EDUCATION: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
University students struggling with English
, October 8, 2005
Many students enter university without being able to write an essay, laments Kevin Donnelly.Earlier this year, federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson argued that one of the justifications for introducing an Australian Certificate of Education is that state and territory Year 12 courses are too soft.
Dr Nelson was particularly concerned that 99 per cent of students, including those with minimal essay-writing skills, passed English in the NSW Higher School Certificate. As expected, state education ministers took Nelson to task and argued that existing Year 12 courses were intellectually rigorous.
So, who is correct? Judged by a report titled Remedial or Rhetorical English? Tertiary Students' Perceptions of their Competence in English and their Preparedness for Tertiary Study
, by Fiona Mueller, Melinda Grose and Elizabeth Grant at the Australian Defence Force Academy, there is cause for alarm.
As part of their undergraduate degree, all students at ADFA have to undertake a three-year communications course. In addition to oral skills, there is a strong focus on written expression where students are expected to write "clearly, concisely and logically".
Significantly, 83 per cent of the more than 600 students enrolled in the three-year course had tertiary entrance scores higher than 80 per cent, placing them among the nation's best academic performers. Yet many struggle with written expression.
According to Mueller: "While most students' oral work reflected high levels of self-confidence as well as competence, their written work was characterised by common grammatical errors and knowledge gaps, an inability to select stylistic devices to express relationships between ideas and purpose, and difficulties in producing complex written texts while demonstrating control over generic structure."
The most common errors included: confusing subject-verb agreement, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, dangling and misplaced modifiers and incorrect tenses and pronouns, particularly the misuse of the reflexive pronoun "myself".
A significant number of students also confused words such as: its/it's, your/you're, among/between, council/counsel, dependent/dependant and their/there/they're. As part of a study intended to understand their strengths and weaknesses in language use, the students were surveyed about their experience of secondary school English.Student difficulties
Many of the students explained their difficulties by revealing that written expression, including grammar and syntax, had rarely been addressed at the secondary level.
As Mueller put it: "An invitation to reflect on their school-based experiences elicited hundreds of statements, in which negative comments outnumbered the positives by a ratio of 10 to 1.
"Many stated that they had had no formal instruction in the fundamental rules and conventions since primary school. A NSW student said: 'In high school, every teacher automatically assumed that you had been taught everything before, like essay-writing. This, of course, wasn't the case and many people never had the introduction to the basics.'"
The academics from ADFA are not alone in their concerns about inadequate Year 12 English courses. A report titled A Survey of Student Standards in Economics in Australian Universities in 2003
reaches the same conclusion. The survey of 21 economics departments from across Australia found 13 departments believed the standard of first-year students had fallen over time and 11 believed 30 per cent of first-year students were in danger of failing.
In order to raise standards, 14 departments suggested that in addition to lowering student-staff ratios, English skills should be strengthened. One academic stated: "Students are functionally illiterate because standards in Australian high schools have collapsed."
Why is this so? One reason is that professional associations such as the Australian Council of Deans of Education and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English argue that teaching spelling, grammar and punctuation is unnecessary and obsolete. So-called creativity, the argument goes, has precedence over learning the basics.
Research by Mary Rohl and Daryl Greaves found many novice teachers enter schools unprepared. They write: "More than one-third of beginning teachers reported that they felt ill-prepared to teach any aspect of literacy, with more than half feeling unprepared to teach spelling, viewing, phonics and grammar, and secondary beginning teachers feeling particularly unprepared to teach phonics, spelling and grammar."
The consequences of being unable to communicate clearly and logically are not restricted to the classroom. During the Crimean War of 1853-56, Lord Raglan sent the following order to Lord Lucan: "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front - follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate."
Such was the ambiguity and uncertainty that Lord Lucan sent the Light Brigade advancing down the wrong valley. The rest, of course, is history.
- Kevin Donnelly is author of Why Our Schools are Failing (2004). This article first appeared in The Australian (September 15, 2005).