Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Is Professional Writing the Missing Link in High School English Classes?

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 25, 2018 | Corrected: October 04, 2018 8 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated Steve Graham’s affiliation. He is a professor at Arizona State University.

If you want a hint of the gap between students’ writing skills and workplace demands, look at Amanda Baker’s new English class in Wayne, Mich.

Forget composing technical manuals; when the Wayne Memorial High School teacher developed a new course in professional writing, she found her students weren’t familiar with writing formats of people even a few years older.

“The vast majority of my class have never attempted to write email; they only text,” Baker said.

While employers and educators have been working to infuse more career and technical content into K-12 curricula, studies show some of the most common writing tasks in the work world never find their way into high school English courses, and modern students may be less likely than those in previous generations to learn professional writing on their own.

“The assumption is typically that writing is a single skill, and that’s not really a correct assumption. I might be good at writing scientific articles, but God help me if I had to write a novel or poetry,” said Steve Graham, a writing education expert and a professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. “It’s pretty clear there is not a strong match between what businesses are looking for and what schools are doing. [Writing in school] really has more of an emphasis on what might happen in college than in the workplace.”

From business leaders to engineers, industry professionals consistently rate written communication skills as among the most important for new workers. Yet even in the wake of new academic standards in most states that encourage more writing, educators and researchers find writing instruction inconsistent and more focused on academic than practical writing. That’s why some educators and business leaders are experimenting with ways to infuse career writing into students’ high school years, in or out of English class.

Baker’s English class at Wayne Memorial High, and Tony Nassivera’s business class at Hudson Falls High School in Hudson Falls, N.Y., are two cases in point.

While in two different departments, both teachers developed their courses to bring in working professionals and human-resource staff from multiple fields to help students understand what writing they will need on the job. Baker’s students use simulations of common work scenarios, from company meetings to product proposals, to learn to write alone and in groups.

“In my general English class, I have to keep reminding students, ‘Even if you don’t become an English teacher, this will still be useful,’ ” Baker said. “In business writing, they see that here immediately.”

What Is Workplace Writing?

Though employer surveys tend to be vague about the specific skills in “written communication,” studies and interviews do show some consistent requests, including the ability to analyze and explain concepts and situations succinctly, engage in clear and courteous conversations, present evidence-backed arguments and requests, and switch tone and format to respond to different audiences.

Data Snapshot

76 percent of business executives and 78 percent of hiring managers identify being able to communicate effectively in writing as a very important skill for recent college graduates.

Source: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2018

“It’s small things,” said Kyleen Gray, a literacy department head at Rainbow District School Board in Ontario, who also coaches U.S. teachers in how to incorporate business writing in English. “Academic writing is almost universally third person; business communication can be as formal, but more personal and more purposeful—getting someone to buy something or hire you, for instance. A report is not the same as a [book] review.”

A 2018 survey by the American Society for Engineering Education found that leaders in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields listed professional communication skills as the most important in their fields, above even problem-solving, analytical skills, and technical-writing skills.

“As you look at Gen Z, the kids in middle and high school and those entering the workforce right now, they’ve grown up in a world of 120 characters and Instagram; that’s how they’ve learned to communicate,” said H. John Oechsle, the president and chief executive officer of Swiftpage, a Denver-based digital marketing firm. Oeschsle is also a member of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Business Experiential Learning Commission, which is working with businesses to help students develop workplace skills. “What we’re finding is, as younger folks are entering the marketplace, they have a real issue with putting together short, concise, and clear written communication about something, whether it’s a project or a problem that they’re trying to solve. This is a real problem, and it’s getting worse, not better.”

National surveys of middle and high school teachers have found that even after the advent of the Common Core State Standards, which stress writing across all subjects, teachers use relatively few writing tasks frequently. Of the tasks they did use at least once a month, virtually none involved the kinds of writing that would be needed in the workplace, such as analysis or formal persuasive writing. In both middle and high schools, the most common written tasks were short-answer questions, worksheets, and note-taking while reading or listening. Explanations and analysis were used in high school but not as commonly as the other tasks.

