Why can't Johnny or Janie Write English Anymore?

When we ask why Johnny can't write, we aalso have to ask the more important and basic question: Why can't he read? But before we ask that question, a host of other considerations will come to mind, which involve the way we think about words and how we organize our thinking processes. The road out of the mire of illiteracy has many tortuous turns and by-ways, some of which I will try to outline in this paper. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel turns out to be far longer than most of us had expected. We have no choice but to progress on toward the light.

Everyone who is involved with Education in this country, and many people in others sectors of our society, are concerned with the general deterioration of writing skills in the younger population. It is not only high school and college students, but many who are considerably older who fail to express themselves clearly and succinctly, let alone with grace and elegance in their writing. Colleges are at last taking it upon themselves to try, even with Freshman remedial writing courses, to rectify or at least ameliorate this unfortunate and apparently inveterate situation.

Why has all this happened, in such a short time, and with such widespread effects? There may be no single, conclusive answer, but any clues to this change should help us understand better what we can, and possibly cannot, do to effect a cure. Marshall MacLuhan had told us in the early l950's that we lived and worked in a print culture, which was already starting to disintegrate as victim of the visual TV and acoustic Rock movements which were about to convert us into an audio-visual society. No one believed him then, but thirty years later his predictions seem clearly pertinent. In that same period Vance Packard pestered us with his projection of a world largely ruled by high-pressure, psychology-backed world of Advertising. This has happened to such an extent that by now we have come to regard "ad-hype" as a normal and permanent part of our culture. But consistent, over-stating advertising has had the long-term effect of damaging the authenticity of words, literally making them in good part unbelievable. The political scene has also injured our belief in words, as we found our politicians habitually using words for their own kind of political advertising rather than communication, and we have learned to be wary of hidden meanings couched in attractive verbal displays. The curing of writing problems may be much harder than we thought because writing is so closely connected with problems of thinking, and the battle may possibly be uphill beyond our abilities to remedy. This is not meant to sound the bugle of retreat, but merely to note that complex social factors are involved in the public's general incapacity to work effectively with words.

To return to the central problem of writing and being able to express oneself effectively in a written form, it is here suggested that the major cause for poor writing, which is so prevalent among the youth of America, is the result of many years of de-focused reading. In part, this stems from the shift of students' attention away from dealing with written words, as people move in mass towards the visualness of TV and the auditory experience of popular music. This must not be taken as a condemnation of TV and the new pop music, which can be enriching experiences in many ways. But the total effect of a such a radical swing, taking place in less than twenty-five years, must be expected to have side-effects. The Three R's (including mathematical education which faces similar problems) have been neglected because there are so many interesting, often more immediately engrossing things in the world to attend to. There may be a certain tone of regret in a statement of this sort, but there really cannot be much blame, since the world is by its very nature designed to be constantly involved in a process of change.

For a student to succeed in college, he or she must be able to read between forty and sixty pages an hour. At this rate, the only practical way to read is by Speed Reading, skimming along to hit the peaks and sliding quickly over the rest. Serious scholars will often read this way, however they can also read carefully when they wish. But imagine the dilemma of a student who has learned to read fast in order to keep up with his assignments, who cannot imagine how to read carefully, at the rate of perhaps ten pages an hour. This slow rate is the thoughtful person's rate, Plato and the Greeks all read this way, all good books must be read very slowly. Fast reading is especially deceptive since it grasps the ideas but misses the impact of the individual words, which often convey a special meaning of their own. And how do you "skim-read" poetry at all?. Fast readers succeed in school until they try to write, when they realize how new an experience for them this art of sensitive juggling with words can be.

We also have to consider the quality of the writing which most students must read. Open almost any college textbook for a sample of bald prose written as if with an intentional antipathy to style. Look into the operating manual for any machine or computer program for an example of writing that is both crude and unclear, remembering that these are the very things students do have to read. Computer manual writing is usually so bad that many of us find it easier to fiddle around with a computer itself or ask advice viva voce from a friend rather than wade through the tortured phraseology of this new and illogical dialect. Everybody is telling us nowadays how important "computer Literacy" is to our world, but it seems that attaining a reasonable degree of computer literacy may entail something that we hadn't counted on: Verbal Illiteracy.

