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Best students 'barely literate'

UNITED STATES

Writing standards have plunged to crisis levels, reports Stephen Phillips

MORE than half of America's best students sail through school and make it to university without picking up more than an elementary grasp of how to write, according to new research.

The alarming state of writing is a reflection of how 20 years of curriculum reform have overlooked it in favour of the more easily quantifiable of the 3Rs, reading and arithmetic, say the study's authors.

Nine-year-old pupils spend less than three hours a week writing, but 15 hours slumped passively in front of the TV.

Three-quarters of sixth-formers are never given written assignments in humanities classes, says the report, published by the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges.

"It's a C-minus if I have to put a grade on it," said Peter Magrath, leader of the panel of educators convened to probe the writing crisis.

The Neglected: The Need for a Writing Revolution notes that writing has been overlooked in reforms partly because it does not yield the figures craved by law-makers, who hold the education purse-strings.

"There is a total devaluation of teaching of good writing and, along with that, intelligent reading," said Mr Magrath, who produced the report for the college board that administers the two university entrance tests, the SAT and the ACT.

Only half the students met basic requirements in the prose section of the latest USA-wide national assessment of education progress exams, taken at nine, 13 and 18.

Just one in five was judged "proficient". Last week's report adds that more than 50 per cent of university entrants are unable to produce essays without grammatical errors, or that are cogentlywritten. "If students are to learn, they must write," it concludes.

American universities foot an annual $1billion bill (pound;623 million) for extra lessons to help bring students' writing up to scratch, while employers measure the cost in workers lacking adequate communication skills.

But identifying the problem may prove easier than fixing it. The report noted that bureaucratic overheads and other demands on teachers' time often rule out setting written work because they haven't time to mark submissions.

"There's no magical solution - it requires daily effort to give students individual feedback," said Judy Buchanan, of the National Writing Project, which promotes writing in US classrooms.

To this end, Mr Magrath is calling for schools to hire dedicated writing coaches. This is one goal of the five-year campaign, dubbed "A Writing Challenge to the Nation", that the commission has launched to revamp the teaching of writing.

Other demands include retooling education standards, with guidelines on writing, setting aside time each week for teaching it, and making writing theory compulsory in teacher-training courses.

Meanwhile, Judy Buchanan said she was encouraged by plans to add writing portions to the SAT from 2005. "What is measured in the end becomes what is taught," she said.

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