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Students can’t write properly even after college. It’s time we teach them – expert

It's time to bring back the readable style of writing. Pic: Shutterstock.

College kids are failing when it comes to their writing skills because schools no longer teach them on this. This calls for an overhaul of the system so students can learn how to write again, John G. Maguire, a former professor on writing and author of a college writing guide says.

In an analysis posted on Washington PostMaguire refers to the current dismal state of college students’ writing abilities, which he posits is mainly caused by colleges’ shift in the focus of their writing curriculum.

Schools now chiefly teach students rhetorical strategies and research, instead of how to produce clear sentences.

“We have to stop kidding ourselves that students can write sentences when they enter college — because many cannot — and start teaching them how to do it,” Maguire says.

“We need to revise writing courses and directly teach style — the readable style.”

With former teaching positions in several US colleges that span decades, including the Boston University School of Journalism, as well as a once-nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, Maguire is an authority in this field. He has also created writing guides for college kids, such as the Newsweek College Writing Guide and the Readability Method.

In his latest analysis, Maguire points to a research by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in a book titled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuseswhich found that nearly half (45 percent) of 2,300 students at 24 colleges had made “no significant improvement” in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their second year in college.

That finding shocked education experts when it was published a few years ago, with Bill Gates quoted as saying, “Before reading this book, I took it for granted that colleges were doing a very good job.”

According to Natalie Wexler of The Writing Revolution, a nonprofit aiming to reform writing pedagogy, there are “legions of college graduates who cannot write a clear, grammatical sentence.”

Maguire’s solution to fix this crisis quick is to urgently “redesign” varsities’ writing courses from the bottom up. If courses focus on the readability of style, the self-described “man obsessed with clear writing” says we have a fighting chance of getting somewhere within the limited time of a college semester.

Teachers can start by teaching based on the indispensable guide to simple and effective writing titled The Art of Readable Writing by Rudolf Flesch.

Maguire also calls on teachers to follow the lead of “Mr Miyagi”, the iconic character from the movie “The Karate Kid” in teaching their college-aged disciples to master readable writing styles.

Referring to the karate master’s “Wax on, wax off” method, where he tricked his disciple into learning the basic moves for the martial art first and only revealing the true purpose of those waxing and fence-painting motions after they have learned the moves, Maguire says this repetitive method may be fruitful.

“They should offer new writing courses that assume students know nothing about sentences and train new sentence behaviors from the ground up”

“Be repetitive and tricky — fool the kids into doing the right thing.”

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