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TinotopiaLog → A Failure To Communicate (25 Apr 2003)
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Friday 25 April 2003

A Failure To Communicate

CNN and the AP blow the lid off this one, with the shocking revelation that high-school students can’t write very well.

At this point, I would ordinarily offer a quote from the article in question, but to be honest, there’s almost no information there. The article was prompted by a report from something called the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools.

The Writing Commission’s report is based in part on a study of high-schoolers’ writing skills, part of which consisted of giving the students information about a haunted house and asking them to write a “newspaper article” about it. The report contains three responses to the assignment — one from each of the report’s categories of ‘unsatisfactory’, ‘adequate’, and ‘elaborated’. These responses are unedited.

2% of the students’ responses were classified as ‘elaborated’. The example:

Years of rumors and unsubstantiated reports have created, in a quiet urban neighborhood, a house of horrors. The dwelling is one Appleby House, a modest
dwelling of 36 rooms built over an 8 year period. On interviewing neighbors, who dubbed the owner ‘strange,’ one finds that 10 carpenters have been employed to build such oddities as stairways to ceilings, windows on blank walls, and doorways going nowhere. According to reports, these bizarre customizings are intended to confuse ghosts. Maybe the owner will report one day that he has caught one in a dead end hallway! Until then, however, the mystery of the building of Appleby House remains just that — a mystery.

Kind of cheesy, and I have a problem with the use of the present participle (‘one finds that 10 carpenters have been…’ — in a haunted and presumably abandoned house, I’d think that ‘10 carpenters were’ or ‘had been’ would be better), but the writer of this obviously understands how to communicate an idea, and how to use the language. Oh, yeah, and he knows something about what a newspaper article is, too.

Fully 50% of the students did ‘adequate’ work:

Man builds strange house to scare ghosts. He says that he did it to confuse the ghosts. But why may we ask would he want to spend 10 years building a house.
For instance there are stairs that go nowhere and hallways that go nowhere. This house has 36 rooms. If you ask me I think it is kind of strange.

It certainly doesn’t look adequate to me; you can tell that this person is writing about a house, but not much else.

48% of the students produced work that was called ‘unsatisfactory’:

The house with no windows. This is a house with dead-end hallways, 36 rooms and stairs leading to the cieling [sic]. Doorways go nowhere and all this to confuse ghosts.

This person’s problem isn’t with writing. As the guy in Cool Hand Luke says, what we have here is a failure to communicate. These kids just can’t express themselves in anything like a comprehensible way.

Presumably the students were given a bullet-list of the house’s attributes and told to go from there — and 98% of them didn’t know how to do it.

There are two major proximate causes of this.

First is a basic lack of understanding about how the language works. I don’t mean that these kids don’t understand the specific rules of grammar and usage — I didn’t, either, really, until I tried to teach English to foreigners. I mean that, fully apart from knowing what a participial phrase is and how it functions, they don’t even know how to use one. In short, these kids are not fluent speakers of their mother tongue.

Second, these kids do not seem to fully understand that writing and speech are different facets of the same thing: the use of language to express ideas. They lack fluency, to be sure, but they almost certainly don’t lack as much fluency as their writing would seem to indicate.

Now, some people will point out that these kids might not be fluent in standard English, but that they’re able to speak some dialect with fluency. I have no doubt that this is correct, that the language these kids speak all day is not standard English but Ebonics.. (The two examples of poor writing seem to be transcribed black dialect. I could be wrong.) There’s nothing wrong with speaking a dialect, as long as you can express yourself in standard English when it’s called for. And writing, in our culture, just about always calls for standard English.

There are a lot of dialects of spoken English, but the written language is very standardized; exceptions, attempts to put the spoken dialect into writing, stand out and are generally the result of an attempt to communicate something about a culture that the dialect represents. Consider the first lines of Burns’ To a Haggis:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.

Far more expressive and lyrical than if it were written in standard English; but Burns could write in standard English as well. He thus understood how Scottish English stood apart from English English, and what, in particular, it expressed. He could use the dialect so skillfully because he could stand outside the dialect and admire it against a background.

For the last decade or so, there’s been a push to recognize ‘minority’ dialects in the mainstream as legitimate language, one which has resulted in more and more kids not really learning standard English in school. They’ll study it, they’ll take tests, and they’ll pass. But their dialect is tolerated as acceptable speech in school; they don’t get into the habit of using standard English, and they have about as much real familiarity with it as most people do with their high-school Spanish.

‘Ebonics’, as a concept with that name, was conceived of by the Oakland, CA school district, in an attempt to qualify for additional state funding. If ‘Ebonics’ had been approved as a distinct language (it wasn’t), Oakland would have got money for ‘bi-lingual’ education programs. This was a clever, if somewhat cynical, attempt to game the system, rather than a political black-separatist move, or an attempt to claim that Oakland’s students were better-educated than they actually were.

The matter got into the national media, and there was an uproar — because the real intent of the school board was seldom mentioned. This politicized the idea of the black American dialect, and, for a certain type of person, increased the perception that speaking proper English was the thin edge of the wedge of Uncle-Tomism.

Being able to speak a dialect is a valuable skill, one that adds to rather than subtracting from a person’s intellect. Being able to only speak a dialect is a serious intellectual handicap that will cripple a person’s ability to advance in the broader society.

But whatever language or dialect you speak and write, it’s not much use if you can’t form ideas and encapsulate them so they can be expressed. The writer of the ‘unacceptable’ sample above appears to suffer from this particular handicap.

It’s easy to forget that this — the ability to formulate and express ideas — is a skill that must be learned, and one that’s at the root of all communication. This isn’t a skill that’s taught, much, in English class; it’s one that’s taught by being a participant in society, by discussing and explaining things to others, and by having things explained to you. This is the primary skill missing here.

To the Writing Commission’s credit, their report (warning: PDF) points this out. Most of the public awareness fo the report, though, has focused solely on this being a writing problem. Improving students’ writing will necessarily involve inproving their ability to think and to use the basic framework of linguistic communication, but it needs to be recognized that the problem here is more pervasive than just the students’ writing.

Posted by tino at 18:00 25.04.03
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