The kids aren't all write: functionally illiterate and frankly not bothered

Orientation classes for first-years offer a chilling insight into an entire cohort's lack of spelling and grammar skills, says a university lecturer

February 21, 2008

Higher education orientation. The phrase sounds so innocent, but it incorporates so much. Where I work, the compulsory first-year HEO module officially covers academic essay writing, referencing, research skills and bibliographies. The course outline gives us scope to go through essay structure, the importance of creating an argument, attributing quotes, the perils of plagiarism - and the intention is, of course, to orientate students, make sure they've found their feet in academia, identify any major problems and direct them to the learning support unit should they need it.

So far so good, and an eminently sensible provision, designed to ensure that everyone is up to scratch. Of course, there will be gaps in every student's knowledge. Usually, an extended essay requiring full Harvard referencing and a complete bibliography will be an entirely new challenge, and this is most certainly work that should be introduced and covered in the first term of university. These concepts of referencing and producing a bibliography are frequently ones that confuse students, necessitating revision sessions prior to their first pieces of assessed work.

One might think, however, that the idea of an essay having an introduction, a body and a conclusion should be very familiar to a student who's been through A levels and been accepted into a university. In practice, the essay-writing skills I teach are very rarely revision. From the basic subject-verb-object sentence construction to the possessive apostrophe, this is a world of revelation to first-year students. More often than not, they are bewildered to hear that they can't copy and paste paragraphs from Wikipedia. I can't count the number of battles I've had with students when I've tried to explain that Wikipedia isn't a valid academic source.

As far as I can tell, these basic academic skills are not being covered at A level at all, and students are coming straight to us with no idea of how to write academically - or indeed how to write at all. I've taken to asking my first-years to do a piece of reflective, descriptive writing in our first session together so I can assess their ability. In my first term of teaching, I expected I'd have to correct the odd spelling mistake or go through the procedure of quoting direct speech. In fact, I found I had to correct fistfuls of spelling mistakes, adding in commas and full stops to entirely unpunctuated paragraphs, and asking students to clarify what they meant.

Of course I'm willing to make allowances. Students working in English as an additional language, mature students getting back into the swing of education, those who have dyslexia or other obvious and statemented learning disabilities - there are genuine reasons for them to be struggling with writing fluently and extendedly. I enjoy working with students from a non-traditional background who are relishing their brand-new access to education. However, when students have progressed through the UK education system to the first year of a degree course and still can't make themselves understood in writing in their mother tongue there is a problem, and this is particularly the case in my field of humanities, where many students want to go on to work in creative, literate industries such as journalism, copywriting and even teaching.

I gauged opinion from my colleagues across academic disciplines, to make sure that it wasn't just me being overly picky. It wasn't. My colleague Jonathan told me: "It's definitely our job to help students develop their academic skills, but the key word is 'develop'. Those skills should already be there. But in practice we do start from scratch in some cases, and this seems now inevitable."

It seems to be an endemic problem, with many lecturers now lowering their standards, or even not recognising spelling or grammar errors. One of my third-year dissertation students looked at the corrections I'd made to her draft thesis with absolute disgust and said to me: "I don't understand why you're so picky about my spelling and punctuation. Nobody's ever told me there's a problem before." I don't doubt it. She was 22, she was bright, her work was easily comprehensible, and I was the first person to point out to her that her writing was littered with silly spelling mistakes. Of course constructing a clear and concise argument and having research skills are more important than dotting every i and crossing every t, but surely perfection of presentation should be the ultimate goal? I doubt that my corrections made any impact on my third-year student whatsoever. Old habits die hard.

My colleague Ruth suspects that perfectionists are a dying breed. "Bad grammar is everywhere you look, and I don't think students care about improving their basic skills. One of the senior teachers at our university can't spell or use grammar; nor can the Government; nor can several major retailers. What chance do we have? We're going to grammar hell in a handcart."

The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a university lecturer

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