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The Fall of English?

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In a recent article, English teacher Cindi Rigsbee says that popular culture, technological innovations, and narrowing curriculum priorities have combined to coarsen students' speaking and writing skills. The "Queen's English is in more trouble than ever before," she writes. "Until someone develops a high-stakes test on the use of the past participle, will anyone really be interested in how well our students are writing and speaking?"

What's your view? Have students' verbal skills declined? Or are they just different? What's contributing to the change? How should English be taught to today's students?

21 Comments

Ms. Rigsbee has a point. I have been teaching for 11 years and do feel that text messaging and email contribute to an ever-growing dismissal of correct grammar and mechanics.

I believe one answer is to stop whining about the fact that our students use this technology to communicate poorly and start using it as a TOOL for teaching, the way our predecessors moved from ink and quill- to ball point pen- to type writer.

I believe the business world IS concerned about the way our students communicate. But, I don't believe anyone in the non-school world will ask for the diagramming of a sentence as proof of literacy. Therein lies the problem: nothing about traditional school applies to the world in which these students live everyday after 3pm.

As for the "use of" correct English, what our students need to know is "how to use" (vs memorization of) participals in a way that clearly presents their messages. For that matter, I'd be happy with a good old fashioned complete sentence that does not start with a lower case "i" or the number 2 in place of "to."

As for high stakes testing...sure why not...after all it's dumbing down everything else. Let's put writing into a little box beside reading and math. We'll have plenty of free time to sit here practicing our parts of speech while the global market moves further and further from our grasp!


your right

What's being left out of the discussion here is the notion of register. There's nothing wrong with messaging "bai, i luvz yu" because it's a fun fad, as long as the messager is also capable of comprehending "How do I love thee?/ Let me count the ways," and of writing, "I love you."
Both the messaging and the poetry are examples of special language uses. They are different registers from the standard "I love you," but they are appropriate for their particular uses.
Language does change over time (anyone up for reviving 'thee' and 'thou'?)but that doesn't mean it is degenerating. I think a careful study of the students' speech would reveal plenty of correct complex sentences. Teaching our students how to use standard written English, and persuading them that there is some value in being able to do so, is the challenge. A high-stakes tese isn't likely to do that.
Having control of multiple registers is a sign of linguistic sophistication. Perhaps it would be more useful to do some comparisons: "Let's say we just wrote this song. Now, we want to write a letter to a record company to go with the demo we're sending. How can we write it so that they will take us seriously?" "Say we're texting this news to a friend: how would we write it? Okay, now let's write it for a newspaper so that they will pay us for it. How would we do that?"

April and Cynthia may bemoan what they perceive as an erosion of standards, but they themselves demonstrate that they are just as prone to making errors when they write.-Suddenly participles becomes 'participals' and you're right becomes 'your right' Oops!
We all do it from time to time. We just need to be careful when pontificating. Let's just accept that language evolves and that it is possible to switch codes to suit a particular situation. We use different language in a business letter as opposed to an email to a friend. The critcal thing is knowing the difference. -and that's where we as educators come in.

I see no erosion in the "Queen's English." If you compare our students to the largely rural population of the 1940's, you will find that their grammar is better. The primary issue is that we don't make them write enough and don't require good writing and thinking in the writing we assign. My students, in a Texas 2A rural school, are quite capable of text messaging in appropriate jargon and also of writing college-level papers.

Where did we get the idea that students have to understand participles and prepositions to write well? Of course, sentence diagramming is easier to quantify than is the flow of logic and development of ideas--and therefore there are many secondary English teachers who would rather do grammar than grade essays. If you want students to write well, then write, write, write.

Alan, now who's pontificating. When I read,"your
right," I smiled. It was supposed to be funny, Alan. Lighten up.

Personally, I could not diagram a sentence for you. I was raised by a mother who felt that as long as I could speak properly then I didn't particularly need to know the parts - as you say, that knowledge rarely makes or breaks a situation.

Still, I am aware that there are those who communicate exclusively in the "Bai! I luvz U" register. Whether it's because they do not have the tools to comprehend more formal language or because they do not know when formal language is more proper has thus far eluded me.

No one wants to talk to a girl 10 years their senior about their grammatical learnings from highschool.

