The Shock Crisis Scumbag Betrayal of OUR Kids Horror of the moment on this flagship of manifestly declined standards in Australian television “journalism” — the mix of microstories tonight was as bizarre as anything on Frontline — is an education panic story tantamount to an infomercial (is that the correct spelling of this nonce-word?) on behalf of coaching colleges; for a little while at least, until they get bored with it, as they will, and move on to some new “outrage”, perhaps zoo keepers into bestiality with gorillas while rorting tax payers and diddling pensioners of their life savings.
(I really shouldn’t complain, I suppose, as I get a little return myself in the tuition market. Not enough, mind you.)
So did you see it then, this five minute “in-depth” expose tonight on declining English and Mathematics standards in Australia? Where did they get those poor kids who couldn’t spell “source” or was it “sauce”? If you are really patient, read my 1998 essay on literacy, especially the section called “The Eternal Crisis.” Visit my spelling page. There you will see what I taught forty years ago — except this page is better — and what I have taught ever since really. And until last year I was giving a very comprehensive grammar test to all Year Sevens at Sydney High. It is not an easy test. I find this, and the results of ELLA, or (PDF) National Benchmarking Results, rather hard to reconcile with the hysteria on Channel Seven tonight.
If someone had sat me down in 1956 to do a series of tests from 1926 or 1916, I wonder how I would have gone? Oh my God! Now you can check the idiotic test for yourself:
1. Punctuate the following and insert the necessary capital letters:
what do you think sir richard she asked does he merit our forgiveness for my part madam replied sir richard i am even grateful to the scamp for giving your majesty pleasure
2. Correct each of the following sentences and briefly state why each sentence is not correct English:
a) Rusty was nearly caught for he did not climb quick enough.
b) Has any of the boys placed their name on the list?
c) The amount of goods carried by road transport seem to have increased in recent months.
d) Of these two portions, the well-mannered boy would choose the least.
3. Select four of the following and construct sentences to show clearly that you understand the meaning of each (write a separate sentence in each case):
To make a detour;
A favourite haunt;
A tower of strength.
4. Write the following words and beside each write another word having the same sound but spelt differently:
yoke, crews, serial, cue.
5. Substitute the underlined words in each of the following sentences with a single word:
a) He could talk freely on any subject.
b) The man felt angry and insulted at the unjust accusation.
c) The natives lived in simple, crude huts.
d) These lawless men planned secretly to take control of the country.
e) The story of the child’s life was such as to arouse pity.
f) From stout cardboard the boys made large speaking trumpets to use at the Sports Carnival.
6. By substituting a different prefix, form words having opposite meanings to each of the underlined words:
a) This was a discouraging sign.
b) Parliament has passed laws with respect to internal trade.
c) He adopted defensive measures with the intention of tiring his enemy.
d) Is there any way you can persuade him?
7. Write about 20 lines on any one of the following:
a) Our Friends, the Birds.
b) A Rescue.
c) It was all a Dream!
d) A Street Accident.
I guess I shouldn’t complain that there are no underlined words: maybe they will fix that. (Website literacy: 1/10) I would shoot any student who wrote a story called “It was all a dream!”, let alone make them resort to such a narrative cliche. Seeing that the students would never before have encountered such generally pointless exercises, no wonder they floundered. Anyone who thinks this represents something “basic” in English teaching really needs their* head examined. (* “Their” used generically to be gender inclusive.)
I speak, of course, as a fully paid up Grammar God — now THERE is a test for you!
Try this Online English Test, on which I modelled the Sydney High test mentioned above. Then go to my English and ESL Blog to find probably thousands more to play with and how students may be helped: “a great resource for all students and teachers”, as I discovered only tonight one Frances M. describes it on the English Teachers’ Association Bulletin Board.
Funny thing is that the only times in my career that I have really encountered total illiteracy were between thirty-five and forty years ago… Perhaps I have been lucky.
Look, not to put too fine a point on it, tonight’s Channel Seven story was absolute tosh. And ignorant alarmist tosh, which is even worse. Perhaps for their next load of schlock they could visit “Study reveals rising standards in pupils’ English”. Yes, you read that correctly.
The study has the very comprehensive sounding title “Variation in Aspects of Writing in 16+ Examinations between 1980 and 2004”.
Alf Massey, Head of Evaluation and Validation at Cambridge Assessment, said: “Today’s school leavers and their teachers and parents can be proud of the improvements in literacy over the last decade. The findings of this report should prove welcome to all involved in education. In 2004, vocabulary and sentence structures were more ambitious and spelling accuracy held up too. Candidates in 2004 were also more aware of the need for punctuation. Use of full stops, capital letters, commas, colons and semi colons all improved; whilst use of the apostrophe was better controlled.”
Meanwhile in another example of declining standards, our Prime Minister has echoed what he heard on some commercial talk-back program, diligently making such settlement problems as some families in some communities do present even harder to fix, while offending people who probably are doing the right thing. Howard has never been comfortable with multicultural issues; he never has and been and he never will be, except in acknowledging economic benefits that arise from our cultural mix. Previous Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, on the other hand, had a very good understanding. So sad. I guess, without meaning to upset people from the former Yugoslavia, I could tell a few stories about Wollongong thirty years ago, even forty years ago. There were people who slaughtered sheep in their backyards even then, having been peasants in some god-forsaken hill village in upper Macedonia, but at least they were Christians I suppose. There were boys who did charming things like telling women teachers to “Go back to the kitchen, you slut, where you belong”, who even in one school pushed a young female teacher down the stairs. That was in the 1970s. My Aunt Beth had run-ins with Greek fathers in the 1960s who refused to take a woman Principal seriously.
So problems happen. But we work on it. And we try to refine our understanding of cross-cultural communication and identity issues. Or at least we do when our leaders are good role models, where Howard’s latest outburst falls far short. I suspect that however sharp he is in some areas, Howard has been totally lazy in thinking about social issues, because he really is not interested in them. To our cost.
Mikey is interesting today on a related matter, a second generation migrant perspective on some identity issues. And despite his youth, he can spell too. I wonder where he learnt (learned?) that?
By the way, I will be offending some Muslims very soon on this site or on Books and Ideas, as I have been reading The Qu’ran — but I have offended some Muslims rather frequently over the years — do a search of this blog under “Islam” — not to mention some Christians. But I try not to be ignorant or to over-generalise. If after that people get offended, then that is their problem not mine. So watch out for those entries soon. Mind you, I also know there are Muslims who will agree with the thoughts I am still formulating. I guess it depends on how prepared they are to see their own faith contextually and historically. As Abdelwahab Meddeb does, for example. See also Michael Cook, The Koran – A Very Short Introduction. And that review: very offensive — to some.
John Howard, on the other hand, probably, nay certainly, never reads outside his 1950s comfort zone, so he would never read Against Paranoid Nationalism by Ghassan Hage (2003). Perhaps he should.
I just read Queer Penguin on our ten years under the Great Grey Garden Gnome of Kirribilli House. So should you.