Sunday, October 10, 1999

Schools try to polish students' writing skills




BY ANDREA TORTORA
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        National studies show that children who spend time talking to teachers about what they write and how to improve their prose score higher on writing tests.

        Part of that philosophy includes keeping portfolios — collections of a student's work that can be revised throughout the year.

        Kentucky does just that, using portfolios to gauge a student's writing progress and offer students a variety of writing experiences.

        A focus on writing — in every subject, not just English class — has helped Kentucky boost writing scores on state tests and get 63 percent of students writing at the basic level on a national exam.

        Now the challenge is to teach students to become more advanced writers, skilled at clear, concise communication in a variety of forms.

        “If you're working in portfolios, you can theoretically get them perfect,” said George Frakes, principal at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas.

        Highlands educators are trying to determine the best way to improve writing scores. The school had the highest overall scores on the state's assessment exams for 1998, but placed 17th statewide in writing.

        Because writing was the school's lowest score, it will become the focal point for the coming year, Mr. Frakes said.

        That will follow a national trend in the wake of disappointing results on the National Assessment for Educational Progress writing exam.

        That exam showed that at least three-fourths of fourth, eighth and 12 graders are not proficient in writing. Results also found that 16 percent of fourth and eighth graders and 22 percent of 12th graders do not have basic writing skills.

        “We wish the results were higher,” said Richard Sterling, president of the National Writing Project at the University of California at Berkeley. “But basic is not minimal, it is something and it's at least a start.”

        More pleasing to Mr. Sterling and the National Writing Project is the national focus on writing. The project works with teachers across the country to improve writing instruction.

        In Kentucky, students are required to keep portfolios throughout their educational career. Writings include samples of poetry, lab reports, essays, letters and research papers.

        The goal is to enable students to become independent thinkers and communicators that are skilled in both academic and real world writing, said Starr Lewis, Kentucky's humanities branch manager.

        “Students will run into all kinds of different writing experiences in their lives,” Ms. Lewis said. “The portfolios are really to broaden students' writing experiences beyond the traditional research paper.”

        Kentucky's students must demonstrate writing in all subject areas, not just in English class.

        And writing pieces now follow students through their careers. Writings from fifth and sixth graders follow them to middle school, where they may form the genesis for a final work.

        This strategy, state educators said, helped improve writing scores.

        Kentucky eighth graders scored near the national average in writing, earning a 146 compared to a 148 nationally. And 84 percent of Kentucky eighth graders scored at or above the basic level, compared to 83 percent nationally.

        The real key, Ms. Lewis said, is to mesh academic and everyday writing. Example: a research paper where a student takes a stance and defends his opinion. Or a letter to a newspaper where a student expresses her opinion and backs up her thoughts with facts.

        Reaching that middle ground is the hard part, said John Williamson, instructional supervisor at Fort Thomas Schools.

        “The problem is that teachers are used to teaching academic writing,” Mr. Williamson said. “Now they are having to incorporate writing for the real world with a purpose and that's what they don't have real training in.”

        Mr. Williamson teaches teachers how to teach writing in a class at the University of Kentucky.

        “Many times the teachers don't know other types of writing,” he said.

        And colleges want students who are well-versed in academic writing.

        Yet schools should not be choosing between different types of writing. Ms. Lewis said teachers should consider all types of writing as “academic.”

        And the National Writing Project's Mr. Sterling said teachers should create a sense that writing is important in all areas.

        “You know very quickly how much you know about something once you try to write about it,” Mr. Sterling said. “Writing a lot and in every different way, from academic to playing with writing and having fun with it, is the best way to make improvements.”

       



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