For several semesters I taught a college first-year composition (FYC) course, where the students were required to write a variety of assignments focused on their own literary development. Write about someone who influenced your writing/reading/language development, for instance. Or write about a problem you encountered with your literary development. As a result, I’ve seen a lot of student perspectives on what makes a good or bad literary education. Here are some of the worst things my students’ high school English teachers told them about writing.
Facts Don’t Matter
I am 95% certain this advice is meant primarily for standardized tests like the writing section of the SAT. I assume the teachers meant to convey something like, “If you want to write about the American Civil War to make a point, don’t agonize over remembering exactly how many people died at Gettysburg. Estimate the number and move on because the test is timed, and you’re not being graded on your knowledge of history.” Due to the way most standardized tests are graded, I can’t say this is wrong. However, many high schools teachers were very unclear that they meant this only as a standardized test taking tip, and that it is not actually a good approach to writing or argumentation in general. A surprising number of my first year college students were convinced that the content of their essays did not matter and that there was no need to be factually accurate, as long as their prose and overall structure were good. Honestly, I wish high school teachers would skip the “facts don’t matter” line completely. The harm it does to some students’ writing in the long-term isn’t worth the potential minor SAT score bump.
There Is No Writing Formula
On the surface, this is actually great advice: it’s true there is no single correct way to write a “good” essay. Unfortunately, a number of high school teachers apparently took this as a cop out to say, “I can’t explain to you why you received the grade you did. There’s nothing particular you can do to get an ‘A.'” Perhaps there is no exact way that every single person in the class can get an ‘A,’ but surely there is something each particular student can work on to improve his or her own writing. There’s no formula, but last time I checked, individualized feedback certainly existed. Acting hand-wavy and implying writing is a mystical art does a huge disservice to students, when generally there are concrete steps they can take to at least get closer to an ‘A.’ Good writing is not an inherited talent; it’s something students can learn from teachers who actually want to teach them.
There Is a Formula: The Five-Paragraph Essay
Five-paragraph essays are the bane of college instructors’ existence. I admit I see something to teaching students this as a basic structure (though I should acknowledge many professors don’t like it even as a baby step). Having an introduction, at least three points to support your argument, and a conclusion are all good things in an essay. However, some high school teachers teach this form as a rigid fill-in-the blank exercise. Every essay looks the same. Nothing can deviate. I got a number of college first years (and even upper division literature students) who were very, very good at five-paragraph essays. But these students were often the hardest to teach because they struggled to unlearn this one form. The structure is limiting and often doesn’t fit the type of complex arguments one should be learning to make in college. Writing a solid five-paragraph essay certainly is better than writing something completely unformed and confusing, but it keeps a lot of students capped at B+ grades at the college level.
Grammar Is Worth Nothing/Everything
The problem with grammar is that everyone thinks it was someone else’s job to teach it. High school teachers think students ought to have mastered it in middle school. College instructors think students ought to have mastered it in high school. No one wants to teach it because they have other material they’re supposed to be teaching . However, failing to review grammar in high school does a disservice to students who didn’t fully cover it previously or don’t fully understand it. Poor grammar will negatively affect them in all sorts of places, from standardized tests to college personal statements to actual college classes. And, yes, most college instructors won’t cover it because it is distinctly not college-level material. At this point, professors might just say “Go review commas” and expect a confused student to handle it on his or her own.
Alternatively, some high school teachers seem to value grammar far too much. Every single mistake is circled or underlined in red. Or one mistake means you automatically lose ten points on the paper. This tactic might scare students into learning grammar, but it can be paralyzing. Students might not experiment with new styles and sentence structures because they don’t want to mess them up. Additionally, it keeps students focused on minor issues and not global issues like whether their argument is logical and their supporting points are the right order. Grammar should be reviewed in high school, but it shouldn’t be the focus of composition education.
Did you ever receive horrible writing advice from a teacher? What was it?