November 19th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Terrorism: Australia's moment of truth

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Voters suspicious about workplace reforms

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Canberra fails to defend Australia's trade interests

PRIMARY PRODUCTION: Brazil, Argentina threat to Australian exports

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Icarus and I / Drugs and getting on with our neighbours / France's Muslims - and ours / Varieties of bribery and corruption

SCHOOLS: Doing without grammar, punctuation and spelling

MEDICAL SCIENCE: Embryo stem-cell research - hype and hope

ECONOMICS: Sun still rising - Japan's invincible might

UNITED STATES: Court assault on parental rights

THE HOLOCAUST: 'Auschwitz' and Górecki: reflections on evil and hope

RU-486 a recipe for nightmares (letter)

Saddam and the Australian Wheat Board (letter)

Labor Party's morass (letter)

BOOKS: THE TYRANNICIDE BRIEF: The Story of the Man who sent Charles I to the Scaffold, by Geoffrey Robertson

THE COST OF 'CHOICE': Women Evaluate the Impact of Abortion, edited by Erika Bachiochi

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Doing without grammar, punctuation and spelling

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, November 19, 2005
There is a serious literacy problem with senior school English students, according to leading Australian educationalist Dr Kevin Donnelly.

Is there a literacy problem with senior school English students? Not so, according to Mark Howie, head of the English Teachers Association NSW.

In a paper posted on the Australian Association for the Teaching of English's website, under Latest News, Howie argues the literacy crisis is a media beat-up and that critics' concerns "have no basis in fact".

Never mind the research carried out by academics at the Australian Defence Force Academy, where 600 undergraduates had to be tested as many found it impossible to write a well-structured and grammatically correct essay.

Remedial lessons

Howie also appears unaware of the admission by Roslyn Arnold, dean of education at the University of Tasmania, that as many as one in 10 students undertaking teaching courses need remedial lessons as a result of inadequate writing skills.

As to why many students, after six years of secondary school, are at risk, one needs to go no further than looking at how English teaching has changed through the years and how Year 12 is examined.

The NSW English (Standard) and English (Advanced) Paper I is a case in point. English has been dumbed down and examinations are so user-friendly that all can succeed.

Not only does the paper include numerous visual images, as writing is no longer considered privileged, but, in question one, where students are asked about a particular book, all they are asked to look at is the front and inside covers.

In addition to the concern that the comprehension questions are more suited to Year 10, also troubling is that questions such as "In what ways might the front book cover and inside book cover appeal to a potential reader?" ignore the fact there may be some students wanting to argue the counter case.

The way section III is structured is also flawed in that not only are the questions so broad and nebulous that students can easily use pre-prepared answers, but none of the questions ask students to critically analyse individual texts in any substantial way.

Adrian Mitchell, head of the department of English at the University of Sydney, describes Paper I as bland and like "cold gravy". He also suggests that many of the illustrations in the paper are facile and unimaginative and that, in attempting to meet the needs of all, the paper fails to stimulate and challenge better performing students.

An interesting exercise is to compare Year 12 NSW English Paper I with equivalent papers produced during the mid-1990s. Not only did the 1995, 1996 and 1997 papers contain fewer pictures and images, with the result that students were expected to read more, but the material and the questions were more challenging.

Being able to use pre-prepared answers because of generic questions and shifting the emphasis from close textural analysis to discussing texts in terms of broad themes and ideas is also a criticism of the NSW Advanced English paper.

No matter what type of text, whether poems, plays, novels, multimedia websites, speeches or hypertexts, the same question is asked on the basis that they are of equal worth. Thus a Paul Keating speech and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission website are treated in the same way as Shakespeare's King Lear and Jane Austen's Emma.

It should be noted that the malaise represented by the adoption of what Baden Eunson, an academic at Monash University, describes as English lite, is not restricted to NSW.

On comparing what is expected of students, as represented by present examination papers and what was expected from Victorian Year 12 students during the '60s, Eunson makes the point that an emphasis on teaching and assessing correct grammar, punctuation and spelling has largely disappeared.

Watered down

The draft English examination being circulated as part of Western Australia's extension of outcomes-based education to the senior years also represents a watered-down, critical literacy view of English.

Questions such as, "Write a set of instructions for the use of the 21st century" and "Write a contribution to an online chat room in which you discuss something (for example, sport/ project/ hobby/ film/ performance/ event/ gaming community)" appear to have little substance or worth.

As one of the teachers contributing to the Perth-based PLATO website says: "What level of language expression, grammar and spelling would be acceptable for writing in a chat room? A student could argue that any old rubbish is acceptable, 'cz thts wot eye rte in a cht rom'."

  • Kevin Donnelly, director of Education Strategies, taught Year 12 English for 14 years and was a member of the Victorian Year 12 English Panel of Examiners. This article originally appeared in The Australian (October 21, 2005).

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