Fixing classroom environments could improve perception of reading and writing

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As someone who developed an early interest in reading books, it always puzzled me why so many people find reading and writing difficult. Reading and writing are so underappreciated and neglected, 17 percent of incoming college freshmen still require remedial writing courses, according a 2003 case study conducted by The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges.

The main fault for this general mindset of hating reading and writing stems from how it is taught to students in the first place. Unlike science and math, it is harder to develop and test a student’s competence in English classes precisely because it is a more ambiguous subject. For example, the Pythagorean Theorem is a universally defined mathematical theorem, while describing a dog in English class has more variability depending on the subject tenses, perspective and verb agreements used. As a writing tutor at the UCR Academic Resource Center, I have discovered that students oftentimes never got serious feedback on their writing. From my personal experience of attending both private and public schools, English teachers certainly do not universally give individual feedback to each of their students.

The limited amount of feedback high school teachers provide to students can be attributed to a couple of key factors. Particularly, classroom overcrowding — as shown through the 2013 pupil-teacher ratio where public schools averaged 16.1 students per classroom compared to the 12.2 for private schools — has caused more teachers to become disengaged.

This issue of teacher-student disengagement helps explain why colleges are faced with a higher percentage of students needing remedial classes prior to taking their actual major requirements. This also explains why there is a consistent pushback against Common Core standards, which aim to make all American students reach the same educational standards through setting certain testing scores. In other words, merely setting national educational standards fails to address the growing issue of student disengagement. It is only through better engagement overall between teachers and students, through things like games and brief in-class discussions, as researchers Adena M. Klem and James P. Connell found, that a student’s odds of success were higher.

This brings into question why teachers are likelier to fail at engaging than students themselves. Findings by Harvard Assistant Professor Brian A. Jacob on teacher shortages reveal that the fault mainly lies in teachers oftentimes lacking the resources and suitable wage compensation for their job overall. While having more universally qualified teachers would certainly help, the study found that the success rate of a teacher depending on their qualifications was negligible. In other words, just as students are more receptive to different teaching tactics, so are teachers in terms of their mentoring success. This variability in success measurement helps explain why the humanities oftentimes are underfunded and sometimes cut out of a school program entirely. Overall, if teachers were given enough support to not have to stress out over sustaining themselves, their teaching performance would improve tremendously. There would be fewer teachers trying to supplement their wages through tactics such as driving for Uber.

While the benefits of reading and writing are endless, their receptibility amongst Americans still boils down to how they are taught in the classroom setting. Personally, I have found that the students whose essays earned high marks were those who could connect with the prompt better. Instead of treating the essays as tests where you need to construct grammatically correct sentences, students need to be taught to realize that their overall argument is the most important factor. One particular highlight of my tutoring job was when I helped a student to connect Norse mythology to their Spanish telenovelas. Because I was able to engage my student by pointing out how her vast knowledge of the telenovela made for a strong argument, I essentially eliminated the hurdle of reading and writing as “being hard” for her.

If more English teachers were to try and engage their students by actually setting them aside for personal one-on-one writing sessions, perhaps there would be less people feeling a mixture of boredom, frustration and hatred toward the act of reading and writing. In order for students to get this kind of feedback, though, there must first be changes to classroom structures and resource availability for teachers.

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