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Writers Talk About Writing

How Does English Instruction Add Up?

Back when I went to high school (that would be in the dark ages when our cave classrooms were lit with Survivor-style torches and we chiseled hieroglyphs onto the walls) I did really well in English, social studies, and law. But I barely survived math.

In fact, I passed Math 11 by solemnly promising never ever to take the subject again. At the time I even thought that was a trick question. Despite my struggles with math, I never had a tutor and never regretted not having one. While hard for me, math class still struck me as something I could feasibly pass on my own. Especially since I was never going to go anywhere near a career requiring math. Like, duh.

English, although I did very well at it, was hard. We regularly had to produce long, well-argued essays that were fiercely graded for style, grammar, and logic. We didn't get any points for merely hitting the 1,000-word mark — the essays had to be persuasive and well-written. Then there was our reading list: shockingly long. I clearly remember my grade 12 teacher discovering that we'd never studied The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, so against all our protests she added it to our already mile-high reading list.

When I attended university the next year I found it substantially easier than high school. I'd been turned into an essay writing machine and that skill paid off big-time. It also led to my career.

Flash-forward 30 years and now my own three teenagers are in high school. (Two of them are home-based learners, registered with an online program.) And, oh, how the world has changed. Suddenly, English seems to be easy-peasy for just about everyone. One daughter's latest grade 10 assignment is writing an essay on TV commercials and, get this, the school even provided her with a pre-written outline. (Not that I believe in outlines — I don't — but who decided it was okay for the teacher to try to do all the essay-planning work for the students?)

Furthermore, the entire course looks lame and thrown together. It's also mind-numbingly repetitious. My daughter had already written an essay on TV commercials in grade 8 and her Shakespeare is Romeo and Juliet — the same play she studied last year.

Contrast this with math. That subject is now so challenging that most of my friends' kids have tutors! Two of my own kids require math tutors and they also get substantial help — not from me, fortunately, but from my husband, a.k.a. Mr. Math. Trouble is, one daughter is in grade 11 enriched math and is already starting to tiptoe into stuff he doesn't understand. So she may need a tutor too.

Bottom line: today, math is super hard and English is super easy. How did this happen? How did we, as a society, decide that English was so unimportant?

Now I'm not arguing that we should go back to the bad old days of diagramming sentences and reading only Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. I'm simply saying that kids need to learn how to write. Most kids today seem to learn that via Facebook or Twitter rather than what they're taught in school. As a result we have a generation that knows BRB means "be right back" but doesn't understand how to construct a well-reasoned argument. They also need to learn how to read and, to me, that means more than gobbling up Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series.

I agree that kids deserve a better education in math than the one I received, but I don't think we should tell them that math is more important than English.

For all the pedagogues who read this column, please note that I'm not casting aspersions on all teachers. There are some good ones out there. (For sure, I put Shannon Reed who writes a column for the Visual Thesaurus in the good category.) I'm simply saying the current educational system seems to value math at the expense of English.

And while this situation gives me great consulting work at large corporations, boosts sales of my writing instruction guide, and helps me look something like a rock star of writing, it does no favors to our society.

My advice? Complain to your school principal and if that doesn't work, teach your kids to write yourself. And if you don't have kids, work on your own writing. As linguist Charles Hockett put it, humans "don't live on bread alone — (our) other necessity is communication."


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 9th 2009, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I'm astounded with how little the new generation knows about English. My daughter is an intelligent person who earned a science degree from a State University. She didn't know subjects and predicates until she began teaching the subject at a parochial school.

Math receives a lot of emphasis in your experience, but I know high school graduates who can't make change; who couldn't work out a long division problem without a calculator; who couldn't convert between miles and feet.

It goes on-and-on: What's the capital of Brazil? How does a piece of legislation become law? What was the name of commander of the southern armies during the Civil War? I'm sure that some public education programs are better than others, but it seems that most of the 30s-something and younger people around me don't have a clue about any of these things.

