PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 159 | Can Your Child Write A Coherent Sentence?

After months of college essay reviews with my private PrepWellers, I have concluded that writing skills have fallen off a cliff. How can you assess your child's writing skills and determine whether they need an intervention?

Show Notes:

After months of college essay reviews with my private PrepWellers, I have concluded that writing skills have fallen off a cliff. How can you assess your child's writing skills and determine whether they need an intervention?

Full Transcript:

[00:00:24] Hello friends and welcome back to the PrepWell podcast. After weeks of reading, reviewing and commenting on college essays with my private PrepWellers and others, I felt it necessary to put out the following public service announcement to parents. Hear ye. Hear ye. Every year at a minimum, starting in middle school, parents need to get their hands on a sample of their child's writing to confirm that they know how to write in English in full sentences that make sense with appropriate punctuation, grammar and spelling. That's it. I don't want you to look for metaphors and similes and onomatopoeia and concision and clefts sentences, voice integration or anything remotely like this... at first. I actually don't want you to care too much about the topic or the quality of the thinking. I don't want you to look for any of those things yet. I simply want you to find out whether or not they can write a few sentences in a row that are coherent with a subject, a verb, and an object. That's it. For example, can they write a sentence like she scored a goal during the soccer game? I would be happy with this. A teacher can work with this. I can work with this. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer students that I work with can do this. And mind you, I work with, quote unquote, bright students from well-resourced communities and supportive parents and a track record of all A's in English. What I've been receiving from students, not all students, but an increasing number of them, especially in the last two years, which I'll address in a minute, are essay drafts that are unworkable. They're un-editable.

[00:02:25] For example, a 400 word essay, which is about a half a page where every sentence needs massive revision and overhaul. Meaning when the sentence is rewritten and edited, it almost looks nothing like the original sentence. It's almost unrecognizable. I'm not talking about changing a word here or there to be a bit more precise or correcting subject verb agreements or getting rid of passive verbs that are used all over the place. I'm talking about a total rewrite from scratch for almost every sentence. I'm not talking about the quality of the content or whether the response even answers the essay question or whether it's logical or orderly or compelling or the strength of the vocab words. I'm just talking about individual sentences that on their own don't make any sense. Run on sentences, fragments, stream of consciousness, misspellings, weird parenthetical is all over the place. Many students are now writing as if they're talking or texting to a friend, with all of the informality and unconventional sentence structure inherent in everyday speech. This will become a problem for many students, not only when it's time to write competitive college essays, but when they actually go to college and they're expected to write in coherent sentences. And by the way, these issues are not isolated to students who've struggled with English and gotten C's or D's, for example, or students where English wasn't their first language. Or in schools with bad English departments. As I said, I see this trend in students from very strong schools who've gotten A's in every English class they've ever taken, including AP language and composition. I'm not sure how that happens, but it happens. What I've witnessed, particularly in the last 2 to 3 years with respect to writing, has been a complete breakdown. It just wasn't this way. Three years ago. Four years ago. And there are, in my opinion, a few obvious reasons why this might be happening.

[00:04:46] Number one, nobody reads anymore. One of the best ways to become a good writer or a better writer is by reading. By reading, you see different writing styles, vocabulary words, grammatical conventions, punctuation... over and over again. They become slides in your head that you can refer back to consciously or unconsciously when you begin to write yourself. Well, we all know that reading is no longer a thing. We all know that smartphones and video games and Netflix have replaced reading, and thus students have increasingly less exposure to these slides in their head. They lack exposure to writing, to words, to language, to style, to vocabulary. Another reason might be online essay submission. Remember back in the day when you would write an essay, the teacher would read it and mark it up with a red pen and hand it back to you a week later. Often for a rewrite, you got something in your hands that you could look at. It was tangible. You could show it to your parents and work on the rewrite, or at least acknowledge your weaknesses and identify areas for improvement. It looked like the teacher invested a lot of time and effort into making comments and you wanted to show some respect for their time by trying to improve your writing and maybe improve your grade. And it may have taken a few drafts, but eventually you'd write a good paper, a great paper and get a good grade. Well, that doesn't seem to happen very much anymore. Today, students often submit their essay online at 11:59 p.m. on the day that it's due via Google classrooms or some other online platform. The teacher then grades it, may or may not make any digital comments and the great is automatically logged and it's done. And the student and the teacher likely never look at the paper again. The student probably gets a notification on their phone that the grade has been entered. They may or may not ever look at the paper again, and I'm sure it's rare that a student will ever go back and review comments if there are any or rewrite the essay. That's not happening. Once a student submits the essay. They never look at it or care about it again. And you as a parent never see it. You probably didn't even know that the paper was due or submitted. It doesn't come home with them and wind up on a kitchen table. It's in the cloud somewhere, and that's where it stays.

[00:07:30] What about larger class sizes? Large class sizes these days can make it more challenging for teachers to make quality comments and to follow up with students to make sure they understand how to improve their work. 36 students is a lot of students to keep track of when it comes to writing and follow up. If your child isn't proactive with their teacher, don't expect their teacher to track them down to ensure that they're getting what they need. It's unrealistic. Now, maybe this is a plug for private schools where maybe there are 15 students in a class and presumably those students would get more attention. What about COVID lockdowns? For students who are prohibited from going to school for 18 plus months, and had to learn online via Zoom while sitting on their beds, how much writing do you actually think they did? How much feedback did they get on the writing that they did? Here's a hint. Not much. Teachers were trying to figure out how to migrate all of their lessons to the digital world. They were getting pressure not to stress out the students. Many were told to give everyone A's no matter what or give no grade at all or give pass fail grades. Deadlines were waived. Extra credit was handed out like candy. There were no consequences for not showing up to class or even for being disruptive during a Zoom class. It was a mess. None of these factors motivated students to do much at all, let alone the very labor intensive job of writing and editing and rewriting and writing again. So no one wrote anything or they wrote something, got little to no feedback, and they moved on. Or maybe worse, they got an A and believe that their writing must have been fine. And lastly, what about parent aloofness? I will admit that I've been guilty of this. As long as the kids kept bringing home good grades. I wasn't asking a lot of questions, and I definitely wasn't asking to see writing samples during the lockdown. It just didn't occur to me to do such a thing. I hadn't seen a problem. I wasn't getting phone calls from the teacher or requests for a student teacher conference. So I assumed all systems were a go, and that was my fault. I should have been a more diligent advocate.