In today's world many positions demand increasing levels of literary adroitness. Job descriptions, operating instructions for machinery and computers, business contracts, State Department Reports, almost every job one can think of demands clear if not elegant writing, but this is at a time when writing skills seem to be disappearing. Students at the college level are have to be aware of the importance of acceptable writing, they know that they will be called upon for written reports as they enter the various professional fields, but they often do not find the kind of instruction that will bring them up to these levels. Most colleges have devised makeshift remedial programs for those who write the worst, while those who can write on a marginally acceptable level are left to their own devices. And there is a widespread tendency for college teachers to look to the ideas in their students' papers and spare the red pencil as a level of correction which should have been done in school.

As we delve further into matters which bear on this problem, we see that a major problem with today's writing difficulties is not necessarily lack of training, lack of experience or even of will, but the result of a de-focused habit of looking at printed words which has become common over a period of years. How can we reestablish a framework of mental focus, so that students can see the difference between clear and unclear, between good and bad? It is a matter of teaching them, often for the very first time, how to look carefully at words. The long hours of guided, concentrated looking at WORDS will be found to be a cheap price to pay for many years of gross inattention.

But there are larger problems which have deep roots in the sociology of the American mind. The American population which was once sharp, cagey and attentive to detail, has de-focused its intelligence over the last fifty years, to the extent that many people have no clear ideas about most of the things going on around them. Politicians can fuzz their own image while robbing the public of its rights, salesmen can sell junk on time-payments at ridiculous prices, and workers tend to soft-focus the nature of their jobs, forgetting what their responsibilities are and what a real day's work is. While this has been going on America has lost its world leadership as a country boasting the best workers in the world, the sharpest business minds, and the most imaginative scientific brains. Having lost our preeminence in the world's business, we might well inquire where it has gone. The answer is clear: Outsourcing work to countries where the sharp mental focus is still valued and taught.

If you go to Japan, India or Taiwan, you will find that the mental focus much of the population is still sharp. Workers at jobs do their jobs as exactly as they can, supervisors watch with an eagle eye, and the upper level businessmen don't miss a trick. And this is not because they are poor, desperate or greedy, but because in early childhood they were accustomed to dealing with everything that came before their eyes with a hard look and a sharp focus. In the Taipei airport some years ago I watched two small American children running up and down the aisles in the waiting room, rushing about and yelling, oblivious of the idea that anyone was watching them, while two Chinese children of the same age sat beside their grandmother, motionless, watching. They looked at grandma, she nodded slightly, they watched again. The Americans missed everything, the Chinese kids didn't miss a thing. Since that time Taiwan may have lost some of its focus but India has gone ahead and picked it up for its own purposes.

Go into an overcrowded classroom in India, with sixty children where we would prescribe twenty five. The teacher speaks, the students listen. She writes, they write, she asks questions of one student or another, each answers immediately. They are intently focused on that classroom and on that teacher, and they are learning that most important lesson, which is how to concentrate. After school many will go to other lessons, two hours each afternoon, in the evening they will do their lessons immediately after dinner. Our psychologists note that children in some economically poorer countries are rating six percent higher than ours in comparable tests. Are they going up, or have we been going down?

But there is no reason to despair. We must rather take things seriously, and when we ask why our young people can't write decent English prose, ask ourselves where the responsibility rests. The real question is: "What do we do about it?" Or perhaps it should be: "What do we do first?" We probably should start with something simple and practical, with something that will give a good result in itself while promising other benefits down the road. If we want to get our national focus into shape so we can begin to see and think incisively again, the best thing to start with is Language, with its nouns and verbs, phrases and sentences. Greater clarity with these can bring clarity to some of the cloudy patches in other parts of our thinking. Getting clear in one's mind as to what is meant, and putting it down in exact words so someone else can tune in on it, is one of the most basic traits of being human. Civilization in the form which we recognize it, has always depended on reading and writing as the foundation and substructure upon which everything else rests. These days our use of language with our skills in reading and writing need additional attention paid them in school and college. Our verbal tools need resharpening in order to recapture the edge and acumen of effective thinking.

