SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
English grammar 'obsolete and irrelevant'
, June 10, 2006
It is an increasing rarity these days to find a young person who can string a sentence together grammatically, reports Kevin Donnelly.The British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill is considered one of the 20th century's greatest political orators. An important reason why Churchill was able to communicate so effectively was because, when at school, he was taught how to write.
As he observed in his autobiography: "I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence, which is a noble thing."
Judging by a British report on undergraduate writing skills by the Royal Literary Fund, it would appear the ability to structure an essay and to master the basics of syntax and grammar are things of the past.
The report, Writing Matters
, outlines the observations of about 130 professional writers who worked on a one-to-one basis with undergraduates in 71 universities. The writers conclude that considerable numbers of students, even at some of Britain's leading tertiary institutions, arrive at university without the skills necessary to make the most of their education.
"In many cases, the problems occur at a basic level: poor vocabulary, inaccurate phrasing, bad syntax, incorrect punctuation [and] an inability to form well-structured sentences," the British report notes. The report also states that many students are incapable of sustaining a consistent and coherent argument in prose.
Falling standards and dumbed-down English are not restricted to Britain. Last year's report, Remedial or Rhetorical English?
, in which academics at the Australian Defence Force Academy tested the writing skills of about 600 undergraduates, also discovered significant weaknesses.
"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," Fiona Mueller, one of the authors of the ADFA report, says.
Baden Eunson, from the English department at Monash University, also notes that many undergraduates have gone through six years of secondary school without learning the fundamentals of English: "I teach professional writing at Monash University and I have to spend far too much of my scarce curriculum time cramming the basics into my students."
Concerns about poor writing skills, especially basics such as spelling, punctuation and grammar, are not restricted to undergraduates. Beatrice Booth, the president of Commerce Queensland (the state chamber of commerce), has publicly criticised literacy standards and was recently quoted as saying, "We have a plethora of people who can't spell, comprehend what they are reading or write a proper sentence."
Notwithstanding the evidence, some argue that there is no crisis and that approaches to teaching English, especially literacy, are beyond reproach.
The children's author Mem Fox, based on Australia's strong performance in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test of 15-year-old students in literacy, mathematics and science, argues: "We don't have a literacy problem. We have a very high literacy rate. We are absolutely sensational in this country.
"So we always come either second after Finland, or third after Canada, or fourth after New Zealand. But we are always in the top four, always."
What Fox ignores is that the PISA test did not correct or penalise students for mistakes in spelling and grammar, and that if students had been corrected, many would have failed.
"Errors in spelling and grammar were not penalised in PISA; if they had been, probably all countries' achievement levels would have gone down, but there is no doubt that Australia's would have," one Australian researcher says. "It was the exception rather than the rule in Australia to find a student response that was written in well-constructed sentences, with no spelling or grammatical error."
The Australian Association for the Teaching of English also argues that concerns about falling standards are a media beat-up and that present approaches to English teaching, such as whole language, critical literacy and postmodern theory, are not the reason many students leave school unable to write a grammatically correct, fluent and well-structured essay.
The AATE is also wrong. Much of the focus on teaching literacy in schools is on so-called critical literacy, where students are taught to analyse texts in terms of power relationships from a range of theoretical perspectives, including Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, postmodern, class and race. As noted by Eunson, when comparing today's syllabuses and examination papers with those of the 1960s, the reality is that more traditional approaches, including précis, discussing definitions and word meanings, and analysing comprehension passages grammatically, have long since disappeared.
At the primary school level, judged by curriculum documents, the prevailing approach, with the exception of NSW, belittles the more structured phonics model of teaching reading in favour of whole language.
Teacher training is also a concern, evidenced by a 2001-02 national survey of 680 beginning teachers that found only "half of the new graduates indicated that they felt prepared to teach spelling and phonics".
That teacher training has suffered is understandable. Those in charge of Australia's schools of education, the Australian Council of Deans of Education, in New Learning: A Charter for Australian Education
, argue that the basics, represented by the "three Rs", are obsolete, old-fashioned and irrelevant.
The deans argue in favour of the new basics: "Nor is literacy a matter of correct usage [the word and sentence-bound rules of spelling and grammar]. Rather, it is a way of communicating.
"Indeed, the new communications environment is one in which the old rules of literacy need to be supplemented. Although spelling remains important, it is now something for spell-checking programs, and e-mail messages do not have to be grammatical in a formal sense."
This ignores the fact that the ability to use language does not happen intuitively or by accident, and that spell-checking cannot differentiate between "whether" and "weather" or "their" and "there". Not only do students have to be taught and regularly practise the rules of grammar and correct composition, they must be given the technical vocabulary that will free them to more consciously control what it is they wish to write.- Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Strategies and author of Why Our Schools are Failing (2004).