The Globe picked up a Canadian Press article today, whose title echos the favourite refrain of big media and other institutional onlookers of so called social media: "Students failing because of Twitter, texting." In it the author cites some "solid evidence" for the demise of writing skills at the post secondary level:
Ontario's Waterloo University is one of the few post-secondary institutions in Canada to require the students they accept to pass an exam testing their English language skills.
Almost a third of those students are failing.
"What has happened in high school that they cannot pass our simple test of written English, at a minimum?" she asks.
Even those with good marks out of Grade 12, so-called elite students, "still can't pass our simple test," she says.
Poor grammar is the major reason students fail, says Barrett.
"If a student has problems with articles, prepositions, verb tenses, that's a problem."
We've heard all this before. Poor writing? Increased use of social media? Let's connect the dots. A little further into the article, we find some other interesting bits; let's start with grammar:
Some students in public schools are no longer being taught grammar, she believes.
"When I went to high school in the '70s I was never taught grammar in English. I learned grammar from Latin classes."
"We haven't taught grammar for 30-40 years...(and it) hasn't worked."
"It's not that hard to teach basic grammar," he says.
I learned grammar studying classical Greek through four years of university. I was never properly taught grammar in high school, because that final statement above is false: it is hard to teach grammar, or perhaps it is hard to teach it well. Grammar, as an abstract system, is very difficult to grasp when you only know one language. Without being able to step outside English and examine it from the vantage point of Greek, I don't think I would have ever understood it. But in the context of learning a second language, especially its literature, one is forced to map grammatical structures back and forth. You can be a very good speaker or writer of English and not know the names for the constructions you use. You can't learn to read another language without them. In other words, the need for grammar has to be real if one is to learn and then retain it. I think many of the high school students who failed these tests did in fact learn grammar; they just didn't retain it beyond the final exam.
Another issue discussed at length is spelling, contractions, and other short forms:
Emoticons, happy faces, sad faces, cuz, are just some of the writing horrors being handed in, say professors and administrators at Simon Fraser.
"Instead of 'because', it's 'cuz'.
"The words 'a lot' have become one word, for everyone, as far as I can tell. 'Definitely' is always spelled with an 'a' -'definitely'. I don't know why," says Paul Budra, an English professor and associate dean of arts and science at Simon Fraser.
I find the last example particularly funny. The use of alot vs. a lot frustrates me, I'll be honest. I have a friend who uses 'alot' exclusively, and one day I decided to send him a private note telling him of his mistake. He replied politely that he knew, and had made a conscious decision to change the spelling as a way of normalizing 'alot.' I was blown away at first, but later, upon reflection, had some respect for his decision. Spelling reforms have happened throughout history, whether through decree or by means of popular usage shifts. If 'definitely' is always spelled 'definately,' it soon will be. Is it E-Mail, E-mail, e-mail, or email? Spelling is very much influenced by usage, just as meaning.
Students haven't learned grammar. Students haven't learned to spell. Ergo:
Cellphone texting and social networking on Internet sites are degrading writing skills, say even experts in the field.
"even experts" notwithstanding, how do we make the leap from an obvious lack of focused study on particular areas of language learning, and the increased use of cellphones, social networking, and the web? Furthermore, how is it that these are degrading writing skills?
I have spent the past decade teaching software engineering to third and fourth year undergraduate students. I teach in what is often thought to be an illiterate discipline (in addition to English and Greek philology, I also studied Computer Science, so I can speak from experience). What does programming have to do with writing? A lot (or should I say, Alot).
In my courses I expect students to do a great deal of writing and reflecting. Students are asked to keep a blog, use Twitter, collaborate on wikis, and communicate in real time using irc. My experience in doing this over the years is that students have a lot to say, are thinking in ways that help move the class forward when shared, and most of all, that they have much to teach the other students and myself.
Do I see them make mistakes in terms of punctuation, grammar, and style? I do. Do they see me do the same thing? Most certainly they do. But we're all writing. Can students write? Yes, if you let them. Yes, if you model writing, and reading for them. One of my students asked me a few weeks ago if I'd ever done a word count on my blog. I hadn't but decided to try. It turns out I've written the equivalent of 3 good sized novels since 2006. I haven't written a novel, though, and don't expect I ever will. Instead, blogging, Twitter, social networking, and the web have insured that I exist in a literate age, where writing every day is the new normal. I would argue that if students were allowed to use the web more, they'd be in even better shape. As David Eaves notes of his blog, "if writing is a muscle, this is my gym."
I'm less skeptical of students' ability to write than I am of the intentions of educators decrying the demise of writing. When all we have of writing is a "simple test," education is reduced to a set of questions you can use in order to substitute real reading and ideas for a bell curve. We've seen "simple tests" before, and they often have very little to do with real writing. Writing, like many worthy pursuits, is easily stifled by pedants, who confuse the rules of writing for writing itself.