With these things in mind. the author of this paper, with the aid of a academically trained professional writer, conducted an experimental course some years ago at Middlebury College. This course was designed to improve the writing technique of a small group of upper-class science majors. Working with four students on a close and at times one-on-one basis, we were able to develop in our students' minds a critical awareness of style, which we hoped they would soon be able to apply to their own writing. By constantly pointing to details of usable and unusable wording, we provided a range of acceptability for them to absorb bit by bit. We felt at the time that the success of such a course must be measured not in terms of students' in-course improvement, although that would be significant, but in terms of their general awareness of their own use of language. With improvement in their own perception, they should be able to monitor their writing over the coming years, and that, rather than a momentary surge toward correctness, is what we felt writing courses should try to inculcate.

Consider for a moment some of the standard approaches to the writing problem. First and most familiar is what might be called the traditional Liberal Arts approach, which assumes that if the students read reasonable amounts of good writing, whether "literature" or simply well constructed expository material, they will sooner or later develop an ear for good usage. Give them short writing assignments to do, encourage them to follow in their writing the patterns of their reading and hope for the best. This is what colleges have been doing for eighty years or more, the pattern for a course of this sort actually goes back to the work of Dean Briggs and his famous "English A" at Harvard at the start of the last century, which set standards for the idea of "reading along with writing" as the first step in a Liberal Arts education. The method has proved sound, but one must note that the decay of writing abilities has occurred right under the nose of English A-type instruction was standardized for most colleges over the years. In the face of continual deterioration of writing skills, I think we cannot look to more of the this same treatment as a serious cure for the ailment.

If in addition to the assigned readings a teacher asks for a two page essay to be handed in at class three times a week, then in a l4 week term each student will have handed in approximately eighty four pages of practice writing; and this may even be part of a two term sequence. Although this is conceivable for the student, the load on the teacher to correct the papers, review the work and confer with each member of a class of 25 students, becomes enormous. It will actually turn out to be about 2l00 pages per semester and twice that amount in the academic year! The sheer volume of work will sooner or later preclude careful correction. But discussion and explanation is also necessary, which will double the teacher's workload. Teachers who have tried this heavy-duty approach to the writing problem know that it can work very well, but only for a short time, as the wearied teacher will soon or later have to consider less arduous methods. In recent years many college courses have reduced the required written work to two papers of five page length per term, in place of the twenty-five pager essays of the previous generation. This helps the teacher, who often does not stoop to correct spelling or comment on sentence structure anymore, but it does not teach the student how to write.

Another way is by outline and logic. If we lay out carefully the "theory" of the sentence, the paragraph, and the essay, we can present students with a logical framework within which to work. Diagramming sentences in the traditional manner, concerting sentences in groups to form idea and paragraph units, and blending paragraphs into larger blocks, can produce logical sequences of sentences and a sense of order. If we want to adopt with some changes the traditional French explication de texte method, we can prescribe an outline which includes: statement of the question or essay, citation of materials in order, which support and materials contra in subsequent paragraphs, followed by synthesis, summary and conclusion. This does give orderly structure, but there are two problems. First, if the ailments start lower down on the hierarchical scale, perhaps at the word level or even pre-verbally at the thinking level, then the explication-method will do no good, since order superimposed on confused thinking only masks the problem. Imposing ordered structure on a questionable foundation is as faulty a concept in teaching as in architecture. Second, if the explication is successful, it will produce classfuls of papers which tend to look alike, and worse still it can generate students who after some years' training will actually think alike. Success in a venture of this sort is diametrically opposed to one of the basic tenets of Liberal Arts philosophy, which aims to get students to think as individuals.

A third approach might be called the Pseudo-Linguistic approach, done either with modern or with traditional schoolmastering terminology. The teacher demonstrates that language is logical and that by the use of logical linguistic concepts, sentences can be corrected, step by step. This method goes back to the 16 th. century scholar Sanchez (Sanctius) who wrote a book called "Minerva, or on the Reasons of the Latin Language". This goddess of wisdom proclaimed that language, specifically Latin, was the ultimate logic. This doctrine created a false and unreal argument for the "logicalness" of Latin as virtually identical with "thought", a theory which lasted for centuries, until modern developments in Structural Linguistics destroyed its credibility. Many teachers still believe in Sanctius' premises, and fondly wish that "Latin-logic" could somehow return. They persist in trying to teach writing as if language were by its very nature clear and logical, which of course is not the case. Every language shows myriad little peculiarities and inconsistencies which have to be mastered and dealt with one by one, since no amount of specious logic will ever make irregular things regular. Overlays of ancient locutions, literary usages, dialect peculiarities, class and trade twists, along with influences from other languages as well as personal idiosyncrasies, all together create a wild kaleidoscopic screen of possibilities. But in terms of the school-logic of a teacher who wants to condense it into a few hours exposition, this will not work. An even more serious objection to this approach is that it has to develop a secondary, grammatical terminology to describe what it is talking about, a para-linguistic "side-language" with terms like "modifiers, apposition, grammatical agreement, sequence of tenses", all of which doubles the learning process for the student, who must now not only deal with the words he is writing, but the words his teacher is using to describe them. This method can be effective with the bright student who needs aid least, but it will be useless with less adroit learners who will not understand such complex help.