[00:09:58] Well, I don't want you to make the same mistake. Especially now. We, as parents, need to take more responsibility for our child's ability to write the English language. Again, I don't expect us to turn into AP language and composition teachers overnight or spend hours and hours tutoring our children in English. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, but I do want to make sure that we all seize the opportunity to nip a problem in the bud before it's too late. What is my goal with this episode? Number one, raise our collective awareness about how common poor writing skills are among our children, even those getting A's in their English classes. Number two, get a writing sample. This is very important. Get a writing sample from your child. If you can't get one that they wrote for their English class, then take things into your own hands and make your child write a three quarter of a page summary about a book that they just read or a movie that they just watched. I'm serious. Watch a movie together and then ask your child to write a three quarter page summary of the movie. Plot characters. Storyline. Simple stuff. Make sure they take it seriously. In fact, if you're tech savvy enough, I would actually turn off the spell check feature and the Grammarly app running in the background and see what they can do without all of these online helpers. And give them some kind of incentive if you have to. Take them out to Chick-Fil-A or go to a real movie theater to see a movie, do something to get them to provide you with a legitimate writing sample. Okay. Then what we're going to do is we're going to take a deep breath once we get the writing sample and read their work. And I would expect a few things to happen. You will either be pleasantly surprised and send me an email that I'm crazy because your child is fine at writing. And why am I sounding so many alarm bells? That would be great. Or you will be horrified at what you see. And you'll now have to come up with a plan to take your child's writing ability into your own hands. I'm not going to have time to address how you might do that in today's episode, but maybe I'll do so in a future episode, but at least you'll know. And lastly, let's get in front of the problem. If there is a problem with your child's writing ability, you need to address it now so that you don't run into real problems when it comes time to write college essays or, God forbid, go to college with such low level writing skills. Something must be done ahead of time. Now, I hope this lack of writing skills isn't as widespread as my experience would suggest. Unfortunately, I believe that it may actually be an order of magnitude worse than what I'm witnessing, because, as I said, I work with almost exclusively relatively motivated students, on the ball parents from strong academic environments. Imagine what's happening in less well-resourced places with less parental support. And again, don't expect Shakespeare when you review your child's writing, don't nitpick. If your child uses less, then instead of fewer, then don't call out the National Guard. If your child's vocabulary appears to be pretty basic, don't put them on some kind of a draconian sat words flashcard regimen. Not that there's anything wrong with that. My point is, be reasonable. You should be looking for big problems, not small problems. Are their sentences riddled with spelling errors? Do they consistently have subject verb agreement problems? Are they switching back and forth between verb tenses? Does it read like a string of text messages? Do they put commas everywhere and anywhere they feel like it? Do they end every sentence with a preposition? Are they starting sentences with 'being that the main character was afraid of _______?' Do the sentences make sense? Are they coherent? If you read them aloud, would you understand what they're trying to say? These are the types of things I want you to be on the lookout for. These are the things that must be fixed before they write their college essays.

[00:14:29] The point of this episode and of PrepWell Academy the online course is to get out in front of issues like this before it's too late so that you can make adjustments early enough that they aren't horribly disruptive. As parents we're busy. We've got a lot on our plates. If our children are getting good grades, we tend not to ask too many questions. Why stir the po? Well, the answer is because if the pot isn't stirred in a timely fashion, your child may be in for a bruising when it comes to college essays, college itself, and of course, when they eventually throw themselves at the mercy of the real world. So if you have a child in middle school or high school, your homework assignment this week is to get your hands on a recent writing sample from your child, using any means necessary to see where they stand. Are they good to go? Do they need a little extra fine tuning here and there, or are they a complete mess in need of a massive reboot? Well, I wish you luck. And please reach out to me with what you're finding out about your child's writing ability. I'd love to be proven wrong. I hope the poor writing skills that I've been witnessing is more of an exception than the rule. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. In case you didn't know, this podcast supports prep academies online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me, where I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC and athletic scholarships. Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schoolers enrolled in PrepWell Academy, which is great. If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Registration is only open during freshman or sophomore year. After that, we no longer accept new students. So if you have a freshman or a sophomore in high school and like what you're hearing in these podcasts and you'd like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child for their specific grade and interest, then go to and enroll today. If you know a parent with a middle school or high schooler that might find this helpful, please share the episode with them and give us a rating. Word of mouth and positive ratings help our podcast reach a wider audience. Of course, if you have comments, questions or an idea for an upcoming episode, please reach out to me by email. DM on Instagram. Check out our blog, Facebook page. Connect with me on LinkedIn. I would love to hear from you. Until next week... goodbye, good luck and never stop preparing.

[00:17:19] This podcast is brought to you by PrepWell Academy. PrepWell Academy is my one of a kind online mentoring program that delivers to your 9th or 10th grader a short, highly relevant video from me every week. Every Sunday, in fact, where I give them a heads up about what they should be thinking about to stay ahead of the game. To get these valuable lessons into your child's hands. Please head over to and enroll your child today.

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PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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