University students can't spell -

University students can’t spell

Profs say high schools aren’t teaching grammar


Little or no grammar teaching, cellphone texting, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, are all being blamed for an increasing number of post-secondary students who can’t write properly. For years there’s been a flood of anecdotal complaints from professors about what they say is the wretched state of English grammar coming from some of their students.

Now there seems to be some solid evidence.

The University of Waterloo  is one of the few post-secondary institutions in Canada to require students to pass an exam testing their English language skills. Almost a third of those students are failing. “Thirty per cent of students who are admitted are not able to pass at a minimum level,” says Ann Barrett, managing director of the English language proficiency exam at Waterloo. “We would certainly like it to be a lot lower.” Barrett says the failure rate has jumped five percentage points in the past few years, up to 30 per cent from 25 per cent. “What has happened in high school that they cannot pass our simple test of written English, at a minimum?” she asks.

Even those with good marks out of Grade 12, so-called elite students, “still can’t pass our simple test,” she says. Poor grammar is the major reason students fail, says Barrett. “If a student has problems with articles, prepositions, verb tenses, that’s a problem.” Some students in public schools are no longer being taught grammar, she believes. “Are they (really) preparing students for university studies?”

At Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, one in 10 new students are not qualified to take the mandatory writing courses required for graduation. That 10 per cent must take so-called “foundational” writing courses first. Simon Fraser is reviewing its entrance requirements for English language. “There has been this general sense in the last two or three years that we are finding more students are struggling in terms of language proficiency,” says Rummana Khan Hemani, the university’s director of academic advising.

Emoticons, happy faces, sad faces, cuz, are just some of the writing horrors being handed in, say professors and administrators at Simon Fraser. “Little happy faces … or a sad face … little abbreviations,” show up even in letters of academic appeal, says Khan Hemani. “Instead of ‘because’, it’s ‘cuz’. That’s one I see fairly frequently,” she says, and these are new in the past five years.

Khan Hemani sends appeal submissions with emoticons in them back to students to be re-written “because a committee will immediately get their backs up when they see that kind of written style.”

Professors are seeing their share of bad grammar in essays as well. “The words ‘a lot’ have become one word, for everyone, as far as I can tell. ‘Definitely’ is always spelled with an ‘a’ -‘definitely.’ I don’t know why,” says Paul Budra, an English professor and associate dean of arts and science at Simon Fraser. “Punctuation errors are huge, and apostrophe errors. Students seem to have absolutely no idea what an apostrophe is for. None. Absolutely none.”

He is floored by some of what he sees. “I get their essays and I go ‘You obviously don’t know what a sentence fragment is. You think commas are sort of like parmesan cheese that you sprinkle on your words’,” said Budra. Then he’s reduced to teaching basic grammar to them himself. He says this has been going on now for the 20 years he’s taught college and university in B.C. and Ontario-only the mistakes have changed.

He too blames poor — or no — grammar instruction in lower schools. “When I went to high school in the ’70s I was never taught grammar in English. I learned grammar from Latin classes.” Budra was taught to read and write using whole language rather than phonetics — not a good way to go in his books. “We haven’t taught grammar for 30-40 years…(and it) hasn’t worked.”

“It’s not that hard to teach basic grammar,” he says.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education says grammar is a part of both its elementary and high school curriculum.

Cellphone texting and social networking on Internet sites are degrading writing skills, say even experts in the field. “I think it has,” says Joel Postman, author of “SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate,” who has taught Fortune 500 companies how to use social networking.

The Internet norm of ignoring punctuation and capitalization as well as using emoticons may be acceptable in an email to friends and family, but it can have a deadly effect on one’s career if used at work. “It would say to me … ‘well, this person doesn’t think very clearly, and they’re not very good at analyzing complex subjects, and they’re not very good at expressing themselves, or at worse, they can’t spell, they can’t punctuate,’ ” he says.

“These folks are going to short-change themselves, and right or wrong, they’re looked down upon in traditional corporations,” notes Postman.

But “spelling is getting better because of Spellcheck,” says Margaret Proctor, University of Toronto writing support co-ordinator.

James Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers takes all the complaints about student literacy with a grain of salt. “There’s a notion of a golden age in the past that students were wonderful, unlike now. I’m not sure that golden age ever existed,” he says. “You can go back and read Plato and see Socrates talking about the allegations that this generation isn’t as as good as previous ones,” he notes.

The Canadian Press


University students can’t spell

  1. I’m in teacher’s college right now, and I am frightened that a lot of these men and women will be teaching children soon! I can’t even tell you the awful and horrible things I have seen while editing group work!

    I wasn’t taught grammar either – but somehow I picked it up! It’s just going to get worse though if teachers don’t even know simple grammar, how to spell and how to use commas and other forms of punctuation!

