Why Johnny Can’t, Like, Write

Published March 1, 2001

Ever wonder why so many young adults these days can’t spell properly, punctuate accurately, or write in grammatically correct sentences?

According to Dr. Susan McCloskey, it’s because in many schools such concerns have ceased to be a part of the formal instruction in K-12 classrooms. McCloskey is a frequent contributor on writing to the New York State Bar Journal and president of McCloskey Writing Consultants of Verbank, New York.

“I am most dismayed to find that instruction in the mere mechanics of good writing–such as grammar, punctuation, and spelling–has become the topic of an occasional private conference between little Johnny and [his teacher] Miss Apple, rather than the explicit, public, shared work of the entire class, something important enough to devote a part of the instructional day to,” she writes in the December 2000 issue of The Objectivist Center’s Navigator.

The days of diagraming sentences are “long gone,” McCloskey notes.

McCloskey pins the blame for this change on the Whole Language philosophy of learning, where, adherents believe, children learn to read by trying to read by themselves. Part of this process involves children writing–rendering their thoughts on paper–before they can read.

In such classes, children are taught how to “write” by encouraging them to express themselves without concern for capitalization, spelling, punctuation, grammar, or other linguistic rules. The teacher’s job is to encourage self-expression, not to criticize or correct what is expressed.

“[I]t is oppressive, narrow-minded, and elitist to tell [Johnny] that the third-person plural pronoun is not a correct substitute for the singular noun in the sentence, ‘A person can be whatever they want to be,'” laments McCloskey.

While this means “Miss Apple does not have to waste precious class time on grammar instruction,” it also means she will produce “yet another generation of students with only the most glancing idea of the parts of speech, of the principles of agreement, coordination, and subordination, of the difference between a complete and an incomplete thought.”

When parents demand that schools teach their children grammar, spelling, and punctuation so they can graduate with the skill to communicate clearly and accurately, McCloskey notes, Whole Language teachers seem to regard such demands “as evidence that they are dealing with a benighted population.”

What’s a parent to do?

“Be one of those benighted parents,” advises McCloskey. When your child’s teacher lavishes praise on a badly spelled, grammatically incorrect piece of your child’s writing, ask the teacher why such work merits praise, and get angry with responses that dismiss your concerns. If your child’s teacher produces a note that reads like one of Johnny’s essays, send it to the principal with your corrections.

“In other words, be obnoxious,” she says.

Her best advice: Inoculate your children against the Miss Apples of the world by starting to teach them to read and write when they are pre-schoolers, and then continue to take an active role in their development as writers throughout their school lives.

For more information . . .

on writing instruction, consider the following books and Internet resources.

Harvey S. Wiener, Any Child Can Write, ISBN# 0195094158, Oxford University Press, 333 pages, $14.95 (1994).

“The Grammar Lady” column by Mary Newton Bruder
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Chattanooga Free Press

“The Underground Grammarian” newsletter by Richard Mitchell

McCloskey Writing Consultants–legal, corporate, and private