I used to grade the essay portion of standardized tests from various states and from various grade levels (from grades 5, 7, 9, 11). I couldn’t believe how many students wrote their essays as if it were an e-mail, complete with slang and text-speak. (Text-speak is the term used for the abbreviations used in text messaging and e-mailing.) I knew writing in the US hit a new low when one essay received simply read “IDK.” The student didn’t even have the gumption to write “I don’t know.”
It prompted me to take a look at the problem of writing in schools today. Does the problem of having poor writers stem from the teachers? Or is it a problem with the students? Or does the problem lie outside of the teacher-student relationship (i.e. environment, society)? After careful consideration of all the possible scenarios, I have come to the conclusion that the culprit is all three.
Let’s start with the teachers. Q: Are the teachers teaching the material? Of course they are. There would be some kind of accountability issues at stake if they weren’t; otherwise, they’d be out of a job pretty quickly if they weren’t teaching their subject. Q: Are the teachers being prepared for teaching their subject and continuing to better themselves in their subject? Some teachers, yes; some teachers, no. It amazes me that there are actually English teachers out there who do not read the classics and who do not practice writing in their free time. It leads me to believe that this is the straight path to mediocre teaching, which leads to mediocre students. Q: Do the teachers have the support from the school as far as materials and freedom to inventive teaching styles? In most cases, it’s average at best, but more often, it’s low. Budget cuts, low salaries, and archaic views toward academic subjects by school board and community members hinder the ability to teach. (Especially if you think outside the box.)
Now, let’s look at the students. Q: How many students use a computer or cell phone everyday? A large number of students own computers at home and are quite proficient at using it. Every public library has public computers available with Internet access and Microsoft Word. Many students have their own cell phones with the popularity of family plans. Q: Do students understand the difference in writing purposes (i.e. writing e-mails, notes, texting vs. writing for school)? Many do, but there are an appalling number of students who do not. There are students who want to abbreviate everything, which is fine if you are taking notes in class, but not for written essays and writing paragraphs. Most people who come after this current generation of students (those who have been out of high school for at least 8-10 years and longer) use standardized English when writing e-mails and texting. The difference between us and current high school and college students is that we utilize Standard English into all areas of writing, whereas younger students want to make text-speak the norm. Q: Have their attitudes toward writing changed? At one time in the history of civilization, those who could write well and were well-read were considered learned, and prepared to enter adulthood. Now, with the advent of the computer, spell check and the Internet, student’s attitude towards research, and knowing grammar and spelling rules have become lax, because they feel that “that’s what spell check and grammar check is for.” A few years ago, there was a big issue in New Zealand over whether or not to accept text-speak in formal writing, citing that the important part would be to get their ideas across, no matter how it’s spelled or worded. They also tried to make the point that because kids speak in slang and text-speak, then it should be allowed to be accepted on the basis that it’s their variety of communication. Good writing does not necessarily mean just the ideas are there. Good writing also shows advanced thinking in the brain. Just ask any human resources manager what she thinks about text-speak and slang in a job application.
Thirdly, let’s look at external factors as to why student’s writing has turned sour. We have put so much pressure on students to do sports, music lessons, volunteer, join this organization or that one. At the elementary level (where these activities are not as rigorous as those at the middle and high school level), you still see students who like to read and write stories. But as you find students move into middle school and high school, things start to change. Suddenly academics don’t become the important thing anymore and quickly takes the back seat to extra-curricular activities. Students don’t read the classics anymore. There is a common misconception that Shakespeare cannot be taught at the middle school level because “it’s too hard.” And that goes for many of the classics. But students will never learn to write well, unless they read well. This changing attitude among educators and parents across the country is to make things easier for students so they can get better grades and feel better about themselves. Self-esteem doesn’t have any actual basis on the successfulness of your future. I can remember one teacher giving us a response paper set at one-page (which isn’t that long for high school). But because so many people complained about ballgames, music contests, and other tests coming up, she reduced it to a half-page. You can’t be lenient if you want students to succeed. Teachers need to stand up for the English language and insist that academia will not be the slaughterhouse of the English language. Writing is hard and you must work at it, like most things in life. The only thing that ever sat its way to success was a chicken.