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Writing Wrongs

Technology helps close the educational -- and gender -- gaps

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The headlines were disturbing: Only 25 percent of American kids write at their grade level.

Preparing to be thoroughly depressed, I read the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress' new study, released Sept. 28, to see how bad it is. The numbers are indeed demoralizing: 23 percent of fourth-graders write proficiently, 27 percent of eighth-graders and only 22 percent of high-school seniors. Talk about an illiterate nation.

But, the report contained hope and solutions. Students should plan their writing rather than doing it on the fly. They should save their work in a folder or portfolio. They should do more than one draft. Teachers should talk to them about what they're writing. Parents should discuss their studies at home. Kids should have access to reading materials at home -- newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias and books.

And kids should use computers.

The last one jolted me a bit. No doubt, I'm a proponent of all kids having access to computers. I whine incessantly about technology as a vital tool in a high-tech world, allowing users to compete with other users for jobs, scholarships and the like. And I know well the power of using the Internet to do in-depth research (yes, it's there; you just need to learn how to find it). But, frankly, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the computer actually making a measurable difference in reading and writing.

Many technology naysayers argue that computers are low priority for schools, that kids should learn the three Rs first. Yale computer scientist David Gelernter went so far as to call computers in schools "toxic quackery" best saved as a low-priority pastime.

"First learn reading and writing, history and arithmetic. Then play Frisbee, go fishing or surf the Internet," he wrote in a now-hackneyed Time magazine essay promoting educational Luddism.

This study should give Gelernter and his ilk pause.

It makes so much sense that I'm embarrassed that I missed it until now. I'm a writer, for Christ's sake.

And I (usually) edit my work with a fine-toothed mouse. I cut, move, paste, reorder. I rework sentences. And my handy Mac helps me write and rewrite a story in minimal time flat.

The bottom line: My computer allows me to cut through the "red tape" of writing. I can spend more time writing and revising than if I was still using that Selectric II I wrote my first articles on. Why can't kids be expected to do the same thing?

I would never argue that kids should not learn to write longhand, that they shouldn't be required to read piles (and piles) of books, that they shouldn't learn their multiplication tables, and so on. But, if their interest in a piece of technology helps them become better writers, they should have access to those tools -- especially if their peers (and future competitors) do.

But this study didn't stop with computers. It found another urgent result: a large gender gap between the writing ability of girls and boys. Twice as many boys wrote below the basic level at all three grades tested. This is a big deal. I talk a lot about the math-and-science gap favoring boys -- but this study, at least, discovered that the girls' math-science gap tends to narrow more by the time the kids graduate; the boys' writing gap doesn't.

While this finding in no way should discourage our efforts to encourage girls in math and science, it should urge us to pay attention to boys' weaknesses.

And, apparently, encouraging them to use computers as a writing tool -- rather than just a joystick -- can help close that gap.

We need to help kids -- girls and boys -- learn to use computers as tools, not just toys and games. That means access to technology as one of a full menu of study aids, which includes newspapers, magazines, books, spirited conversation, debate and foreign-language skills.

The writing is on the wall.

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