From where I sit - A sad loss of literacy Down Under

September 11, 2008

University lecturers in Australia are seeing increasing numbers of students who lack what were once considered basic literacy skills.

Last semester, I taught a first-year communications unit at Melbourne's Monash University. There were 500 students, many of whom hoped to become journalists. Marking essays, I discovered the majority had no idea how to use apostrophes (or any other punctuation, for that matter), that random spelling was in and sentence construction out. About half thought plurals were formed by adding an apostrophe-s, as in "apple's" and "banana's".

Marking the final exam, it emerged that few could write neatly: from bold childlike printing to spidery scribblings in upper case, it is obvious that handwriting is a dying art.

In her new book, The Literacy Wars: Why Teaching Children to Read and Write is a Battleground in Australia, Ilana Snyder, associate professor at Monash's faculty of education, examines the idea that Australia is having a literacy crisis.

Professor Snyder, who advocates an evolution in literacy teaching rather than going back to teaching Latinate grammar, says Australia can learn from the failings of UK and US programmes: "In the US, the Reading First policy has been swamped in a mire of corruption and failure, and in England the National Literacy Strategy has stultified literacy education and failed to reach its targets," she says.

"The future of young Australians will be diminished if the conservative push for centralised power, control and a dull, backward-looking curriculum is successful."

In a recent article in The Age education supplement, Ken Rowe, chairman of the national inquiry into the teaching of literacy, admitted that the inquiry had failed to have an impact, despite recommending three years ago the return of phonics.

"Nothing has happened since the inquiry because higher education providers and those who provide ongoing professional development of teachers, with a few exceptions, are still puddling around in postmodernist claptrap about how children learn to read," Dr Rowe said.

Some educators have decided to tackle the problem by bringing back formal grammar teaching - at universities, not schools.

The professional-writing programme run by Baden Eunson, a lecturer at the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies at Monash, incorporates grammar and sentence-parsing, both of which Mr Eunson believes are essential for good writing in plain English. I used to be a tutor on Mr Eunson's programme, and we really were starting from the beginning: 80 per cent of my students did not know what a noun was.

"Grammar can be extremely boring and that's why it died," Mr Eunson told Times Higher Education. "If grammar becomes an end in itself, it deserves to die. But if it is used as a problem-solving tool, then it's worthwhile."

Mr Eunson also believes in moving with the times and that common usage is important. Take those pesky apostrophes, for example.

"If 90 per cent of people don't know how to use them, get rid of them," he said. "They were a French invention, anyway."

Meanwhile, what of university graduates themselves? Are they worried about their literacy-skills level? It would appear not. A 28-year-old friend, a double-degree holder now working in executive recruitment, made this retort when his father, a journalist, criticised his son's punctuation and spelling: "Dad, don't worry - we know what we mean."

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