Dear students across the nation:
Teaching English–grammar specifically–in a world where the social media platform has exploded, is a really really tough job. Actually, it’s beyond tough–it’s flat out frustrating. Students, in my opinion, are getting lazier and lazier every single year. I blame video games, too much TV, not enough responsibility around the house, and quicker communication methods such as Twitter, texting, Facebook, and probably others that I’m not hip enough to know about until it’s old news.
You see, I taught high school English for 10 years. Each year I found myself making my curriculum easier and easier in order to match the needs of the students. Yeah, maybe you can blame me for my part in allowing the students to become lazier each year, but let’s face it: I just got tired of begging the students to do their work, persuading them they needed my help to succeed in the future, and arguing with parents on why Sally should have to turn her essay in on time even if she did have a Volleyball game the night before. I mean, the paper was assigned four weeks ago, but God forbid she start it early. Why do anything at all when mom bails you out of all personal responsibility?
Before I continue my tirade on lazy students and parents who would rather be a buddy than an enforcer of rules, respect, and responsibility training; I’ll get back to my point: students are lazy and their writing shows it. BAD. Or is it badly? Most of my seniors wouldn’t have known the difference.
I used to complain about it to my mom–a third grade teacher–and she would say to me, “Stephanie, they took grammar off our SOL. I don’t teach it anymore.”
If you’re a high school teacher, you know that if a student comes to you without the ability to form a sentence, it’s easy to blame it on the middle school teachers for not doing their job. “Middle school is just for coddling them and boosting their self-esteem, right?” If that’s true, by the way, then middle school did not work for me. It was the worst three years of my life. Well, out of my K-12 experience I suppose.
But if elementary SOLs are not testing grammar and my seniors were writing fragments in their essays that weren’t exactly essays, how in the WORLD are teachers supposed to prepare these kids to be our nation’s leaders? My kids whined, complained, and cried if I assigned anything over a paragraph–and most of the time they complained about that. A paragraph. They’d rather have a multiple choice assignment any day because that was faster and they could “Christmas tree” their answers. Give my kids a short answer test and they asked if they could work with partners. Seriously?!
I know I’m not perfect, I’m not really a great speller, and I still make grammar errors when I write in a rush. I’m not saying every student has to be a grammar whiz-kid. But here’s what is really bothersome to me. Colleges are making freshmen take basic writing courses before they can even enroll in a freshman English class! Colleges are now catering to the low-level of grammar education bestowed upon our youth! Shouldn’t every person be proficient in his or her own language before heading off to college? Shouldn’t a normal 18-year-old be able to WRITE A COMPLETE SENTENCE?!
I taught seniors who didn’t know the difference between a noun and a verb. Let me state that I taught a college-prep course. Sentence fragments appeared on 85% percent of every paper I graded because most students think, “When I was a freshman in high school.” is a complete sentence. The personal pronoun “I” usually isn’t capitalized anymore, and no one knows the difference between you, your, and you’re because in the text and tweet world, it’s all “your.” Or “ur.” Good God. Try to teach grammar to a student with a bad case of senioritis? No luck. I’d rather just teach them about the weird sisters in Macbeth and captivate them with war stories of the Anglo-Saxon world than to convince them that semicolons are a part of the educated society. But maybe that’s part of why I’m not a teacher anymore.
This only touches the near tip of my frustration; I could go on for HOURS about my dissappointment with America’s laziness, poor parenting, crappy SOL test writers, and government officials who think they’re the ones who know how to run schools when they’ve never stepped into a classroom. But instead of venting further, I’ll leave you with this article published recently in The Wall Street Journal by a college writing professor.
Every human being who plans on contributing to society needs to read this. If your/ur/you’re (circle the correct one) too old for college, figure out a way to help someone younger than you understand the value in education, the imporatance of good grammar, and necessity of responsibility.
Without further ado…
Welcome Back, My Ungrammatical Students.
The fall is mere weeks away, another college semester either under way or soon to be. If you’re one of thousands of freshmen nationwide, you’ve just discovered you’ve been placed in a remedial English class. “How can this be?” you’re asking yourself. “I got straight As in high school! I love writing stories and poems! I’m good in English!”