Sorry, I meant 10 years their junior.

I got excited.

I love Cindi's idea of using MySpace messages and having the students re-write those in standard English. Understanding about levels of discourse and registers does help me cringe less when my college-educated, computer engineer son says, "Me and my friends . . ." However, I remember my parents shuddering when I said, "And I go" instead of "And I said." Oral language is often less formal than written language, and that's another point we can make with our students. Get the idea down on paper, then use the editing process to correct the grammar.

Reading on a screen is 30% slower (research of Bigelow et al) and 30% less comprehension (Forrester Research Associates). Along with eye tension on-screen, that is why we all print off longer documents and why the e-text experiment was a commercial failure.

The abbreviated mini-keyboards of cell phones and other hand-held devices drag down typing speed from 50wpm to tedius levels and cause the "I luv U 2" abbreviations. Anyone who considers this robust and efficient communication has not tried reading vanity license plates. It would be hard to argue that learning this
abbreviated "language" does not to some extent interfere with the learning progress of rich English. Dictionaries are truly history books, not law books, and yes English evolves; but this should not evolve to text-message language because those abbreviations lose distinctions that are linguistically and semantically important: "two" does not equal "to" does not equal "too" does not equal "2." (This problem was exactly the reason Chinese characters were not abandoned for conversion into Romanization.)

One person who only spoke "jive" (Chicago) suffered because he could not understand the language needed to operate and live with a dialysis machine when his kidney failed. -So much for glorifying limited language that only serves narrow day-to-day interactions.

Both Chinese and English are very "inflated," that is, a few words can convey complex, deep and often emotional meaning, but it takes substantial literary ("formal") education to transfer that Confucian/Shakespearean/etc. background. The new teckkie media shorthand is inadequate: "2 B or not 2B" does not "translate."

We face a new generation that will read 30% slower, comprehend 30% less, communicate with far less precision, but considers themselves more "advanced."

(We face a new generation that will read 30% slower, comprehend 30% less, communicate with far less precision, but considers themselves more "advanced.")

Now that is scary John, I am checking on the research stated in the first paragraph as our state in it's infinite wisdom is moving rather quickly to computer based assessments for Reading, Math, and Science.

Gail, I think you have hit the nail on the head. I forwarded this story to all of my LA teachers at Kannapolis Middle School.

The biggest problem we face at KMS is that the children, as most will, write like they speak. We teach the NC writing curriculum well but when faced with assessments the children revert to what is comfortable and they are more comfortable with their speak than they are with proper English and grammar.

John Schrock, Please email me with any information you have that can direct me to the research you sited in your first paragraph.

[email protected]

I recently read an article about the poor reading and writing skills within our schools. I think that the way that the students use the grammar to communicate each other is affecting their reading and wirting perfomance. I agree that it is probably a new way to communicate. But, what about the students’ future? in some way or another the way that the students are implementing the langauge to communicate each other break down the grammar rules. A clear example of this issue is when the students respond the test questions; they use the same vocabulary to give an answer.

It is only October, but my 11th grade students are already parodying my "We, as educated people" expression. With my classes, I try to reinforce that there are levels of acceptable speaking and writing, and that we, as educated people, should want to present ourselves in a particular manner. I also try to remind students that because so many of us write the way we speak, that if we fix our bad speech habits, we will probably also be eliminating certain grammatical errors in our writing. The grammar topics I teach, usually in the mini-lesson format Rigsbee's suggests in her article, are confined to the top 5-6 errors I see in students' writing every year. Lastly, I try to help students see the fun, yes fun, in grammar- especially bad grammar. We look at poorly worded and/or punctuated signs and discuss what the unintentional implications are. I use Lynne Truss' book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves to show the importance of commas, and I use Abbot and Costello's "Who's on First" routine to show the importance of clear pronoun usage. And, because I teach in Philadelphia, I usually begin my grammar instruction by clarifying that "use" is a verb, and not the plural form of "you!" :)

Response From: Chip Buckwell Principal
10/18/2007 12:43PM
(We face a new generation that will read 30% slower, comprehend 30% less, communicate with far less precision, but considers themselves more "advanced.")

