In today's episode, I bring up a question that most parents can't answer:
Is my child a good writer?
Can my child write a 3-sentence email without an error in spelling, punctuation, or grammar?
My guess: probably not.
Please listen to today's episode to find out how to make sure your child doesn't fall into this category.
Hello, friends. Welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. Today I want to circle back to writing skills. I've touched on this topic several times in the past few months, in part because I'm still knee deep in college essay editing with my private prep class, and also because I recently got my hands on my freshman four page book report on Flowers for Algernon, which really focused my attention on the state of writing for today's teenagers yet again.
It also occurred to me recently that if a student, when they leave high school and college for that matter, can't read or write well, they better be good at math. And if they aren't good at math, they better be very creative or good at public speaking because there are too many other things that there are to be good at.
Even if you're mechanically inclined and you're looking for a job in the trades or the military, reading and writing and math are playing a bigger and bigger role in those areas. So if you think about your child and do a quick skill audit, question number one should be are they good at math? If so, they have a fighting chance.
It's likely they can find something to do. Presumably they have the capacity to master some type of quantitative skill. Maybe they go into engineering, architecture, STEM account, finance, bookkeeping, something. At least they can figure something out. What happens if they're not good at math? As I said, if they're particularly creative or well-spoken, then they may have a shot in the arts or sales or politics or activism.
But what if they're not good at math or reading or writing? Yikes. This can close an awful lot of doors. And by the way, it's not as if the STEM students are off the hook. Even STEM students need to read research papers, write white papers, consider grant proposals, and articulate their findings. And yes, I may help out in this regard, and I could be completely wrong about the need for reading and writing skills.
But I'm not ready to give up so easily. If your child can't read or write well, it forecloses a lot of jobs and industries and career fields and opportunities in general. Many students whom I work with who, by the way, normally get A's in the quote unquote tough English classes like AP language and composition. They are hard pressed to write a three sentence email without significant errors, whether it's spelling or punctuation or syntax or grammar or all of the above.
Now, some of this might be cleaned up by spellcheck and eventually chat GPT and AI. But do we really want to rely on these artificial backups just to be able to write a simple email? I don't think so. I've been communicating with a particularly surprised father who recently discovered how lacking his child's basic writing and communication skills were.
His child is a senior in high school, and the father happened to get a look at a draft of his child's college essay. And needless to say, it wasn't pretty. And the father was justifiably disturbed by the level and the quality of writing, particularly because his child had had no issues with his grades in the most rigorous English classes at a well reputed public high school.
He couldn't believe his eyes. And as I told him, I'm not sure this made him feel much better. But this is happening all the time. Everywhere you look. Meaning students are getting through high school without being able to write, let alone write well, But very few parents realize that it's happening or they do know that it's happening and they're in denial.
That's why I've been beating this drum for a few years now. I've suggested many times that you must get your hands on something that your child has written recently to do a sanity check. Does the writing do the sentences make any sense? How is the grammar, the spelling, the subject verb agreement, the punctuation? In a perfect world, the gold standard is to get your hands on a writing sample that was written by your child by hand in class, contemporaneously with little or no preparation.
Just like they used to do on the SAT and the act. Instead of something that they wrote on their computer that could have been quote unquote, influenced by chat by a friend, an online quote unquote sample and the like. If you can't get the former, then at least get your hands on the latter. You need something to evaluate If you have a particularly strong relationship with your child.
Maybe you can ask them to sit down on a Saturday morning at the kitchen table and write you a one page paper on any topic of their choice. It could be about a book that they're reading in class. It could be about a political event, a basketball game, anything they want. Ideally, they write it by hand on a piece of paper with no phone or computer around.
And by the way, if you can pull this off, please let me know, because this is normally an act of God to have any teenager agree to this. I see it all the time because I help a lot of students with their college essays with brainstorming and outlining and shaping and writing and editing. I've helped hundreds of students over the years, including my older three sons.
I know the state of play, and as I said, it ain't pretty for my private prep welders, whom I spend months and months with on their essays. It's a bit easier to teach them what they apparently have not yet learned because we have time and I have access to them. So when I make a suggestion on their essay, whether it's stylistic or grammatical or structural, we have time to discuss why I'm making that suggestion.
However, when it gets down to crunch time, like right now with some essays due in just a few weeks, it's a lot harder to not only help them edit the essays, but to teach them at the same time. There's just not enough time. Teaching writing is extremely labor intensive, and in order to eat my own dog food, I swallowed hard and asked my ninth grader if I could see his four page paper on the book Flowers for Algernon.
Now, immediately, he said, It's not done yet. I can't share it because it's on my school computer. I'm still working on it. He really backpedaled. He was seemingly reluctant to give it up, which again, is very common. So I said, okay. When it gets to a point where you're happy with it, let me take a look at it.
