Most of the time, when I think about language and literacy, it’s in terms of my two young children. But my part-time job is teaching English literature to university students, and for the last few years, I’ve been teaching first-year classes exclusively. Personally, I see what goes into the school system, and professionally, I see what comes out the other end—I don’t know much about what goes on in the middle, but I can hazard some guesses.
Let me start by saying that I love teaching first-year classes. My classes are small, and the calibre of discussion is often excellent. So, too, for some students, is the calibre of the writing: I am still regularly astonished by what some of the best students produce. Mine is not a particularly jaded or cynical voice. But on average, their grasp of many grammatical principles is shaky. (And I’ve taught at three Ontario universities, so I can say with some certainty that this is not a local phenomenon.)
Way back when I was an undergrad, a professor pointed out that I wasn’t always using the semi-colon properly. I was mortified, and took myself off to the library where I spent a half-hour going through writing manuals. Semi-colon, done. For years, I took the attitude that my students should also take responsibility for whatever remedial work needed doing. I would point out the problems, tell them briefly what was wrong, and direct them to library/internet/writing centres to work through it. And then the next batch of essays would come in, and in most cases, they came in with all the same problems.
So, two years ago, I started giving little grammar spiels in class and following up with quizzes to make sure they’d mastered the principles. If most of the class does badly on a quiz, the whole class does a makeup quiz, again and again, until most of them have it. It is tedious, for me and for them. I don’t like having to do it: it doesn’t feel like university-level work to me. But I can’t in good conscience pass them along any further without doing this work, and if it’s not first-year university work, it’s surely not fodder for upper-year courses.
Two interesting things happened this past fall. When I was preparing a quiz on the plural and the possessive, my older daughter, who is in grade 1, asked what I was doing. I explained it to her, and then I asked her to write out a few words that required her to use either the possessive or the plural, or both. She got most of them right. I’ve always felt that this wasn’t university-level work, but this exercise demonstrated it: this could be elementary school work. If some students in grade 1 can understand the principles and apply them, surely all students in, say, grade 6 should be able to cope without difficulty?
The second interesting thing happened in one of my classes. One student—a bright and ambitious one—put up her hand and asked in frustration, “Why don’t we already know this?” It is de rigeur in academic circles to lament the writing skills of students (and it has of course been de rigeur for as long as there have been teachers and students). But this student’s question reminded me that it’s not their fault, and it’s not because they don’t want to know. Sure, I wish that they were all as keen (or proud) as I was, and some are following up on my little lessons with independent work. But when they arrive in first year, not yet even realizing how much they don’t know, it’s not their fault.
I didn’t have a good answer; I don’t know why we can’t assume a firm grasp of basic punctuation among university-bound high school graduates. I did tell them that it’s not the fault of their teachers, that this has to do with broad trends in the curriculum, not the oversight of individual teachers. I assume there are things that my students can do, and that I could do, that earlier students could not, but I don’t know what those things are. Reading media attacks on universities by critics who seem to have little idea what actually goes on there drives me crazy, and so I’m reluctant to lambaste a school system whose inner workings and rationale are unknown to me. What I do know, though, is that there are things that surely my students should know, and surely they could know, but most of them don’t.