Are students’ writing skills still important?

Beth Sennett and Nicki Northern challenge the dominance of test-based learning, and argue that arts-based and visual communication can empower students to succeed

Beth Sennett is a Learning Designer and Specialist Study Skills Tutor at Falmouth University

Nicki Northern is a specialist study skills tutor at University of Winchester

Why, exactly, do we think that it is important that students read and write?

Educationalist Margaret Meek posed this question in 1987, challenging a literacy norm that is ingrained in many societies.

In 2021, the Office for Students produced a report that pushed for the improvement of literacy standards in higher education. Susan Lapworth, director of regulation at the Office for Students, stated in a press release that “it is not possible to analyse and explore complex theories and arguments without being able to write well…”.

The suggestion that complex ideas can only be analysed through text-based means reinforces ableism. Craig Collinson discusses the idea of “lexism” – the theory that dyslexia is actually created because of society’s obsession with the written word.

In education, we frequently judge people on their ability to acquire and express ideas through written forms and devalue those who communicate in other ways. This tendency for education (and society in general) to consider written language to be the only legitimate way to engage in higher-order thinking leads to the delegitimisation of other forms of communication, such as oral or visual methods.

Oral literacy

Indigenous author, Sweeney Windchief explains how oral history is simplistically described as “oral tradition” and relegated to the idea of cultural studies rather than being included in the canon of history. Yet, narrative or artistic forms of communication can amplify the voices of those who are marginalised through text-based means.

The hierarchy of communication has historical roots that can be traced to the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ period. In 17th-century Europe, works of literature would be read in public spaces, such as the increasingly popular coffee houses, for others to listen to. Those who read were considered enlightened and intelligent, whereas those who listened were unthinking and uneducated.

These ideas still influence how we view literacy today. Adhering to a “lexist” mindset of literacy correctness is terribly antiquated when assistive technology apps and AI can tidy and improve grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And yet higher education still elevates the conventions of writing above creativity and originality. Does an insistence on metrics contribute to this, lauding writing that is easily quantifiable?

Meek suggests young people are writing more frequently and creatively than ever before. This is illustrated in the increasing use of social media. However, focusing on the mechanics and accuracy of writing can justify the dismissal of what young people have to say.

Rather than simply training our students to absorb and reproduce the written word and judging them on the accuracy of this, we could challenge the hierarchy of literacy and forge a more holistic path to framing our expectations of reading and writing.

Holistic development

Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, said that we need to teach students the value of learning the standard dominant language while still valuing their own vernacular and method of communication. He argues that learning to read and write is not simply about decoding or constructing words or about the quantity of books read. Instead, literacy allows us to learn, describe, and converse about the world. For this reason, it is essential to provide students with the tools to engage in this conversation.

American educator, Vicki Spandel, supported literacy development by introducing the Write Traits to pupils. The programme broke down writing into six essential elements to help students visualise the distinct parts of the writing process. These elements were:

  • Idea development
  • Organisation
  • Fluency
  • Word Choice
  • Conventions
  • Voice

Students could then focus on developing each aspect. Employing this holistic strategy in higher education could improve the confidence and self-esteem of dyslexic, neurodivergent, or indeed any students for whom text-based expression is not the default form of communication.

Universities like Falmouth, which recognise the value of arts-based courses and visual communication, empower students to look at writing as a holistic process that fosters and develops creativity and thinking. Students can be encouraged to embrace multiple forms of expression, legitimising their creative communication styles whilst being taught the value of text-based language.

The right to be educated should exist for all, and therefore, access needs to be universal. As exemplified by Universal Design for Learning, education will become more inclusive when we enable various forms of representation and expression. One way to achieve this is to deconstruct the hierarchy of literacy that has, to this point, marginalised dyslexic, neurodivergent and other learners whose primary form of communication is not text-based.

2 responses to “Are students’ writing skills still important?

  1. Thank you Beth & Nicki for a really interesting article 😊 In 2013, colleagues and I at the University of Brighton designed a second-year UG elective module (Creativity in Enterprise) that approached learning from an employer’s perspective, thinking of the beyond-academic skills that graduates would need in their subsequent careers. This led us to bring greater focus to planning, research, working in teams, ideation, problem-solving, strategising, presenting ideas etc., skills that were subsequently shown as valued and in short supply in several subsequent UK Employer Skills Surveys. We assessed learning through two team-based real-world assignments with group presentations, and one reflective piece of individually submitted work that wove in academic references. Final grades were objectively derived (we agonised over how to do this, but were happy with the criteria and method adopted), were well distributed within groups of around 100 students each year, and appeared to correlate well with the observed effort of individuals. This elective proved very popular with students and had some great outcomes, including the emergence of new and more diverse student-friendship groups, a willingness of students to celebrate differences (thus rendering the perspectives of divergent thinkers and minority students more important within teams) and a clear improvement in the grounded confidence of participants.

  2. Just got round to reading this. I think there are some very contentious points here.

    The article refers to: ‘Societies obsession with the written word’. It sounds radical, especially when accompanied by an ahistorical reference to Freire, but carries very conservative implications. Writing and reading are central to the advance of any culture.

    The article states: ‘Susan Lapworth, director of regulation at the Office for Students, stated in a press release that “it is not possible to analyse and explore complex theories and arguments without being able to write well…”. The suggestion that complex ideas can only be analysed through text-based means reinforces ableism.’

    But Susan Lapworth did not say ideas can ‘ONLY be analysed …’ She simply held up the importance of being able to write well. Many undergrads can’t. That holds them back greatly, and we do them no favours in relativising the importance of writing and reading. We still see the discredited mantra of ‘learning styles’ in HE, which has become an excuse for not challenging weaknesses or deficiencies, themselves often the product of poor education.

    The actual pathologisation of writing through the idea of “lexism” – the theory that dyslexia is actually created because of society’s obsession with the written word – would strike most people as odd and potentially has very negative consequences for those who struggle with writing. People’s difficulties with writing and reading need to be recognised and addressed in so far as we are able to do so. In doing this we are educating people, and enabling them to educate themselves. It’s what schools and universities are for.

    A small point – some neurodivergent students love to read and write.

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