And he cautiously agreed. At long last, his paper was due the next day and he handed me his laptop or his Chromebook, whatever it was. He said, okay, here it is. He handed me the laptop and I thanked him. I told him I let I let him know after I'd given it a look. He left the room. I immediately printed out the four pages and put it on my desk and I took out my red pen.
It took me about an hour to review the paper. Now, it wasn't horrendous, thankfully, but it wasn't good. So I called him in and of course, immediately his eyes rolled back in his head when he saw the extent of the red markups. And we sat down together at my desk, in my office, shoulder to shoulder, and we started to walk through my thoughts.
Now, if you attempt to do what I'm about to share with you and walk through a piece of written work with your child with an eye on giving them constructive feedback, you need to be extremely careful if you come in too hot and embarrass them or put them too much on their heels. It may be the last time they ever let you see another paper.
You must try to be judicious, find things that are positive, even if it's hard to do. Meet them halfway. Don't destroy the paper as much as you might be tempted to. Especially with a ninth grader who presumably has a lot of room for improvement at all costs. You want the experience to be a net positive when you're done so that they will give you access to another paper down the road.
If you're so heavy handed and make it a forced march, you might lose them. I tried my best to toe the line. I got pretty close to the edge a few times, as I'm wont to do to blowing up the whole affair. But then I backed off. Also were to the wise, Make sure your child is well fed.
Make sure that the phone is in the other room. Make sure they have something to drink. Now, in our case, as we went over the edits, my son was making the changes on his laptop in real time. What I didn't want to do is just hand him my markups and allow him to quickly integrate all of my suggestions.
With no idea why I even made them. This happens all the time. It happens when you use a Google doc. You make suggestions. You share it with a student. I will make, I don't know, 60 suggestions about different word choices or correcting spelling or punctuation. And the student can then accept all 60 changes with the click of one button and not even look at the suggestions themselves.
And poof, all of my suggestions magically become part of the new version. I've actually seen this happen in real time. I would share a document with a student I'm working with with call it 60 suggestions, and 3 hours later I would just, just by luck happen to get back to that shared page. I'd see that the student is on the page and I see that all of a sudden, boom, accept all changes all at once.
The whole essay is done in one second and it was obvious that the student wasn't even considering why I made the suggestions. They just hit the easy button. If we have enough time. I don't do that. I walk them through the suggestions like I did with my ninth grader. But when it comes to crunch time, or if you're not a dedicated teacher, that easy button can happen pretty easily.
That's not ideal. So in my son's case, I sat and explained why I made each suggestion, and I only let him make the change on his laptop once he understood why the change was necessary. Mind you, this takes a lot of time and patience. But how else will the student ever learn? Back in the day, a teacher might hand us back a rough draft actual pieces of paper with a bunch of red marks and suggestions, and we would rewrite the final draft by hand, incorporating some of the teacher's suggested changes.
That's how we learned. We rewrote papers. Today, this doesn't happen. If a student is lucky enough to even have a teacher make suggestions to an online paper with a few bubble comments, it's much easier for the student to make those changes without really understanding why they're doing it. They just click a few buttons and then they turn it in and likely never look at it or see it again.
They get a grade, which oftentimes is an A, and they never question it. They never look back. What about classes where teachers don't provide any feedback at all? They just grade the paper and they move on. If the student gets an A in the paper, they assume that their writing is not only okay, but maybe even perfect until someone else gets their eyes on it.
Why do you think they removed the essay section of the SAT and the act a few years ago? I think they were afraid to confront the rapid decline in writing across the country, and especially in under-resourced areas. Better not to see anything. Don't raise any questions. Just push people through. Ignorance is bliss, and I don't want to spend a lot of time speculating on why this decline seems to be happening, although there seems to be a couple of usual suspects.
COVID lockdowns, social media, phone addictions, video games, mental health issues decline in respect for authority, lack of purpose, lack of vision for the future, skyrocketing costs of higher ed, leading some teens to give up on the dream of college, the growing victimhood mentality. And I'm sure I'm missing quite a few contributing factors. So I started going over my feedback with my ninth grader, and it sounded something like this.
Although I know you can't see the paper in front of you. So first one was Hey, aren't titles of books, i.e. Flowers for Algernon supposed to be italicized? So my ninth grader says, Oh yeah, I forgot. So we need to change that and italicize it. Then we get to the next sentence. I can see in the next sentence you're jumping back and forth between present tense and past tense in the same sentence.
Is there any reason why you're doing that? And my ninth grader said, No, I just didn't notice it. Okay, let's let's tidy that up. And then I ask them to listen to this phrase. Humans almost always opt to try to put down others. And I asked, Doesn't that sound a bit clunky? Humans always opt to try to put down others.