Dear Chip and or John,

Please post that research link. I too am from NC...I'm sure Chip has been testing struggling readers this week on the EXTEND II online fieldtest...we need this research to add to the list of complaints we have about online assessment.

Of course one of my struggling readers LOVED the online test...strategy instruction out the window, he was less engaged than ever as he declared, "wow, I just scrolled and clicked Mrs. B. Forget the underlining, circling, and margin notes you've been teaching me...I was in and out of that test in no time!!" He feels great and I feel sick.

Anyone remember the Disabilities Act? If I struggle to read, why would it be easier to scroll top to bottom AND left to right to see a large enough version of a test that is no easier, just a bit shorter, and has one less question to answer? UUGH!

Thanks a bunch...

This debate over the weakening of students' skills in formal English grammar has been going on for a very long time (check back issues of the NCTE English Journal). Each generation of English teachers has pointed to the technological advancements of their age with the same doomsday warning of dire consequences on student use of the Queen's (or King's) English. However, language is not the property of kings or queens; and the rules of usage do change periodically because language is always changing. If our students are not using formal language as well as we would like, it probably has more to do with the teaching than the technology.

There is much interest in citations for my 30% slower assertion. Charles Bigelow and other researchers into type font legibility under various media have published widely. The problem of reading off-screen has been well known since the 1980s. One source is January 1985 Byte, 255-270, Charles Bigelow "Font Design for Personal Workstations" but many other more technical papers by him and other researchers have confirmed and refined the problem. (Bigelow is a MacArthur 'genius' Award winner.) Some people refer to the human preference for holding a book as an old fashioned custom, but it is eye physiology. High definition TV only doubles the resolution when paper gives 100-fold better detail. Editors always proof on paper and general readers always print off anything that is more than a phone number or data line because we need the better resolution for reading with speed and comprehension. Paperless high schools that force students onto iPods and laptops and palm units either force the student to print the material at home, or the student will need to take five years of high school instead of four to read and comprehend the same amount. And the printouts a student can make are not the quality of textbooks and printing your own books takes further time from the students' life.

I think a key to this whole problem, one I've been wrestling with for years, (oops..."one with which I've been wrestling..."), is to recognize that even educators, when they let their guards down, occasionally write as they speak/think. As I often remind my students, "your brain is faster than your pen", which necessitates the revision and editing steps in the writing process.

My responsibility is to help students to understand that there is a difference between spoken English and standard written English, and that each is appropriate in certain circumstances. I don't have to take the fun and creativeness out of their conversations, emails, IM's and text messages, but I do need to stress that, as Justine said, "We, as educated people" must learn to recognize those different circumstances and to switch codes as necessary. After all, we don't speak to our grandparents, or pastor, with the same "voice" we use with our friends, or teammates.

When I taught immigrant students who were English Language Learners, I stressed that, in teaching them standard English, I was not making a value judgment that devalued their native languages in favor of English. I explained that I wasn't trying to replace their native languages, but rather to help them to acquire, and be able to use, another language, one that they would need to master in order to be successful in American society.

Similarly, in my urban classroom I acknowledge my students' use of African American Vernacular English as a dialect of standard English, but stress the importance of acquiring standard English as a tool to improve their academic success and to increase their career choices after high school.

Like Justine, I also use excerpts from student writing and Lynne Truss's book for grammar mini-lessons. Humor and wit are much more effective than didacticism when presenting potentially dismal, dull, boring and bleak lessons about grammar.

Students understand rhetorical context on an unconscious level. They know that they speak one way to their parents or grandparents, and they speak another way to their friends.

I'll never forget how one of my college English professors illustrated this concept. He used a grocery list. He put his list on the board, and then asked us if we would know what to buy. The item that stumped us was fluid. (He was a smoker who needed lighter fluid for his Zippo.) But even milk is tricky if you are shopping for someone else -- skim, 2 percent?

DOCTOR'S ORDERS: I am 55 years old. A year ago I returned to college to get a degree in "Middle School Education/English Specialization" because my doctor told me I must, if I wanted to live. My body was in a constant state of cringe.
Me and my sister
Me and my mom
Me and my....STOP IT !!!!!!!!!!!
Ms. Rigsbee and I share exactly the same viewpoint.

I think she has a point about the decline of English via text messaging

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