A fourth approach, which I mention partly in jest, but partly with an eye to something that can be derived from it, is this. The student can study Latin in high school for four years, and in college perhaps do a few years more study of Latin literature. We know that students who have gone through such a course of studies write superior English, this was found true years ago when Classics was the core of education, and it is surprisingly still true today. Classics teachers present a host of reasons for the effectiveness of this route, citing the value of serious and sustained effort at something hard (and distasteful). Or they may maintain that Latin is "so logical" (shades of Sanctius, now long gone if semi-sanctified), happy in their ignorance of modern developments in Linguistics. No one listens to such classical Miniver Cheevys much, but it is a fact that students who have done a lot of Latin do write quite passable English. Using Latin studies as a cure for problems in writing English is not really thinkable, since few have the time for such a protracted program in a world is demanding new skills on every side. But the record does say something, and we should ask ourselves exactly why the Latin students do write so well.

We think in our native language at an incredible pace. Before an idea is completely formulated the words come tumbling out, midway through a thought the sentence veers wildly, turns in another direction and heads for a conclusion which was already anticipated somewhere in the brain circuitry unbeknownst to the conscious mind. Swifter than the speed of the computer on which this written material is right now being composed, the human brain operates at electro-chemical speeds, with hierarchies upon hierarchies of thoughts interlocking and adjusting themselves as they form complex verbal structures seriatim. This rate of flow makes it necessary for a speaker to deal consciously only with the "peaks" or significant parts, and he lets the rest pass unnoticed. Some teachers who become conscious of the process of assembling thoughts into sentences will end up speaking word by word, selecting each item purposefully and usually boring their classes to tears. The speed with which we produce language, as well as the speed at which we process other peoples' language, whether spoken or written, makes us inattentive to details. For someone who has never had to be attentive to words, stream writing is going to be very difficult. But as we examine written material with care, we will after a while monitor ourselves with more fluency when writing, and the result will probably come out better with each successive re-monitoring pass. The normal speed at which spoken language works militates against the kind of necessary care and attention which writing demands.

The characteristic mark of any foreign language study is its slow, cautious and even painful snail's pace, which may be the very thing which produces good skills when writing English. When one studies Latin, one reads word by word, each part of each word is examined minutely, as you must do in an unfamiliar inflected language. Word follows word in freer order than in English, so you must constantly search for clues in order to grasp the sentence structure. The authors read in school are stylistically mannerismed, indeed Caesar Cicero and Virgil seem to the puzzled Latin student bent on not saying exactly what they mean, so this "puzzling" quality makes careful reading all the more important. Students who cannot focus exactly on word and detail cannot learn Latin, but those who do study Latin, improve their capacities for exact mental-focusing, even if they don't learn how to read the literary masterpieces of Rome with ease as a "possession to have forever". But they do at least learn to look carefully at words. Since there is a great deal of Latinate vocabulary in formal English, the student's vocabulary improves with the study of Latin, but this is a separate issue, since vocabulary by itself does not automatically confer good writing skills. The real lesson to be learned from the study of Latin is very simple: The students have learned, through hours and hours of careful poring, how to pay attention first to words, then phrases, and then sentences. And so they learn the basic techniques of attention which they will need in order to write English.

Abstracting from the study of Latin this "focusing of the mind on words", we have at hand a powerful tool which can be applied directly to students working to improve their English writing. If we establish a basic study-rate, in order to develop this sense of exact focus, which spends one half hour to one hour on each selected page of text and proceed with students at that rate in small groups, led by a teacher who beyond his academic qualifications has professional writing experience, then after about fifty hours of practice, the student should start to establish a close-focus way of looking at written words. This will slowly but surely improve his own writing.