  2. It’s deplorable that we’ve had to wait so long for this to become public knowledge. This has been going on for a long time and extends throughout the full spectrum of public education, including other academic subjects as well.
    Having spent over a quarter century as a teacher in the public system, I voiced my displeasure with this trend many years ago. The response was that I was a dinosaur in my thinking. This was very much the thinking in the fields of math and science, areas in which I was most closely involved.
    We currently have an educational(?) system where the students dictate the curriculum. This is worsened by developing attitudes that if it is difficult, uninteresting, or requires significant effort on the part of the student, then it should be modified to appeal to the ‘lowest common denominator.’ This results in many school districts dropping homework and project assignments, as they reason that such activities infringe on the freedom and leisure time of the students. To add insult to injury, the misguided concepts of inclusion, continuous progression (i.e. no one fails or repeats a grade), and encouraged constant uproar in the classroom, have decayed our educational system to the point where we may never be able to recover. All this smacks of influence by socialists’ agendas of gaining something for nothing and leaving the responsibility (for their own actions/inactions) to someone else.
    What can be done? Actually very little until we fully recognize (or acknowledge) that we live in an increasingly complex world and that the skills and knowledge necessary to become a useful and contributing member of society cannot be taught/learned in 5 hours a day (most of the time is wasted) for 200 days of the year. MUCH MORE is required.

  3. And who is to blame for the horrible word fog writing style exemplifed by Hemani’s sentence?

  4. It’s easy to point fingers at others (e.g., socialist agenda, current technology, etc.), but a little self reflection from those in academia might be a useful exercise. There is (or should be)no question that the overall communication skills (i.e., writing, speaking) are “not what they used to be” but those who teach must also examine our role in the decline of these skills. Lax guidelines around technical writing components on term papers, the use of strictly multiple choice exams and so on have also contributed in students’ inability or difficulty crafting grammatically sound works. In the day and age of “heavy workloads” we too have shortcut the educational experience by not demanding more of our students then sticking to our principles. In fairness, there are academics out there who have tried to hold students, and in some cases their colleagues, to a higher standard. I have had the great privilege of working along side such folks and admire an respect their efforts. But I also know they feel that they are merely temporarily holding back the flood and the dam will soon break if we do not all help stem these communication challenges.

  5. Interesting.. there are certainly many reasons why writing skills are not what they could be (as to whether they ever were is open to debate) – parents who don’t have the skills to help their children, whole language learning that espoused learning through osmosis as if good grammar is just out there ready to be absorbed by young minds, setting standards lower rather than challenging children to reach higher, bad grammar in media eg: the misuse of ‘I’ versus ‘me’, and so forth. I don’t have any easy answer to this issue, but I can’t resist pointing out the irony of an article on spelling and grammar in which the writer makes a common grammar mistake – ‘one in 10 students are…’ should, in fact, be written with the verb in the third person singular as the subject is ‘one’ and not ’10’.

  6. It is also ironic that this article is on a website hosted by Macleans. Grammar is so bad in many articles published in the magazine that I often stop reading in frustration. A good first step toward improving the language skills of the population would be for Macleans to ensure that it sets a good example.

  7. (not to mention that in attempting to point out a common spelling mistake in “definitely”, the writer actually spelled it correctly)

  8. i tink dis artikle is wack yo! Dis not mean a damn ting ’bout me intelleegents! Me wayyy smarter dan no plaot or dat socetes guy! wtf! university dgree i gots in 2008 an i dint need, no grammaz!!!!! stoopid articul.

  9. I took a communications course at SFU. The professor of the course obtained his PhD in 1968. The text book, which he wrote, was one of the most atrociously written documents I have ever read. It contained no thesis statements or topic sentences, the ideas were presented in a totally disorganized fashion, and a chapter on an industry that I have worked in for 20 years read as if it were the output of about two hours’ total research.

    All this to say that educational standards were at least as bad in the 60s as they are today. And if SFU is so concerned about students who can’t write, it might like to ask itself why it hires them!

    Moreover, if it is true that the percentage of university students who can’t write is higher now than it was in previous years, then I would submit that it is because the universities, in their obsessive drive for cash, are refusing to do what’s required of them: fail these people!! SFU in particular needs to give its head a shake. When I was a student there, I got sick of paying $500 for dumbed down courses in which second year professors wasted time lecturing about essay basics. If schools like SFU are not willing to kick out the idiots, and if they continue to dumb down their courses for their benefit, then they can look forward to teaching nothing but stupid people, as the students looking for a challenge will go elsewhere. You get the students you deserve.

    @Veronica Yeah, I noticed that error too.

  10. What do you know, Macleans paints the kettle black for university students once again.

  11. I don’t understand this: I am 26 and I had extensive grammar and spelling instruction all through elementary and high school. It was only when I reached college that these subjects were no longer being taught. I think that most people have little to no regard for language, and within 10 years we will all be speaking in abbreviations and text-speak LOLZORZ.

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