A couple weeks ago a newly retired Veterinarian said, after reflecting upon the diminishing academic levels he had observed in his technical staff and with his own daughters, "We knew more when we graduated from sixth grade than most of the kids I see know after graduating from college."

...maybe with Wikipedia kids don't have to learn content any more. Maybe with Facebook-based standards they no longer need to know things like spelling, grammar, syntax.

...maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about.
Monday November 9th 2009, 10:43 AM
Comment by: Martha M.
This is a topic I rail about regularly. Unlike calculus and trig, writing is an essential part of virtually every career. I understand the big push in schools to keep American students' math and science abilities on par with those of their peers around the globe, but I'm dismayed that this has resulted in English being relegated to the back seat. The attitude seems to be that pretty much everyone can write, just as pretty much everyone can walk, and that as long as people can vaguely understand what you're talking about, aspects of language like spelling, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, and parallel structure just don't matter.

My daughters, now 12 and 14, have been in their school district's high-potential program since kindergarten, but even the teachers of the accelerated classes constantly misspell and mispronounce words, get punctuation and pronouns completely wrong, and write dreadful sentences. One teacher marked my daughter Julia's answer wrong after Julia correctly identified "sour," in the sentence "The apple tasted sour," as an adjective (the teacher thought it was an adverb).

I work in a law firm, where you'd think precise writing would be a given, but oh, no. Many attorneys (even ones in their 50s and 60s) don't know such basic rules as when to put an apostrophe in "its" and when to leave it out. Clients who are vice presidents and CEOs of large, respected companies do no better. It's a very sad state of affairs.
Monday November 9th 2009, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Susan E. (Forestville, CA)
Latin is really a wonderful language, although certainly complicated. But, that is why it can be fascinating and challenging for students who get inspired by their teachers. A well rounded vocabulary is music to the ears.
Monday November 9th 2009, 1:21 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
Oh, Daphne, I know the chorus of this song, as well as all the verses. I trotted it out as each of my children worked through grammar school. My husband and I were the only part of the equation that cared. Kids weren't looking for longer study hours, teachers were ready to dash out of the building as soon as the bell rang. My arguments seemed too petty for much attention. But thankfully, our son landed in a Junior High math class with a teacher who cared. He took our son aside and told him he was much too bright to be such a mediocre math student. He nailed it when he said, "I don't think you have been TAUGHT math." This man then planned and executed a personal plan for Darryl, teaching him after class each day and sending home the extra homework required for truly learning basic math. He also gave him plenty of reasons to want to understand math because his future depended on it. He now has degrees in both Economics and Accounting, and is a CPA working in finance. Yes, it mattered. And no, the school system wasn't too interested in whether or not students developed any proficiency in the very basics of education. We were "honored" to have our school participating in an Experimental TLU style of learning. It was important that IBM be impressed with their program. All three of our kids went through that experimental school. They went to college in HoHum style. And it was a pitiful showing by all students. I do not know if IBM ever knew how badly that TLU style of teaching really WAS. I doubt no one ever bearded that lion in its den.
Monday November 9th 2009, 2:20 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I consider myself fortunate to have taught when grammar was still important and still stressed.

My high school experience was the opposite of the author's for English. I was not in the 'top' class for this, but I did love writing. Unfortunately, we didn't do any. And the reading was from duplicated pages of parts of poems, and novels were the Hardy and worse sort. Shakespeare, one play per year, and the method was that each student, in order of seating, would read one speech. Then the next student would read the next speech and so on.

I don't enjoy Shakespeare. Is anyone surprised?

It was when I went to the University of Michigan that I got lucky. My English 101 instructor would have given me an exempt as my essays were great (especially so in my opinion as I'd had no essay writing in high school!), but for my political science and history major, he said I'd need to do term papers. I hadn't done one in High School, of course, so he had me take English 102. That was a course specializing in writing term papers.

He was so right, and he did me a major favour. I ws also one who needed to be taught how to learn having glided through school until then.

