…but aside from my little bit of tutoring, it’s not my problem any more. What is frustrating is that during forty years (round figure) of teaching, mainly English at secondary level, I read statements like the following just about every year, beginning at least in 1965!
Nevertheless, you don’t need to be a behavioural scientist to know that literacy standards have declined. The problem is self-evident in the generation of twenty and thirty-somethings, with whom most of us work and play, who struggle to write anything more than a simple sentence and to read and comprehend anything more complicated than sports or gossip magazines.
That 2008 variant of this boring anecdotal meme is from David Long on ABC Unleashed today. You may note that in my essay on literacy (1998) I allude to the same allegation, as I could have in 1988, 1978 and so on… Go and read the essay as I am tired of arguing. I should add, I suppose, that I am not complacent on the subject, that anyone I taught in that forty years left me knowing what a subject and verb are and how sentences are constructed, how paragraphs are constructed, and so on. Nothing in any English syllabus in that forty years forbade imparting that knowledge, though how it was explained and how it was tested have varied. I know this is the case in NSW not just because I was there, but because I also know the person who framed the 1972 “New English” Syllabus, and during the 70s I knew just about everyone at the top of the NSW English Teachers Association, being on the State Council myself in the late 70s. I also knew Leonie Kramer, Rob Eagleson, Bob Walshe, and (less well) Michael Halliday… People who have been around English teaching for long enough will know who they are. Not that this proves anything, except that a healthy discussion has been going on among English teachers for decades and I have been part of it, and teachers have been in all that time, as was my grandfather from 1906, totally committed to fostering reading, writing and thinking among our students, not all of whom are willing participants in the process, which is and always has been one of our challenges — that and the great variety of abilities and circumstances one must deal with. Teachers are constantly seeking ways to meet these challenges, partly as a matter of survival as well as to better serve (or “better to serve” if you follow that fetish) the community. I still regard as possibly my greatest success as a teacher getting a 14-year-old (in 1970) to be able at last to write his own name despite his having an IQ too low to assess.
In more recent years English Studies has added to what we were taught and (maybe) learned. We think rather more than I did in the 1959 Leaving Certificate about how, where and why texts are uttered/written or (as we say these days) composed, and we pay more attention to the variety of texts, linguistics having shown us a lot more about that than we knew fifty years ago. That is a plus, and very important.
Why are people so irredeemably illiterate (or anecdotal, or dogmatic) when it comes to talking about literacy? Why too don’t a few more people point to the place where language learning begins, and where its development is most fostered: the home?
I had to come back and fix a subject-verb agreement problem in this post! At least I could spot it and knew what to do about it, though it was one of those cases where most readers, probably including Mr Long, would not have noticed if I had left it uncorrected! But I am a bit of a pedant… My coachees of 2008, even the one in Year 8, also know about subject-verb agreement, even if getting it right can be a bit harder when, as is that Year 8 student’s case, one’s first language is Chinese. (Chinese languages survive without marking subject-verb agreement grammatically.)
Oh go and read English/ESL if you are interested in such things. I’m out of here!
There is another possible subject-verb agreement problem in this post, but I am not going to correct it, as arguably it is notionally correct. Can you find it?