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Friday, September 6, 2019

High Schools Don't Teach Students How to Write Well

     The other night I took a look at my daughter's English essay and suggested that she try excising the words "extremely," "totally," and "incredibly" whenever they appeared in her prose. She did this and was surprised to discover that not only were the intensifiers superfluous, but that her sentences were stronger without them…

     Modern educators often talk of wanting to encourage "critical thinking" in students. A crucial part of that mission is--or should be--teaching young people how to organize and present ideas in lucid prose. Most people will not end up writing essays or novels for a living, but at some point they will want to write a job application, send a condolence letter, or compose an email to a colleague explaining why something went wrong at work. Knowing how to write--understanding the basics of what used to be called "rhetoric"--still matters, even in the Internet age. So it's a sad thing that in a great many American pubic high schools, writing instruction amounts to little more than inculcating the dreary requirements of the SAT essay.

     No one at my daughter's school had even mentioned to her that the use of the word "incredibly" is subject to the law of diminishing returns. No one talked to her intelligently about structure or style. Instead, she has been given a single, graceless formula for writing a book report and told that any departure form it will result in the automatic subtraction of marks.

Zoe Heller, The New York Times Book Review, August 24, 2014 

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