The Writing Plateau

Photo of desert field, rocky plateau and endless, cloud-filled sky so gorgeous it looks painted

An overwhelming majority of the fifty self-portraits I read followed a general pattern: students said they learned how to write sentences in kindergarten, then hit their next major milestone in writing education in fourth grade, when they were taught the five paragraph essay format. I was rather impressed. I had no idea that our fourth-grade students were taught to write complete essays, and I was surprised because my experience teaching ninth-grade suggested that students new to high school were unfamiliar with the organizational approach of such an essay. These kids were telling me that they were smarter in fourth grade than I thought my ninth-graders were. Interesting.

Some background helps explain some of what’s behind their specific milestones. Florida administers the FCAT to students in grades two through eleven. In grades four and ten, students are required to pass the test before being promoted to the next grade. The test includes a writing component in both of those grades, and there is no shortage of discussion among Florida teachers about the proper way to prepare students for a demonstration of their writing abilities. But because I taught only ninth grade, any conversations I was involved and dealt with the tenth grade writing test; I remained blissfully ignorant of the fourth-grade requirements. The thought that my students had been taught the five paragraph format in fourth grade was both surprising and disheartening: I spent a good deal of my time helping my students navigate that format; I wonder, in hindsight, how much of that instruction was necessary.

Getting back to the self-portraits, the single most disheartening comment my students made immediately followed their talk of fourth grade. A great many students started their next paragraph with something like, “I didn’t learn anything else about writing until eleventh or twelfth grade, when I wrote a single research paper.”

Clearly the idea that an entire school year was required to produce a single research paper (that further questioning revealed was approximately four to five pages long) alone is a terrifying prospect. With 180 days of school, students remember writing only one major paper? Perhaps even more troubling is the gap between fourth and eleventh grades, which I illustrated to the students this way:

Graph of number of ¶s students recalled being asked to write at each grade. From grades 4 through 10, they were asked to write 5-¶ essays.

I asked them what happened between grades five and ten and heard silence in response. I asked if they learned everything they needed to know about writing essays in fourth grade; to my astonishment, they said yes. I asked if they were smarter in tenth grade and they had been in fourth grade and whether the writing they did in fourth grade was sufficient to express their brilliance in tenth. Finally, that question began to unsettled them, and I heard some self-conscious chuckling. But the basic problem remains: our students believe our expectations of their writing have not changed since they were in elementary school.

Whether we intended it or not, and whether we disagree with it or not, our students perceive that everything they have written since fourth grade has been enacting the same principles introduced to them that year. They believe their writing ability, and the texts they create, plateaued in fourth grade.

This writing plateau is a problem grounded in assessment. Our standardized tests determine what kind of writing is expected of our students, and our teachers instruct students specifically to be able to pass those tests. If the expectations for different grade levels are sufficiently differentiated, students aren’t able to tell how they’re growing year after year because teachers are providing the same instruction year-over-year. I discussed the problem with holistic rubrics in a blog post back in March. I talked about the New Jersey Holistic Scoring Rubric that remains constant across grade levels and Nevada’s writing rubrics that differ from grade to grade, but only very slightly.

By asking our students to write the same type of papers all the time, we are asking them to associate the same kind of writing with all the work they do at school. In other words, when sitting in a desk in the classroom and hearing a teacher say, “write a paper,” our students have been trained to hear “…five paragraphs long.” In fact, one of my students wrote his self-portrait as a perfectly structured five paragraph essay, complete with three-pronged thesis statement as the final sentence of the introductory paragraph. He tells me that he didn’t realize he had done it until I pointed out to him in my commentary.

Writing instruction that is based strictly on standardized testing fails to teach anything beyond formulaic writing. It limits the amount of ideas for student feels comfortable putting on paper, it limits the amount of analysis the student is expected to do in any writing assignment, and it limits the flexibility students are expected to bring to their papers. Writing instruction built around standardized testing fails to produce anything beyond standardized writing, and writing in the real world rarely falls into the same predictable, formulaic, scripted patterns that these tests expect our students to master and rely on. We need to give our students more authentic opportunities for composition exercises that break out of the mold of standardized structures.