Wouldn't it be more clear if you just said humans often belittle others? And he said, Yeah, that sounds a lot smoother. And I said, Exactly. Try to be efficient in your writing. If you can use one word to replace a five word phrase. Maybe you should consider that. Next, I said, You see how you use this phrase. Society at large, three times in the same paragraph.
Try to mix that up a little bit. It starts to get too repetitive and it loses some of its punch. So make sure you're going through paragraphs, making sure you're not repeating the same term or phrase over and over and over again. So he says, okay, and we fix that. Okay. And when you write, quote, Charlie's friends always try to hide their insecurities by being cruel.
So my question to you is, do they always do this or do they do it some of the time? And my ninth grader says, well, they don't always do it, but they they often do it. I said, great, let's let's use the word often. Try not to use extreme language like always and every time when it's not needed or when it's not factual.
Then I ask him to listen to the sentence, quote. Charlie was upset that he never even knew he was being used comma, and he was faced with an even bigger decision period. And I said, Remember, you can't just tack on another thought into a sentence by adding a random comma. You need to split those two sentences up. Don't be afraid to make a short sentence.
Not every sentence has to be long and fancy with a lot of commas. Get comfortable writing different length for sentences. It keeps the reader engaged. So he said, okay. And we fixed that up. Now here's a doozy. Try to follow this sentence when I read it out loud. Quote Charlie, throughout the novel, is in a constant battle between the new Charlie and the old Charlie comma.
He tries time and time again to connect with Alice on a more intimate level comma, but the two always seem to end up distraught and tear apart comma. As Alice knows, this sort of relationship could never work, comma, as Charlie's intelligence is changing too rapidly. Period. That's just. It's too many concepts strung together with commas. You have to break these thoughts down, figure out exactly what you're trying to say.
And again, don't be afraid to use shorter sentences. Don't just string on in a stream of consciousness, fashion, whatever you're thinking, and put commas in between them. He said, okay. And we clean that sentence up. We go to the next one. Quote, As a society, humans tend to mask their insecurities as a way of promoting power. So I asked the ninth grader is promoting the right word here as a way of promoting power.
And the ninth grader said, Ah, doesn't sound quite right. I said, How about as a way of projecting power? He said, Yeah, projecting power. That sounds better. So the lesson here was choose your words carefully and wisely. And if it doesn't sound quite right, dig into that and find the right word in this sentence. Quote. Furthermore, Charlie's rapid increase in intelligence also impacted his understanding of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
He used the phrase rapid increase five times in the essay and we go control F and we search for the phrase rapid increase, and we see that there's five times that rapid increase was used in the essay. So how about we use a better word for rapid increase? How about rapid increase in intelligence? How about a spike in intelligence?
He said, All right, that sounds that sounds better. I then say, you say here, quote, Charlie's inability to understand social iteration and romantic connection leads him through a wild journey of romantic incomprehension. Throughout the story. So we're going to have to go through this step by step. What do you mean by social iteration? Is that what a social iteration mean?
It sounds like the wrong word. How about his inability to understand social cues? And the ninth grader said, Yeah, that's better, cuz is a better word. I don't know what. I don't know why I said social interaction. Great. So let's use the word social cues. That's better. And then the next one was you use the phrase romantic connections.
Did you really mean romantic connections? And he said, No, not really. What I meant was that Charlie didn't get the right signals from Alice. I said, Great, That's a much better word. Romantic signals, not romantic connections. And then finally I said, Did you really want to say that it leads him through a wild journey or on a wild journey?
And he said, Oh, yeah, on a wild journey sounds a lot better. So I think you get the gist here. And as you can tell, this can be a very labor intensive activity. But what choice do we have? If a teacher has 36 students, there's no way that he or she could do this. Even if they wanted to.
It just takes too much time, too much attention, too much patience. Now, maybe your child is a great writer and all of this is completely irrelevant for you. I hope that's the case. I don't want to suggest that every single student out there needs writing help, but I know that a lot do, and I have a lot of receipts.
I'm also not suggesting that you, the parent, need to do this type of review and editing and suggesting for every single paper. That would be unrealistic. But I do recommend that you get your hands on a writing sample sooner rather than later, just as a gut check. And maybe you do a deep dive like I'm suggesting, like I just did maybe once a semester, Twice a semester.
Your child might learn more during your session together than the entire year of English class. I've had many private students tell me that they learned more from me going over their essays like I just did with my ninth grader than they've learned in three years of honors English. Now that's saying more about the weakness of the system than it is about anything that I'm doing.
I'm just taking the time to be deliberate and systematic and meeting the students where they are. You don't want to be like that, Dad, who realizes halfway through senior year that his child needs considerable writing remediation before heading off to college. And I commend this dad for not looking the other way, not putting his head in the sand and facing reality and taking action steps to help his child beef up their writing skills over the next few months.
And by the way, his child wants to go into stem where reading and writing is important, but it's not even really a core skill.
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.
Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.