Students can't write -

Students can’t write

Profs from St. John’s to Victoria have had it with the wreckage of bad grammar


First year students arrive on campuses with their laptops, an iPod, an iPad, a Twitter account, a personal blog and a Facebook page. “They are so expressive and they have so much to share,” says Margie Clow-Bohan, director of the writing centre at Dalhousie. “But the writing skills need work.”

Most of Clow-Bohan’s colleagues would say she is too kind. The class of 2011 is opinionated and expressive but they can’t structure an essay, don’t know how to write an introduction, write paragraphs that are two pages long, and have murderously bad grammar. This is the lament of professors from Victoria to St. John’s. “The grammar sucks and the writing is awful.” So says Paul Budra, associate dean and English professor at Simon Fraser University, about the quality of the essays he sees: fragments, comma splices, apostrophe, pronoun and agreement errors, and tense mistakes. High school teachers are failing students, he says. “There’s this emphasis on expressing yourself, on this idea that if you get it on the page, it will be fine,” he says. “It’s not.”

“Universities teach subject matter, not writing,” says Richard Stren, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “It is assumed that by reading academic articles, students will absorb how to write. It doesn’t work. I gave out a lot of Cs.”

“Teachers are afraid to teach grammar,” says Visnja Cuturic, an ESL instructor who teaches grammar and academic writing at the University of Toronto. “They know the rules instinctively, but they can’t teach them. And rote learning is a thing of the past.”

I know this first-hand. I teach a college English class at a downtown college in Toronto. The first time I collected essays from my students, who are a variety of ages but have all received a high school degree, I was stunned. Subjects didn’t agree with verbs. Sentences started on page one and kept up the fight until page two. Commas were either used not at all or appeared in startling places. It wasn’t that there weren’t any ideas in the papers; it was that they were so buried by the wreckage of bad grammar it would have taken the jaws of life to free them.

“I believe writing well is intricately tied up with thinking clearly. As a responsible citizen, you have to grapple with issues at a very deep level, and if you can’t do that on the page, you’ll have trouble,” says Ginny Ryan, director of the writing centre at Memorial University in St. John’s. MUN students come to her writing centre for hour-long sessions; the students get one-on-one attention from a graduate student in their discipline. Since 2008, MUN engineering students are required to write an essay on ethics. Ryan visited the engineering classes and taught essay writing to the students. “It’s difficult to escape MUN without some kind of writing skill,” she says.

Dalhousie requires students to take two “writing-intensive” courses before they graduate. Erin Wunker, an English professor at Dalhousie, teaches a year-long introduction to literature class, which is considered writing intensive. Wunker doesn’t make it an easy ride. “I wear them down,” she says. “I tell them they’ll use these skills if they are writing a persuasive demand for a raise or explaining, in a cogent fashion, the source of a patient’s illness.” Wunker matches students with a peer-editing buddy. “They’re not allowed to write sycophantic, empty comments like: ‘I liked your essay!’ ” she says. “They have to write critical and thoughtful things, or they don’t pass,” she says. The improvement is astonishing. “The students always say they dreaded the peer editing but it turned out to be the most helpful part of the course.”

There are five writing centres at the University of Toronto where undergrads can get help from graduate students. “There was a sense that we weren’t reaching enough students,” says Sandy Welsh, a sociology professor and vice-dean of teaching and learning in the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto. Enter the Writing Instruction for TAs (WIT) program. Ivan Kalmar, an anthropology professor at U of T, teaches an introductory course with 1,200 students. The class is broken up into groups of 30 students, and each student attends eight tutorials, run by WIT-trained TAs. Every student submits an essay proposal before turning in an essay, and the TAs, Kalmar says, catch the big errors before the final paper comes in. “It’s an opportunity for students in a massive class to get one-on-one feedback,” he says. “The marks have gone up tremendously, and the students say the tutorials were the most rewarding part of the course.”

“We shouldn’t be waiting until smaller classes in the second or third year to introduce writing skills,” says Kalmar.


Students can’t write

  1. This is the fault of grade inflation. It’s time to have a standardized entrance exam (like the SATs).

  2. I agreed with Mr. name above. Grades is the cause of Bad righting. I can tell because of the letters and because I have seen many grades. Herrr Derrr.

  3. Much of the problem is that Education departments at many universities in Canada have very, very low standards and simply don’t demand high levels of literacy from their students, who then go on to become teachers. If the teachers can barely write, how can they expect to be able to teach their students? (The teacher’s report my daughter recently brought home from her school had more than six major writing errors.) I say this after having been a writing director at a major Canadian university for 4 years, btw. Now, as someone who teaches English courses at a university, it is clear that education majors usually get the lowest marks–and certainly complain the most about getting low marks.

  4. @ Bill

    I am at a university with a large education program. It is ridiculous the work that these students have to do, and many of them freak out when they get “average” marks in their teachable majors. The education average hovers between 86-90%. I heard one year they curved it down. About 95% of those in education graduate with their B.Ed first class standing/Dean’s list.
    A friend of mine is in education and cannot spell. It worries me that she represents who will be teaching the children of the future.
    Just another reason to implement standardized testing FOR teachers. They test the students in grades 3, 6, 8, and 10 to find out where they are at, they need to look at themselves and ask WHY are these students not performing to the grade level they should be.

  5. Pingback: Students need to be taught writing skills before they get to university | Writing to Success

  6. The problem, in my opinion,is that Hight School teachers don’t teach kids how to write, let alone how to think.
    I’m at the UfC and my first year students can’t put sentence together. Their writing is full of punctuation and grammar errors. Some times I wonder if they know English at all!

  7. It is interesting to see that most people who have commented here have grammar mistakes in their very short comments… you guys are a bunch of hypocrites.

  8. The problem begins well before high school. Elementary school teachers cannot write. They cannot spell, they have no grounding in the basics of grammar.
    The proliferation of essay mills has enabled far too many poor students to gain university entrance and graduate. Grade inflation is another factor.
    Once in the workforce, the number of people employing copy writers or ghostwriters is astounding.

  9. MP says:
    November 27, 2010 at 2:49 pm
    “The problem, in my opinion,is that Hight School teachers don’t teach kids how to write, let alone how to think.”…

    Perhaps you should be asking the Province and the education ministry about their policies. I can tell you that the teachers can not teach when their hands are tied. For example (late assignments, deadlines, punctuality and attendance) are just a few of the many restrictions on evaluating students. So how are we the teachers supposed to prepare the students for the Univ. when the Ed. Min. of the province tells us to entertain the students and encourage the worst homework or an assignment with an extra positive feedback. And to top it off we are not supposed to fail an assignment if the grammar is bad. Only the English teachers can fail the student.

    My opinion is that you have it wrong. It’s is not the teachers, after all ask yourself this: Who taught you?, to be so smart was it your granny? Was your high school teacher holder of a graduate degree and a researcher?



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