diego. Both have written research papers for classes. In fact, my sophomore recently wrote two, one in history and one in English. (And, while she, like Miller, may find her life to be crowded with "extracurricular activities," there is time for schoolwork.)

My college student is a literature major, with many, many papers to write each quarter. She and her fellow Samohi grads have found themselves well prepared to handle the requirements at UCSD and elsewhere. We need to give teachers credit where due. The news about public schools is not all grim.

Susan J. Field

Los Angeles

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Re Dave Cavena's May 19 letter: I would have to say that Cavena's recollection of his school experience of 30 years ago (same time period as my own) regarding his teachers' managing "to teach spelling, grammar, case, sentence diagraming -- all sorts of useful things" is a reflection of less time needed to spend on student discipline in the classroom, back in the day. And, I will admit to somewhat mischievous behavior myself.

I and many of my colleagues generally agree that 40% to 50% of available daily teaching time, of 50 minutes per subject, is given over to this unfortunate necessity. The time in the classroom before school starts and the time after school lets out round out our day to a solid 10 hours. Now, we load up the 180 English theme papers and take them home to correct them within a reasonable time frame of 10 to 15 minutes each. This adds another four to six hours to the day. Laziness, pure and simple, Mr. Cavena? I beg (we beg) your pardon.

Bill Corrao

Camarillo

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It is in keeping with the persistent blaming of teachers for overwhelming societal ills when it is blithely suggested that "some students and critics contend that teachers are lazier than in the past." Also, it is mentioned that teachers, at the behest of their union, might object to spending nights and weekends grading hundreds of papers each week. Here is another instance of demonizing public school teachers for requiring a life apart from their school duties.

Mark Monarch

Los Angeles

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Your reporter should investigate some of the freshman- and sophomore-level courses in college to determine how much writing is required. I did a quick search and found that the course "Shakespeare's Plays" at Stanford requires nine essays, each one no more than 500 words in length. "Milton and the English Revolution" at Northwestern requires two essays from five to seven pages in length and two essays from three to four pages in length. What percentage of lower-level college classes require lengthy term papers? It would be interesting to know.

Hank Woods

English teacher

Tustin High School

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