The sense of the above paragraph, condensed though it is, does in fact constitute the operating procedure for an experimental course taught some years ago at Middlebury College. At the beginning of the course, after talking with the students and estimating what they hoped to learn, we arranged to bring to each class a short photocopied text for study. Typical texts as the course progressed were:

a) An innocent looking piece of fairly popular science writing that one could easily run though without offense. But as soon as careful attention was applied, confused equivocal meaningless and even ludicrous notions became painfully apparent. Microscopic inspection found faults none of us saw right away, this was the essence of the first lesson.

b) A fine piece of classic Victorian prose on a natural history subject, which seemed formal and stylistically perhaps a little more distant than we liked, in which however we could find no flaw of thought or word.

c) A passage from a typical college textbook, which had nothing technically wrong, but written in a frigid and unapproachable style which made perusing it difficult even as an exercise. The students said this selection was typical of college "textbook-ese" which constituted their regular if unappetizing diet.

d) The students brought to class various selections from reading which they thought were interesting for class analysis. (By this time the students were initiating their own analysis, and we no longer had to lead the discussion. This seemed to us an important juncture.)

e) Students did a three page essay on a well-understood topic, possibly of some personal importance to them (such as: politics, abortion, the environment, Women's Lib.) and each led in the analysis of another's work.

f) The instructor as author brought in a piece of "live" work, a prospectus for a book which he was examining for a publisher to see if it were suitable for consideration. (This seemed interesting as a live-exercise; but the class judged the paper so confused and stylistically awkward as to be absolutely unusable, and unanimously voted to "reject" it.)

g) The students wrote a letter on a subject (application for a job, stating qualifications, application for graduate school, a business letter). By this time everyone was enjoying writing so much that the letters turned out to be cleverly humorous between the lines.

h) Each student was asked to bring in an old graded term paper, which we revised as a group, retyped and presented back to the original grading teacher for an informal and of course unofficial re-grading. Grades went up by one full letter grade which impressed us all, since none of the actual material or ideas were changed in any way.

1) In place of a final examination, we assigned a long paper on some aspect of each student's college major, or some work they intended to do after college. We found the quality of their written work at this time quite acceptable in clear contrast to the work which they did just two months earlier.

During the semester of this course, the students averaged about ten pages of written work a week. We felt that it was important to have some clever assignments which held the students' interest, but also continued labor at the word-grinding-mill, which was needed to make any significant changes in student writing in as short a period as a single semester. The course involved far more work than a regular one semester academic elective, but we all felt a great deal had been learned, students and teachers alike.



One matter which we had to settle early in the course was the problem of wounded ego. When you talk about someone's writing in frank and honest terms, you are dealing with something inseparable from his intimate personal being. Everyone has a natural tendency to protect himself and his work, especially when the analysis persists and the edge of criticism gets sharp. We agreed not to let our egos become involved or at least speak out when we were getting nervous, and this disclaimer did seem to avoid psychological malaise. One of the instructors on a lark handed the class an essay which he had prepared for submitting to an academic journal, and was surprised to see how many emendations the class came up with. All seemed quite pertinent and were gladly accepted, which strengthened the ideas of improvement and also of critical amnesty in the class.

One of the students turned out to be dyslexic, had been aware of problems in college stemming from this, yet had never had special help in college for this problem. His thought processes were keen and warranted decent grades from his professors on the basis of content, but the level of writing was recognized as poor. During the course we had questions as to whether it was going to be profitable to work with dyslexics, since the disability seemed to lie outside our levels of expertise. The student resisted criticism at first but in the long paper which served to wind up the course, his writing showed remarkable progress. Pleased with our success, we contacted the student's major advisor, who informed us that the student's final papers in departmental coursework had sunk to a barely acceptable level so far as content was concerned, although an improvement in verbal style was clearly noted. Our conclusion, after much thought, is that in special kinds of cases it may not be possible to control both content and form; but the fact that we had been able to change the form, gave hope that content could be regained later while the improvements in form were retained. Obviously we are on the edge of something which demands much further study, and there may be more obstacles here than we were aware of.

