Riting good is a tuff choar, innit?

June 9, 2006

After battling with increasing student illiteracy, Tim Birkhead finally sees a glimmer of hope

In this piece I'm gonna tell you about student writing. I was inspired by one of my tutees who began an essay by using the word "gonna".

When I challenged him, he was taken aback: "Gonna's a word, innit?" he asked. When I pointed out that it wasn't, he simply didn't believe me.

Academics have known for years that the quality of written English among undergraduates is declining, yet in the culture of protecting one's institution and one's job there has been little incentive to speak out.

Now, after a generation of illiteracy, hope glimmers on the horizon.

Writing Matters , a fabulous report published this year by the Royal Literary Fund, not only acknowledges the widespread nature of the problem, it also suggests several ways in which it may be resolved. I was embarrassed to discover that the RLF scheme had been going since 1999 and that I had never heard of it; but I was (mildly) reassured that none of my colleagues had either. They have now.

The scheme is inspired. It involves professional writers - RLF fellows - entering universities to explore the way students write and then working with them on a one-to-one basis to improve their skills. They were uniformly shocked by the level of illiteracy they encountered, and the report contains some telling statements: "To conform to Government policy and increase the numbers of students at higher education level, including those training as teachers, higher education standards have had to be lowered"; and "many students find themselves living in linguistic contexts that simply don't correspond to traditional expectations".

Although these state the obvious, simply seeing them written down for public consumption is refreshing since, as with treating alcoholics and drug addicts, acknowledging the problem is the first step to resolving it.

I decided to assess how much of my tutorial time I spend correcting undergraduate English. The answer is about 70 per cent. Most of the feedback students get from me on their written work focuses on their inability to communicate. My view is that if you cannot write good English, it is difficult to organise your ideas effectively. In the current download culture, I rarely have to correct factual errors, and most of the feedback I give concerns grammar, punctuation and the way material is organised.

As the RLF makes clear, most academics assume that students arrive at university with these literary skills in place. They don't. The RLF is careful not to apportion blame but points to the decline in book reading, the undermining effects of texting, rap, the web and so on, and comments only tangentially on the failure of education policy-makers to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem.

The RLF's scheme is successful because the fellows who work in universities are professional writers outside the university system and hence unconstrained by the conventions of particular disciplines. The RLFproposes that universities have their own writing skills centres. Some already have, but such initiatives are expensive and in a climate of financial constraint I fear that if universities are instructed from on high to create writing centres they may be tempted by the cheapest option - individuals trained, by rote learning, to trot out important information in a banal manner.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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