Writing in and Out of School

Most common writing tasks in secondary school:

  • Note-taking while listening
  • Short-answer responses
  • Worksheets
  • Reading analysis/interpretation
  • Explanations

Common professional writing tasks:

  • Clear and courteous emails
  • Succinct explanation of concepts or situations
  • Evidence-backed persuasive writing
  • Conveying the same information for different audiences
  • Conducting or responding to a written interview

Source: “High School Teachers’ Use of Writing to Support Students’ Learning: A National Survey,” Reading and Writing, 2014; Education Week

“The most common activities involve writing without composing. How often do kids write stuff that requires more than a single page? Not very often,” said Graham of Arizona State University. “There’s not enough writing going on for students to meet the needs employers are looking for to be successful in the workplace.”

In 2011, the National Assessment of Educational Progress changed its writing exam to focus on more real-world writing tasks, such as persuading, explaining, and conveying experiences. Little more than 1 in 4 students at either 8th or 12th grade performed proficiently on the 2011 writing exam. For example, only 23 percent of students wrote a competent or effective letter giving evidence for or against a proposed business in a town. And nearly 40 percent of students exhibited developing, marginal, or no skill at explaining a type of technology they used frequently. Moreover, 8th grade gender and racial achievement gaps were significantly wider on the writing test than in the same year’s reading NAEP.

The writing test allowed students to use more digital tools for writing, such as computer-based spell-check, thesaurus, and editing functions. Students who frequently used editing and thesaurus tools performed better on the test, but most students did not use those tools.

Leveraging Tech or Pushing Back?

Like Baker, Nassivera said the transition from emotional, casual, highly abbreviated texting to business correspondence tends to be the hardest skill for students to master in his business course.

“When you are going into the professional world—I can’t find a less blunt way to say it—you have to sound smart. In the way you write and the words you choose, you have to sound credible,” Nassivera said. “If you are working with someone in their 50s and you are in your 20s, a smiley emoji is just not going to be considered professional.”

Knowing the basic format for an email isn’t enough, according to a forthcoming study in the October issue of the journal English for Specific Purposes. Researchers in England and Hong Kong gave students a series of assignments in which they were asked to write a series of emails with a client and a manager in an ongoing business scenario, using information from both prior emails and a voicemail.

Stephen Bremner, an associate English professor at City University of Hong Kong who focuses on workplace communication, found the student writers faced “considerable challenges” in deciding what information to include from different texts, how to present problems, and how to consider their readers. “Students need to be encouraged to think about the relationship as well as the message and to consider the question of how to acknowledge the ongoing dialogue and relationship effectively,” Bremer and his co-author noted.

In a series of assignments, Nassivera helps his students build up from their texting. Students take a recent substantive text and try to rewrite it using no abbreviations but keeping the meaning. From there, students study how businesspeople like Apple founder Steve Jobs wrote emails and memos and work their way up to writing formal e-mails to district staff.

‘Immediate Payoff’

Baker said she tries to adapt her English course each year to practical skills in areas that interest students, such as writing business plans to pitch a new company or practicing the résumés, cover letters, and formal correspondence associated with job searches. That project proved particularly useful for one of Baker’s 12th grade students, Jessica Leigh, who graduated this spring. “The job I found was a coaching job, and I needed the money, so I did the project but at the same time, I actually applied for the job,” she said.

A few classes later, Leigh asked Baker’s permission to keep her mobile phone turned on in class; she was expecting a call back from Sky Hawk Sports, the youth-coaching company she had researched.

“I put it on speaker, and everybody in class was quiet while the guy was talking with me"—to offer her the job—"but after we hung up, everybody was cheering and stuff,” she said. “It was really cool.”

Baker agreed. “It was so nice to see that immediate payoff for her. That is where the growth became really tangible.”

Leigh noted that neither her other English nor business classes in high school taught her how to communicate in a professional environment. “I even had a marketing class where I worked in the school store and learned money handling, but it never taught me anything about writing or résumés or job interviewing. Until I had [Baker’s] class, I didn’t know anything about it,” Leigh said.

She has continued to coach children for the sports group over the summer to save up for college to pursue a business degree later this fall.

“I’m really glad I took that class,” she said, “because otherwise, I wouldn’t have this job.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as When Book Reports and Essays Aren’t Enough

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