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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Writing, Boys, Tests

Did You See the Article On The New 8th Grade Writing Scores?

In the New York Times the headline is "U.S. Students Achieve Mixed Results on Writing Test" (again I don’t want a long URL to create horrible blank spaces here, so just copy that and you’ll get the piece). I’m sure every paper has the same results, but the Times article ends up by speaking with Will FitzHugh — remember when he wrote a guest blog here? So we have a few things to consider — why do students do so poorly in writing (1/3 of 8th graders and just 1/4 of high school seniors were deemed "proficient?); is this a meaningful test? And why is it that girls do exactly twice at well at writing as boys? 

It is true that the racial gaps have declined a bit, and that the very worst writers — those who made it to "basic" have improved. So maybe NCLB has had the effect of helping those who were furthest behind. And I really have no sense of how this results compares with twenty years ago, forty, one hundred. It may well be that having 1/4 of high school seniors able to write a decent paragraph is much better than we have ever done (or, for that matter, than any large nation has ever done).

And yet — why should boys be so far behind girls, and all our kids so limited in their writing skills? You can’t blame the internet and visual culture and American Idol for this — we are doing slightly better than before the 2.0 generation. On the boys front, I can’t help but think about nonfiction — nonfiction that models thinking, that models research, that models making a case, that models point of view, that models narrative skill; nonfiction that makes strong assertions that 8th graders, or high school kids, can engage with and challenge  — I have to think that kind of nonfiction (which is also what Will gets from students and publishes in his magazine) would help raise kids awareness of what writing can be, what it can do. 

What do you think?



  1. Will Fitzhugh says:

    NAEP reports the percentage who score Basic and Above. Basic performance is pretty terrible, and if NAEP reported the percentage who scored Basic and Below, we would have a clearer picture of how poorly our students can write…

  2. Carol Baldwin says:

    As a writer and educator, I travel around the country and speak about teaching writing. I agree that I am not impressed with these “gains.” I partly blame the Internet: kids are more likely to surf the Internet or “IM” their friends than read. And this is particularly true for boys. Even though I have several friends who are writing books for guys, a middle school guy is just not as likely to sit down and read during his spare time. I also think that we’re not teaching kids to be critical thinkers. Whether fiction or nonfiction, every piece of solid writing requires the author to generate original thoughts. Lastly, I think that the preparation for writing tests includes more “canned” instruction than teaching students the craft of writing.
    Your blog obviously touched a resounding cord for me! I agree that writing and reading nonfiction (and the concurrent skills which would be required) would be more likely to produce good writing than rote test preparation.
    Carol Baldwin

  3. marc Aronson says:

    Today’s first session with the 9th graders went quite well — I am impressed with their ability to think. Now it will be interesting to see how that translates into research and writing.

  4. Marc, I’m interested in knowing what you were reading and writing when you were a young boy (under ten). What did you hang your first words on? Did you love language? Did you have to tell a story? Did you always write? What were your teachers like? What does a writer look like as a boy? What’s he doing? How is he constructing himself or how is he being constructed? I wonder if anyone has ever compiled a bunch of essays about the young lives of male writers. What, if anything, do you all have in common? Would it help us teach boys if we knew?

  5. Marc Aronson says:


    Interesting question. The first book I remember reading, which is also the one which changed me from a reluctant to an avid reader was The First Book of George Washington. I loved that it was true, and that I could learn about him. As to writing? At my school we had a great deal of freedom to think, writing was an extension of that — a way to articulate a theory I had, or information I had accumulated. But the real difference came in 11th grade — I thought I was good, but my Am History teacher said my writing read like a list, not an essay. My parents hired a tutor and I practiced writing essays, which I came to appreciate and enjoy.

    So — first, nonfiction — a subject I cared about. Then, practice. Third, learning the form, how to use an essay as a way to shape my thoughts into a convincing argument.

  6. Thank you. That’s not what I’d expected but it’s more interesting and helpful. The whole Nature vs. Nurture thing, but also that you liked what was true. It’s easy to shortchange the essay, too. Fiction. The Marsha Brady of the writing world.