Write and wrong

February 4, 2000

I would like to add my own observations to Alan Lovell's (Letters, THES, January 28).

The department in which I teach has highly qualified applicants. Indeed, we approach Oxbridge norms in having over 80 per cent of students graduating with upper seconds or higher. I therefore rarely see students whose English needs remedial attention, but I do notice a large number whose abilities are vitiated by an unsophisticated use of English. They research well, read critically, but the articulation of ideas is weak, the word choice is poor and there is an inability to cherish the cadence of language and thought.

From my recent crop of essays I select the following from an essay on Robinson Crusoe: "The novel seemed to satisfy certain public anxieties of the time, who sought escapism from the cash-motivated and urbanised society that was swiftly becoming England through a narrative about man's return to nature."

Having fretted for many years about how otherwise able students can write such awful sentences, I have come to several conclusions. First, the spread of word processing has given me more opportunity to notice and correct faults that ten years ago would have been masked by poor handwriting. Second, and probably more important, the increase in students' abilities (manifest in A-level grades) means we are now focusing on teaching higher level skills.

On the other hand, students are much less literate than they were. The cause is not the widening of access but that students read less, and care less about reading and writing. They take in much of their information from the video screen, and what they want is their own computer, CD player or the latest movies, not a set of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Being literate and loving the classics is no longer prestigious. Rather, they aspire to be "street smart", not least because on television and radio it appears that the more barbarous the utterance the higher the salary. Secondary teachers tell me they struggle with this affected barbarism in vain. Their sentiments are borne out in higher education: the faults we observe in universities have survived ten years of secondary education, and sometimes two years of higher education too. Since I believe that without sophisticated articulation you cannot have intellectual progress, I now make this very clear to all my students and provide them with a style book that helps them improve their skills. If they do not rectify errors in the first essay, they pay the bill on the second.

Higher education students have a real desire to improve and develop their skills, and they also know that when they leave university and write a report, their employers will judge the result by the harsh laws of the marketplace. From the moment an institution imposes a framework where good writing is expected, most students measure up to the challenge, the others come for help. The encouragement to illiteracy in our society is very powerful, but if the academy is clear about its own investments, it will find it has the support of its students.

Robert Clark Senior lecturer in English literature University of East Anglia

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