Only 27% of 8th and 12th graders in the U.S. scored proficient last year on a computerized writing test, according to a recent article in the Denver Post. Students who had regular access to computers, and particularly those who were able to use built-in editing tools like spell check, did the best. This makes sense, but it’s also been found that when students have access to computers in the classroom, they write more. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising given how much of our written communication these days happens through text messages, tweets, and e-mail – even for pre-teens.
But has this technology really helped children learn how to write? A 27% proficiency rate is pretty dismal. Our desire to be efficient and trendy and for “instant messaging” doesn’t lend itself to high quality writing. I have to admit I have a bias as someone who would rather read an elegantly written novel than watch a You-Tube video, but when there are radio ads quoting business leaders who say they can’t find job candidates who can communicate effectively with customers in writing, we have a serious problem. There are wider implications. How much does our ability to write reflect our ability to think – to generate and organize ideas into a coherent and logical whole? If we can’t do that, we can’t invent new solutions to problems, or negotiate conflicts, or change attitudes, or teach.
I’m sure that if it doesn’t already exist, we will soon have technology that really can help students learn how to write well. Even then, for technology to be an effective teaching tool for writing, we would need to address the technology gap that still exists between affluent and poor schools and families. And, as Kathleen Yancey from Florida State University states in the Denver Post article, “Digital technology is a technology. Paper and pencil is a technology. If technology were the answer, it would be pretty simple.”
For those of us in early childhood education, there truly are very simple, low-tech strategies to help children learn how to think, and eventually, how to write. Rich conversations with children and interactive reading can greatly increase children’s oral language skills that are precursors to writing skills. Stringing words together to make full sentences using correct syntax and grammar, and assembling sentences together to make paragraphs that describe and explain and sequence ideas, provides children with models both to think and to communicate. Asking children questions that encourage them to reason things out and to talk about their ideas lays the foundation for organizing thoughts in writing. Seeing words organized in print helps them make the connection between the spoken and written word. And then, of course, encouraging young children to “write” their thoughts using pencil and paper further develops these skills and a comfort level with written expression. I am amazed at how capable children as young as three years old can be in using computers, but let’s not forget what they have to learn to communicate effectively with human beings.