The culprit is your grammar—and, just to be clear, I’m using the word “grammar” in a general way to refer to the overall mechanics of your writing, including punctuation, syntax and usage. Students in remedial English classes are almost always smart enough to write college-level prose, but they don’t know how to put sentences together in ways that clarify, rather than cloud, what they’re trying to say.
The form of their expression gets in the way of the content of their expression, which is not helpful for a college student. Sure, grammar might not seem like a big deal if you’re composing a text message, or updating your Facebook status, or tweeting about what you’ve just had for lunch. Your reader, in such cases, is someone who wants to know what’s on your mind, who has an emotional stake in the information . . . who likes you. Your college professors may or may not like you. They’ll smile at you, but they’ll also be weeping on the inside over the stacks of papers they have to grade. The last thing they want, the last thing any reader who’s not your “BFF” wants, is to wade through a bog of your ungrammatical writing.
Suppose, for example, you don’t know that a semicolon is properly used to join two closely related independent clauses. Based on three decades of teaching English prep courses, I can assure you this is a safe supposition since no more than one in a hundred remedial students can define the term “clause.” You’re therefore liable to write something like this: “Oedipus attempts to avoid his fate by running away from home, it’s a decision he will come to regret.” That’s wrong. You’re using a comma where you should be using a semicolon. But does it really matter? After all, the reader can still figure out what you’re trying to say.
Yes, it does matter. It really matters. As the reader’s eyes scan down the lines of your page, deciphering your meaning, he’s going to come to that comma—and it’s going to look wrong. He’s going to think, “That looks wrong,” or maybe even “Hey, shouldn’t that be a semicolon?” But at the moment he’s thinking one of those things, guess what he’s no longer thinking about? He’s no longer thinking about what you’re trying to say. Though there are many genres of writing, and many variations within each genre, the one characteristic that unites all good writing is that it communicates effectively what the writer wishes to say. Whatever gets in the way of that process, whatever gums up the works, is a problem. While there is definitely such a thing as good writing, there’s no such thing as good grammar.
The belief that there is betrays a basic misunderstanding of grammar’s purpose—which is to illuminate, not to sparkle. You never come to the end of a newspaper article and think, “Wow, the grammar in that story was fierce.” The best thing you can say about a writer’s grammar is that it’s competent; it doesn’t get in the way. Competent grammar is grammar you don’t notice. Do you detect a trace of elitism in what I’ve just said? Well, I’m a freaking college professor! L’élite, c’est moi. But in case you haven’t noticed, that’s the door you’re knocking on. If you tough out the next four years to your bachelor’s degree, that’s your parting gift—you’ll join the elite of the college-educated. It won’t make you a nicer person, but it will give you lots to think about. You’re going to come away with many opinions—and a desire to write down those opinions and to have them taken seriously. But they’ll never be taken seriously if your reader keeps getting sidetracked by your faulty pronoun antecedents.
That’s why it’s absurd to claim that teaching students standard grammatical rules and expecting students to abide by them is a form of oppression. There are “other” grammars, or so the argument goes: grammars of the victimized, the ostracized, the marginalized. Please. Nothing prolongs the socioeconomic struggles of historically victimized people more than an inability to communicate effectively with the broader culture. They have a desperate incentive to make themselves heard—not in ways that grammatically underscore generations of hardship but on the precise linguistic terms of that broader culture. Frederick Douglass understood this point; his writings are a testament to it. So did Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. So take your medicine. It won’t be fun, but you need it. Learn what a clause is, what a gerund is, what a misplaced modifier is—because your father did not shoot an elephant in his pajamas. If you’re going to stew over your workload, fine. But cast the blame where it belongs. You should have learned this stuff a long time ago, maybe instead of writing a few of those ungrammatical stories or poems. Now get out of here. Class is about to start.
Mr. Goldblatt teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York. He is the author, most recently, of the novel “Twerp” (Random House, 2013). A version of this article appeared September 3, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Welcome Back, My Ungrammatical Students.
Teachers: Do you feel Stephanie’s frustrations? What do you think of Mr. Goldblatt’s letter?
Stephanie taught high school English for ten years, specifically ninth, eleventh, and twelfth grade. She also taught Photojournalism for five years, and Advanced Composition for one. She is now the owner of her own blog, Strong Figure, and is a guest writer for several other websites. When she isn’t writing, she’s working full time for her local Parks and Recreation Department. She claims that while she doesn’t miss the frustration of teaching, she does miss the literature.