I had to do it myself, but it was worth it. I learned how to learn and that was extremely useful for a teacher.

When I taught, expository writing, as well as creative, was important, even in Junior High. I was again grateful for that prof for letting me do argumentative writing, paying extra attention to me with that, and sending me on to the research class. My transcript might have looked better for that first term with the exempt but I'd have been in trouble throughout with all the term papers I had to write!
Monday November 9th 2009, 4:38 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
I have a science degree. I've marked physics lab reports. A lot of the time the science is (probably) sound but the report is unintelligible. It's useless being able to do science well if you can't communicate your results. As science and technology becomes more advanced, it is even more important that those who want to have a career in it have good communication skills.

My other bugbear is that hand writing is absolutely appalling, keeping a lab book is crucial in engineering and scientific fields. It has been my observation that 80% of the female students can write neatly but maybe only 20% of the males. If I can write neatly why can't they?

@Jane B.: I wish I had been taught grammar at school, I'd have found that interesting and would probably have done better than I did (not that I did that badly).

@Don H.: I can't convert between miles and feet. In my country (I'm actually Australian, and am just living in the UK) we only learn the metric system. I know the conversion to inches because of imperial spanner sizes, but that's pretty much it. NASA crashed a Mars mission a few years back because they were working with two different systems of measurement. The sooner the US catches up with the rest of the world the better.
Monday November 9th 2009, 6:11 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I agree with you, Daniel. Our ignorant aversion to the metric system is shameful! Appalling!
Wednesday November 11th 2009, 10:28 AM
Comment by: Jeanna B.
I am grateful that I can teach at a classical Christian school that wholeheartedly believes that English classes have equal footing with both math and science classes! Although our students groan at most of the assignments we give them, if they graduate from our school, their communication skills are honed to the point that they can pass almost any college level English course with ease. Yes, our course requirements are demanding; yes, they have more homework than the typical high school student has each night. But, they are more than capable of doing the work--why settle for mediocre when they are capable of so much more?

We also believe in developing writing skills across the curriculum--math, science and history teachers all incorporate some type of writing within their lesson plans. It saddens me that many public school students cannot be presented with challenging material due to a variety of issues. One of our students transferred this year to a local public school; the 12th grade AP English instructor she has was not familiar with "Dante's Inferno". Our former student had to enlighten her.
Wednesday November 11th 2009, 1:12 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Daniel C, I am so happy to read your comment. Not happy about the condition, but happy that there is a science teacher so concerned about the ability to express oneself clearly. And you are so right about the need for organized thinking and clarity of expression.

My late father left teaching engineering at the university level before WWII. He was promoted up the chain where he taught until receiving his doctorate because he refused to give a pass to a paper written so incomprehensibly.

He was the old school of engineer, educated when it was required that they get a complete liberal arts education with their engineering on the side.

He ended up as a research engineer for Bethlehem Steel, and remained interested in a variety of subjects through his life. That whole age group were fascinating men to know and I value the memories of times shared with them.

So not only were they capable, but their education had made them interesting people to know.

That's another side to a complete education, such as being given to the students in the school described in the comment above this.

But in the highly computerized and quickly moving world of today, how vital it is to be able to communicate clearly, in speech and writing.

And how wonderful it would be if legislators would learn how to do this and be able to do it!
Wednesday November 11th 2009, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Great story and wonderful comments, Jane!
Saturday December 5th 2009, 8:35 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for all the comments, everyone!

Daniel C., re: handwriting, I don't know why 80% of the females can write clearly while only 20% of the males can do the same, but I have two girls and a boy and can tell you that both my girls can write clearly and my son cannot.

In his case he is both gifted and severely learning disabled (dyslexia & dysgraphia & discalculia.) This is all a drag, but, on the other hand, he's been composing jazz since he was 10 years old, so I'm prepared to give up on the writing :-) The great thing about handwriting is that, generally, you can get around it by typing.

Long live the computer!

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