On Campus

University students can’t spell

Profs say high schools aren’t teaching grammar

Little or no grammar teaching, cellphone texting, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, are all being blamed for an increasing number of post-secondary students who can’t write properly. For years there’s been a flood of anecdotal complaints from professors about what they say is the wretched state of English grammar coming from some of their students.

Now there seems to be some solid evidence.

The University of Waterloo  is one of the few post-secondary institutions in Canada to require students to pass an exam testing their English language skills. Almost a third of those students are failing. “Thirty per cent of students who are admitted are not able to pass at a minimum level,” says Ann Barrett, managing director of the English language proficiency exam at Waterloo. “We would certainly like it to be a lot lower.” Barrett says the failure rate has jumped five percentage points in the past few years, up to 30 per cent from 25 per cent. “What has happened in high school that they cannot pass our simple test of written English, at a minimum?” she asks.

Even those with good marks out of Grade 12, so-called elite students, “still can’t pass our simple test,” she says. Poor grammar is the major reason students fail, says Barrett. “If a student has problems with articles, prepositions, verb tenses, that’s a problem.” Some students in public schools are no longer being taught grammar, she believes. “Are they (really) preparing students for university studies?”

At Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, one in 10 new students are not qualified to take the mandatory writing courses required for graduation. That 10 per cent must take so-called “foundational” writing courses first. Simon Fraser is reviewing its entrance requirements for English language. “There has been this general sense in the last two or three years that we are finding more students are struggling in terms of language proficiency,” says Rummana Khan Hemani, the university’s director of academic advising.

Emoticons, happy faces, sad faces, cuz, are just some of the writing horrors being handed in, say professors and administrators at Simon Fraser. “Little happy faces … or a sad face … little abbreviations,” show up even in letters of academic appeal, says Khan Hemani. “Instead of ‘because’, it’s ‘cuz’. That’s one I see fairly frequently,” she says, and these are new in the past five years.

Khan Hemani sends appeal submissions with emoticons in them back to students to be re-written “because a committee will immediately get their backs up when they see that kind of written style.”

Professors are seeing their share of bad grammar in essays as well. “The words ‘a lot’ have become one word, for everyone, as far as I can tell. ‘Definitely’ is always spelled with an ‘a’ -‘definitely.’ I don’t know why,” says Paul Budra, an English professor and associate dean of arts and science at Simon Fraser. “Punctuation errors are huge, and apostrophe errors. Students seem to have absolutely no idea what an apostrophe is for. None. Absolutely none.”

He is floored by some of what he sees. “I get their essays and I go ‘You obviously don’t know what a sentence fragment is. You think commas are sort of like parmesan cheese that you sprinkle on your words’,” said Budra. Then he’s reduced to teaching basic grammar to them himself. He says this has been going on now for the 20 years he’s taught college and university in B.C. and Ontario-only the mistakes have changed.

He too blames poor — or no — grammar instruction in lower schools. “When I went to high school in the ’70s I was never taught grammar in English. I learned grammar from Latin classes.” Budra was taught to read and write using whole language rather than phonetics — not a good way to go in his books. “We haven’t taught grammar for 30-40 years…(and it) hasn’t worked.”

“It’s not that hard to teach basic grammar,” he says.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education says grammar is a part of both its elementary and high school curriculum.

Cellphone texting and social networking on Internet sites are degrading writing skills, say even experts in the field. “I think it has,” says Joel Postman, author of “SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate,” who has taught Fortune 500 companies how to use social networking.

The Internet norm of ignoring punctuation and capitalization as well as using emoticons may be acceptable in an email to friends and family, but it can have a deadly effect on one’s career if used at work. “It would say to me … ‘well, this person doesn’t think very clearly, and they’re not very good at analyzing complex subjects, and they’re not very good at expressing themselves, or at worse, they can’t spell, they can’t punctuate,’ ” he says.

“These folks are going to short-change themselves, and right or wrong, they’re looked down upon in traditional corporations,” notes Postman.

But “spelling is getting better because of Spellcheck,” says Margaret Proctor, University of Toronto writing support co-ordinator.

James Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers takes all the complaints about student literacy with a grain of salt. “There’s a notion of a golden age in the past that students were wonderful, unlike now. I’m not sure that golden age ever existed,” he says. “You can go back and read Plato and see Socrates talking about the allegations that this generation isn’t as as good as previous ones,” he notes.

The Canadian Press

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