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Why They Can't Write

, 288 pages

1 halftone

December 2018



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Why They Can't Write

Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities

There seems to be widespread agreement that—when it comes to the writing skills of college students—we are in the midst of a crisis. In Why They Can’t Write, John Warner, who taught writing at the college level for two decades, argues that the problem isn’t caused by a lack of rigor, or smartphones, or some generational character defect. Instead, he asserts, we’re teaching writing wrong.

Warner blames this on decades of educational reform rooted in standardization, assessments, and accountability. We have done no more, Warner argues, than conditioned students to perform "writing-related simulations," which pass temporary muster but do little to help students develop their writing abilities. This style of teaching has made students passive and disengaged. Worse yet, it hasn’t prepared them for writing in the college classroom. Rather than making choices and thinking critically, as writers must, undergraduates simply follow the rules—such as the five-paragraph essay—designed to help them pass these high-stakes assessments.

In Why They Can’t Write, Warner has crafted both a diagnosis for what ails us and a blueprint for fixing a broken system. Combining current knowledge of what works in teaching and learning with the most enduring philosophies of classical education, this book challenges readers to develop the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and habits of mind of strong writers.

John Warner is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a contributing blogger for Inside Higher Education, and an editor at large for McSweeney's Internet Tendency. He is the author or coeditor of seven books.

"An engaging, compelling, and ambitious book. Warner writes extremely well, and his main claims, driven by his expertise as both a writer and a teacher of writing, are solid and nuanced. An excellent addition to courses and programs in which future professors are being taught to teach, Why They Can't Write should be widely read."

"If we really want to inspire young people to write, the tyranny of the five-paragraph essay must first be eradicated. John Warner has decades of experience turning reluctant writers into proficient and empowered ones. Wise writers, teachers, and rhetoricians will listen to this Illinoisian preach."

"Why They Can’t Write offers a powerful diagnosis of what’s wrong with how we teach students to write and what we expect that writing to look like—the dreaded 'five paragraph essay,' for starters. But as Warner makes clear, the future of writing instruction doesn’t demand more efficient teaching machines to assess students’ vocabulary and punctuation. Rather, Warner calls for more meaningful writing experiences for students—experiences that encourage inquiry and recognize students’ (and teachers’) humanity."

"John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write offers us a plethora of insights into what has derailed education and provides invaluable suggestions for how we can set it back on track again. Where to start? Get rid of the five-paragraph essay and any other formulaic approaches that train students to be bland, passionless writers and thinkers who score points on college entrance exams through pretention, not clarity. Plethora? Why They Can’t Write is common sense, which is to say it is revolutionary. Read it!"

"From the classic five paragraph essay to standardized writing and techno-hype, Warner has traced the many paths that intersect in our current Land of Bad Writing Instruction. Fortunately, he has mapped an escape route as well. An invaluable book for anyone who cares about creating and nurturing lifetime writers in the classroom."

"In this profound-yet-practical, compassionate, funny, and learned book, brilliant teacher-writer-editor John Warner takes on multiple forms of 'folklore'—not just about writing and genres, but also about teaching and learning. Warner, who hones his own writing practice at Inside Higher Ed, laments the ways imitation writing, imitation learning, and... dare I say... imitation living result from harmful teaching. Business as usual: beware! Your days are numbered."

"Why They Can't Write is a much-needed guide for all who are concerned about students' ability to write: teachers, parents, employers, and policymakers. Warner offers a concise, comprehensive assessment of the flawed policies that have handicapped writing instruction, and lays out a new map to guide our teaching. The book's engaging mix of research, practical experience, and common sense makes it a valuable resource for anyone who cares about good writing and good teaching."

"John Warner invites you to rethink everything you have learned about education, and writing in particular. Accept that invitation. Anyone who teaches writing will finish this book—written in the author's characteristically personable prose—with the foundations for a new approach to education, along with plenty of concrete ideas for engaging new writing assignments for their students."

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