September 18, 2006

More news from across the pond: Lynne Truss on "Why arnt childrun being tort how 2 rite?"

My father was darling enough to send me this morning Lynne Truss's latest article from The Telegraph.

The actual headline, "Why arnt childrun...", is rather misleading since the article deals not with spelling -- which isn't taught anymore either, at least here in Canada -- but with the mechanics of writing. I would have subtitled my post "Why Araminta and Philip Can't Write," only Dakota, Denver, and Chelsea in North America are no better off. Each year I spend an inordinate amount of time at the local country fair perusing the school displays, mostly gaping at the high school collages (not essays) about popular movies like "The Truman Show" (not books). Very adept with scissors and glue, not so adept with words, sadly, which are apparently optional. Or at least not as decorative.

As Ms. Truss -- "Designated Worrier for the English Language" since the publication of her zero-tolerance Eats, Shoots & Leaves -- writes,
Last year, only 71 per cent of girls and 56 per cent of boys aged 11 reached level four – the standard of writing expected for their age. School inspectors were themselves recently e-mailed some guidelines by Ofsted on the difference between "its" and "it's", and how to spell words such as (useful in the circumstances) "under-achieve".

"But what about all those lovely A-level results?" you object. Well, a few months ago, the Royal Literary Fund published a report, Writing Matters, that put those A-levels into perspective. Since 1999, the fund has been placing professional writers in universities, to work one-to-one with students on their writing skills, and their report was full of plain, staggering shock at the state of students' entry-level abilities.

From every angle, the same message arrived: students who are arriving at university, many with multiple A grades at A-level, simply don't know how to write. Many of them actually resent the idea that suddenly they are expected to be able to....

Why isn't writing – not reading – given more prominence in schools? I really don't understand it.
No one just picks up the mechanics of writing, just as we don't pick up how to play the piano simply by listening to it. Theory, moreover, is no substitute for practice, or for learning through making mistakes.

For decades, there has been an ideological reluctance to point out mistakes in written work. Pointing out "errors" was seen as discouraging to children, as well as unacceptably judgmental. But, when you look at it, what a patronising attitude that is.

Don't kids have the right to know if they are getting something wrong? Then they can either have the pleasure of getting it right next time, or they can make an informed decision that, actually, they absolutely don't care. It is patronising not to correct someone who is supposed to be learning; in fact, it's quite a good idea occasionally to force people to confront the scale of their own ignorance.

It's not just people's self-esteem that's at stake, after all. It's the future of written English.

Is this an elitist point of view? No, it's quite the opposite. To me, it's very simple: being good at English means you've been taught well. The idea that "correct" or standard English belongs only to rich and privileged people is preposterous from every angle.

The English language doesn't belong to anybody: it certainly doesn't trickle down from the top. Mark Twain said it brilliantly 100 years ago: "There is no such thing as the Queen's English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company, and we own the bulk of the shares."
Go on, read the rest. Read it and weep.

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