Mountains, classrooms, and concert halls

In Which I Write The New York Times


Image: Maddie’s Stink Eye

As our leading newspapers are wont to do, The New York Times published a semi-informed piece (better than most, actually) about the teaching of writing.  I sent the following letter to the editor three days ago.  I’m not holding my breath for publication at this point, so I figured some other folks might see  my 150 to 175 word take.


From: Douglas Hesse <>
Date: Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at 11:52 AM
To:” <>
Subject: “Wakeup on Writing” –Response from Past President of NCTE

To the Editor:

I wonder when the Times might publish an article on treating migraines that advises both Imitrex and trepanation. That was my question after reading “A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction” [August 2], which gets so many things right—and other things wrong.  Dana Goldstein aptly insists that teachers must know best practices in writing instruction.  The National Council of Teachers of English statement Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing distills fifty years of research to those ends.

And yet the article gives voice to an approach found wanting since 1963.  That’s when Richard Braddock’s comprehensive review of empirical research concluded “The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or. . . even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.” Twenty years later, in a similar analysis, George Hillocks reaffirmed, “Every other focus of instruction. . . is stronger.” Studying grammar has some role in learning to write, but so–and more productively–does learning how to generate and organize ideas, how to fit content to specific purposes and readerships. It’s a complex interplay between parts and wholes.

The teachers that we rightly desire will know better than to start by drilling adverbial holes into skulls.

Douglas D. Hesse
Past President, National Council of Teachers of English
Co-author, The Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers
Professor of English, The University of Denver


  1. Paul Thomas

    Why Journalists Shouldn’t Write about Education

  2. Anna

    Thanks for speaking truth to those who long to know it.

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