Writing a book review of Why They Can’t Write is a daunting undertaking. How much of my own five-paragraph essay instruction am I applying unnecessarily to this blog post?
(A feeling not at all unlike when I open with prayer for our church’s class about prayer – no pressure!) But, I digress.
I initially purchased this book to help me rework how I teach our girls, who are both in elementary school, writing. Plus, I’m all in for that subtitle – let’s make that happen! Warner writes from over two decades experience as a writing instructor at the college level. What he can’t provide in primary-level education “how-to’s” he makes up for in big-picture perspective.
In fact, Warner’s experience puts him in an ideal place to offer feedback to the primary and secondary levels that produce the students he was teaching and to offer insight into the longer-term emphasis of academic thought and creative and technical writing.
So what is he getting at with the “kill the five-paragraph-essay” assertion? Basically, in the first few chapters Warner sets up his premise. He argues that writing needs a combination of knowledge, skills, habits of mind, and attitudes – similar to how we expect a doctor or a chef to approach their professional demands. Those professionals use a range of inputs to make a diagnosis or a salad. They do not assume the same information for every patient or customer and apply the same skill.
Instead, he continues, we teach a form (the five-paragraph-essay) and evaluate students on their ability to copy the form. When they reach higher levels of education they are required to synthesize information, and often it doesn’t fit into their formula.
“It is very rare to see a five-paragraph essay in the wild; one finds them only in the captivity of the classroom.
With that serving as his foundation, Warner takes the next section to acknowledge the factors that limit effective instruction. He critiques topics such as standardized testing, education fads, and technology for the attitudes that they encourage and the detrimental impact they can have.
Values and Solutions
Continuing his efforts to offer analysis rather than simple solutions, Warner begins his third section with a provocative title chapter, “Why School?” But he goes beneath the surface question because he thinks the answer to re-structuring writing instruction is a look at what we believe the purpose of school is.
“Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, but neither is sleepless, stressed, and medicated.
Do our values and intentions as educators line up with how we are teaching our content?On the subject of writing, Warner argues that they do not.
This section of the book is his answer to what we can do to teach writing better. In it he mentions a couple writing examples that he has given to students. As someone who was reading the book to get teaching ideas for elementary-age students, these were not immediately reproducible. With some tweaking, they could effective though.
Warner’s approach links his passion for good writing with his ability to ask the “why do we do this” questions. The result are exercises with thoughtful intention that allow students to discover the nuances of writing well.
“Education is an ongoing process, not a product, and what we learn as we stumble off the path is often more valuable than when we are toeing the line.
His final section, Unanswered Questions, addresses the scope of writing that fall outside of this book. He has a chapter about academic papers, and teaching children, and even a chapter for teachers.
Educators looking for an abundance of “how-to” exercises and formulas will be disappointed in Warner’s book. There are a couple really good take-aways, but they are not the primary focus. Readers who suspect that writing instruction needs an overhaul from beneath the surface will appreciate the range of his considerations and his attention to underlying issues.
Book Review of Why They Can’t Write Conclusion
At the end of reading you will be left with a series of questions to ask yourself about writing instruction. “What do I want my students to understand about writing?” “What am I doing that is aligning with the values I hold for writing instruction?” “How do I want my students to think about writing?” “What am I doing that only holds to the folklore of teaching good writing?” “What folklore of writing instruction am I holding on to without a good reason?”
Many of the issues raised are not new to educators. Nor do they have ramifications for just writing instruction. However, Warner makes connections that are worth considering.
I taught at our local university several years ago, and I was appalled at the writing assignments that I received back from students. The majority of students were ill-equipped to write thoughtful papers that integrated ideas discussed in class.
There is no magic formula for creating brilliant writers out of students. But this book was a good reminder of the big picture and the underlying strengths of learning to write well. Applying writing instruction to real-time, familiar experiences and allowing students to discover the wonder and limits of writing goes a long way to create students capable of writing effectively in a range of situations.
And that takes more than providing a formula that purportedly fits every attempt at an essay.
If you’d like more perspective than this book review of Why They Can’t Write, check out this interview by Inside Higher Ed with John Warner about this book.