Universities ask: Why can’t high school grads write?

The head of English at a Toronto area high school says Ontario university and college professors expect too much from high school graduates when they first write essays and tests.

Last week, several Ontario post-secondary faculty complained about ill-prepared students being dumped at their door each fall. As well, the Legislative Research Service at Queen’s Park also recently released a survey which showed high school graduates’ numeracy skills lacking.

Lara Bozabalian, head of Markham’s Markville Secondary School’s English department, said  getting students to think critically in high school while maintaining a level of clarity and structure in their writing is a continuing problem.

“(It’s) skills versus knowledge. Students have not yet connected all the dots. They can’t express themselves in writing,” she said. “The students are incredibly creative; maybe that’s the trade-off?”

This balancing act between teaching high school students utility versus creativity has, according to Bozabalian, blurred the focus of some students. She also believes forcing students to make decisions about their future educational endeavours when they are still in Grade 10 affects their focus in the classroom.

“(It has a) huge effect on students’ abilities,” she said. “They’re conscious they have to get things done earlier. It’s more stressful; the only common denominator is hysterics.”

Brock University faculty claim lax high school curricula are to blame, while others point to changing teaching methods. Some teaching assistants, including Charles Sule, doctoral student and teaching assistant at Ryerson University, believe high school graduates lack the focus to write a formal essay.

“There’s often no real thesis statement,” he said. “Essays are more expository. Students often integrate more than one weak thesis into their papers.”

Bozabalian also noted the role technology plays in students’ lives, stressing they now have a multitude of sources for distraction.

“Online they have everywhere to go at once,” she said. “Grammar has become outsourced …  (and) students also don’t practise handwriting anymore.”

Bozabalian also notes that student maturity is a contributing factor to their lack of preparedness for post-secondary level writing. She said students are forced to make ever increasingly critical decisions earlier in their development, while being bombarded with information from every source.

Another factor cited is a lack of student knowledge regarding expectations at the university level.  Carol Ricker-Wilson, instructional leader in English and literacy at the Toronto District School Board, claims universities must be held accountable to their students by providing a reasonable representation of expectations.

“At evey level, writing and reading are complicated (and) students need models (from professors) to get an example of what good work is,” she said.

Ricker-Wilson emphasized that the TDSB has met with college and university faculty to gain their input to help prepare students. She believes further consultation is key to reducing students’ difficulties adjusting to the post secondary level.

As Bozabalian put it, “we haven’t found the bridge yet.”

To read the province-wide Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) results, please go to http://www.eqao.com/categories/home.aspx?status=logout&Lang=E

About this article

By: Sean Sillers
Posted: Dec 14 2009 2:17 pm
Filed under: Arts & Life

1 Comment on "Universities ask: Why can’t high school grads write?"

  1. anton walcott | December 15, 2009 at 12:39 pm |

    Here we go again. University professors must understand that high school is a far different environment that university. I learned to write formal essays while at university. Universities have an obligation to teach students the types of writing they expect from their students, but then they will have a hard time doing so as professors are not trained teachers. In addition, possibly the only place formal essays are required is in university. Maybe formal essays are outdated and universities need to rethink and explore various types of writing as very few people if any write formal essays once they leave university.

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