In all this work no stated theory was advanced, since we were convinced that only by focusing attention on words could word-awareness be established, and we felt this should be our primary goal. We did, in passing, suggest the following points:

a)       Exact choice of the right word, exactly the right word, was no easy matter and demanded real thought.

b)       Words which have no real meaning must be mercilessly lopped off, pruned away.

c)      Levels of speech (such as formal, colloquial, slangy) are be distinguished and kept separate, but without criteria of "rightness" or "wrongness", only under the heading of "appropriateness" to the work at hand.

d)       Saying what you mean always follows upon knowing what you mean. Many problems which the students initially thought were problems relating to "wording", were problems stemming from unclear thinking.

e)       Writing is a means of self-projection, like talking, walking and gesturing. Think of it as an important way of demonstrating to others that you are intelligent, perceptive, or anything else that you wish, and avoid things which oppose this self-image. Your words are your portrait in the world!

f)       American writing is often blunt and stark. Don't be afraid to use a little "connective tissue" between sentences, words like "well, now, thus, and so.. ." Good British prose uses connectives far more than we do, and it does work to tie things together. Without connective pads, one runs the danger of a getting a bad case of verbal bursitis.

g)       Americans often use a sentence-structure which strings things together by endlessly repeating "and...and", which creates the boring "strung-on sentence". Grammatical subordination is not a stylistic trick or ornament, but a natural way to put things into a logical hierarchical array. Such phrase-introducers as "since, when, after, although, despite" are intellectually as well as stylistically worthwhile, since they permit long but clear sentences with appropriate sub-entries ranking interrelated thoughts.

The instructors made this list of suggestions only as interesting points to consider at a later date, these were not proposed as "rules" to be followed but rather as thoughts suitable for consideration. Each of the points had been made a dozen times in the class readings, and the instructors maintain that the only way to effectively do a project of this sort is to concentrate on group-reading of words on a page in a very slow and highly critical way. Building up a storehouse of reactions reinforced by common sense is the sure way to change taste, and the most effective way to alter a student's attitudes toward that craft of assembling words which we call "the art of writing". Much like the art of making mosaics, writing incorporates plan, pattern, idea and purpose, but if the work at the bottom level is done wrong, the whole piece turns out flawed.

In closing, two final points should be made. First, what has gone wrong in young Americans' inability to write their own language clearly and expressively, is not an isolated problem, but by its very nature and ubiquity it is traceable to deep shifts of taste and values in the society. Things do not just "happen"; they are caused. One problem is that many of us want to fix the disability in writing, without thinking about the factors which produced the problem in the first place. There is no more a "cure" for bad writing than there is a cure for a volcano; the origins lie deep, sometimes deeper than we suspect. It may turn out that the deterioration in students' writing abilities, especially if it is result of complex social etiologies, is incurable, and may be one of those things like warfare, which we will have to get used to living with.

We Americans we have been accustomed for several generations to a kind of argumentation which posits multiple causes for most important phenomena. This is a way of thinking which came out of the explosion of interlocking information networks which began to force themselves on our attention some sixty years ago. But we should not be blind to the possibility of a "single causative factor". It has been the argument of this paper that a widespread psychological phenomenon of "defocusing" on information in general, has been growing in this society since the middle of the 20th century, that this process (not unlike the mass of molten material underlying the earth's crust) underlies many of the surface eruptions which we find breaking out here and there. If a single factor should prove to be real, it will underlie many of the disruptive social phenomena which affect our lives, and the inability of individuals to write effectively may be one of the superficial effects of a larger psychological groundswell.

If this in any significant way true, then we will want to adjust our "treatment" of the writing-illness to take recognition of the cause, since without paying attention to this we will never be able to improve our writing abilities. At the same time, if the causes of our ailment really do go deep, treating the end-ailment realistically should open some of the doors to a better approach to the problem and we will at least be going in the right direction. If there is any final message in this paper, it will be a caution about viewing the current dilemma of student writing as arising merely from ignorance, inattention or wrong teaching methods. If we understand that the writing dilemma is a matter arising from a wrong use of mind, this must mean that the remedy will be harder to approach. It is going to take a different approach, and one which will involve more subtlety and sensitivity than our academic processes usually employ.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris