Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Basic English to be taught at University

MONASH University will teach its first-year students grammar and punctuation after discovering that most arrive without basic English skills.

Baden Eunson, lecturer at the university's School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, and convenor of the new course, said about 90 per cent of his first-year students could not identify a noun.

"If you ask them to identify adjectives and other parts of a sentence, only about 1 per cent can manage," he said, according to The Australian.

"It is not really a surprise as only about 20 per cent of English teachers understand basic grammar."
Read the item here.

Sent to me via email by Wand with the following comment:

I'm not surprised -- the end result of educational fads. Actually, I am reminded of a 'discussion' I had many years ago with the head of a government high school in the outer west of Sydney. I was undertaking a project for the Dept Education which took me to 13 high schools in the Sydney area. Back then my eldest children were moving from infants to primary school and my discussion was about the lack of teaching English grammar in schools. Well this gentleman, an English scholar with a Masters degree in Language (and it may even have been English literature) proceeded to carry on about students somehow being better off by absorbing this information rather than have it taught, as if students or people learned by some process of osmosis. Anyway I said then that it was all very well for him because he had studied language and could choose to throw away all he had learned but it was a gross disservice to the younger generation to deny them the same knowledge.

As it turned out, we had unknowingly found a solution to this problem because they were taught some grammar at the private schools they attended. One daughter who now has a several of degrees in Arts and Law actually took an advanced English class at University where they studied sentence structure and grammar and she certainly has harsh words to say to anyone wanting to continue with the fad of non-teaching.

I was taught some of this in the 60s and 70s, however I have forgotten a lot of it. Sometimes I fluke it because I know when something doesn't scan. I don't think kids just "absorb" language and grammar, not all of them anyway.

I work in a tertiary institute and I am surprised and disappointed at the level of English language skills of students, they are very intelligent, but they've never been taught proper English use - I suppose their early errors were never corrected, either.

What do you think?


kc said...

I think the "do your own thing" & "if it feels good do it" fads of the 60's & 70's are killing the English language - including the American version of it! Power to the people. Burn baby burn. Mellow out. Tune in, turn on, drop out.

The bizarre thing about this for me is that even though grammar has gone the way of Latin, "communications" students who hope to be the next Katie Couric or...shoot, I don't watch network news shows, so I can't name a man...anyway, they take classes & spend lots of time practicing to LOSE their accents & colloquialisms. Those are endearing to me, I LIKE the difference in regional voices. And with no accent & no grammar, it's not only difficult to listen, it's also just plain BORING!

Got way off topic, didn't I? Sorry. I'm a firm believer in teaching grammar, even though my speech is often lazy & "southern" these days.

My...I do blather on, don't I...

kae said...

Blather away, kc!

bruce said...

Kae, back when I was young few people went on to tertiary ed. Now it seems everyone does. They're not any smarter, its just the system.

Then there's the whole 'export' aspect of it, where our degrees bring in income.

My Chinese friends asked 'Why is it "stomache ache"? Thought and through?' etc. I like Chinese people a lot and am glad they come here to study, but I doubt many of them will ever master english, it's too alien to them. Indians on the other hand use such high vocab you need a dictionary to talk to a rikshaw wallah.

blah blah.

(Fact is my 2 kids are in tertiary and their english makes me despair, so I just don't want to think about that, ok?)

kae said...

You misunderstood me, Bruce.
There are clever people at uni (not all of them, many are idiots with no common dog f***), however many of the clever ones can't write for crap.
They couldn't write and make themselves understood!

One academic I know despairs because of the level of English observed in theses! Many of them need to be rewritten, they have to take them away again and again, and expect the supervisor to almost rewrite them!

These are NOT ESL (english second language) people, but Australians who have been badly let down by the Aussie Ed system.

Skeeter said...

I have a friend whose very intelligent son enjoyed an education at a top private school, graduated with honours at QU, and is in the latter stages of a doctorate in archaeology at Cambridge. His mum is flying to England shortly to help him with grammar as he writes his thesis.

bruce said...

Kae, I wrote an honours 'thesis' myself, 10k words. No one helped me. Unfortunately I seem to be losing language skills as I get older, (given up on commas for example) although I was already mature age when I did it. Anyway I read some of my fellow students writing and was shocked - I couldn't even understand what they were trying to say.

My impression was that most of my fellow students should not have even been there. For the uni it was all about numbers and funds, while they wanted a 4 yr degree on their resume.

I didn't meet many at uni who I thought were clever, apart from teachers. One or two had potential. It's not just writing which is bad, people are not taught to think any more.

Mind you, I regard myself as borderline which is why I didn't go on to PhD (even though they wanted me to so they could boost their numbers). These days they are churning out thousands of PhD's which no one will ever read. Uni's have become 'glee clubs' as someone said.

Or that's how it all looked to me.

I also once worked for a prominent prof, whose secretary reckoned he was hopeless and she had to do everything for him, 'absent-minded genius' sybdrome. He had been brilliant in his youth, though.

Wand said...

Bruce, over the years from time to time I have assisted my family with their studies, usually to critically review and proof read their work.

Then there was a particular assignment that one of my daughters had received. She was completing an Arts degree at UNSW. I forget the subject and the assignment details but I do remember that the topic was almost unintelligible. It required some detailed analysis using post modern terminolgy of something or other.

Well my daughter decided to have some fun and I helped. Together we wrote a paper that was complete nonsense but phrased in the style and vernacular of the lecturer. I can assure you it made no literal sense and anyone trying to understand what it meant would have turned mental cartwheels. The paper was complete rubbish. She received a high distinction. LOL!

Also, a few years ago I was looking for some technical information about an engineering matter and the search engine brought up a number of final year theses that had been written by engineering students at James Cook University in Townsville. I was surprised to find them on line but I had a look. Good grief: the language was appalling and much of the content trivial. I can say that when I was an undergraduate, anyone trying to pass off a paper like those that I had seen would have been flayed alive. Well not literally but I’m sure you get my drift.

How times change.

Boy on a bike said...

I went to Uni in the late 1980's, which is on the cusp on when they became degree factories with dumbed-down courses. I sometimes spent more time correcting the assignments of my friends that I put into my own - their spelling and grammar was atrocious, and they all went to very good schools. One even had a teacher for a Mum!

All roundly cursed their teachers for going soft on them when they were young - I imagine teaching spelling and grammar must be an absolute chore, and I can understand why teachers would want to skip on it where possible.

But what I had to put up with uni was nothing like what I have had to deal with in the workplace. To say that many graduates are not far from being functionally illiterate is not much of a stretch. We are going back to a pre-literate time, when all business dealings were oral rather than written.

I now have to proof-read the homework of our eldest before he hands it in, and he always gives me a "whatever" when I do it - as in "the teachers don't care - why should you?"

kae said...

Hmm, perhaps I should have said:

"I am surprised and disappointed at the level of English language skills of students, some of them are very intelligent, but they've never been taught proper English use..."

Richard Sharpe said...

I dropped out of university after a short and spectacularly unsuccessful academic career. I didn’t find it difficult academically; I just lost motivation and refused to compromise my integrity for the sake of appeasing humanities lecturers. I am a graduate of what could be called a tertiary institution, although it certainly wouldn’t be on the QTAC list. I studied there with a fairly diverse group of people. Some had been in the workforce, some were straight out of high school and others had come straight from university. There was quite a bit of writing involved, which would surprise some people. The thing that amused me was that I would often get higher marks for written pieces than my university graduate peers. I could understand it from science and engineering majors, even when pitted against a failed humanities student. The sad thing was that I would also outscore the arts students. As we progressed and had gone through our forming, storming, and norming phases, they would start coming to me to proofread their work.

I was a product of both the Victorian and Queensland education systems in the 80s and early 90s. I guess I was fortunate enough to evade the Victorian system after Grade 3, and spent the rest of the time in Queensland. I went to a country state school where my teacher would still correct errant behaviour in the classroom with a ruler around the back of the thighs. We did learn grammar and spelling. It was considered quite important. The key thing was that I also developed a passion for reading. Biggles and I were very well acquainted, often to the detriment of my real homework.

By the time I went to high school my father had been posted overseas, and so I was shuffled off to boarding school. My passion for reading was only intensified by a world without TV or computer games. I started to encounter some of the modernist approach to English, where intent overshadowed accuracy in language, but this was still reasonably rare and was only practiced by some teachers. The majority still taught the more advanced concepts and required analytical comprehension of the texts, but also expected your work to be articulated properly. I remain grateful for that. I am also convinced that my avid reading habit made that easier for me.

It gets too easy in the world of spell-check and little green lines under your text to ignore the importance of accuracy in language use. There is a belief that Microsoft Word will fix any mistakes. I am a firm advocate of the idea that you can tell a good education by how confident an author is to ignore the little green line under the text, not out of ignorance, but in the knowledge that the computer is sometimes wrong. I am not too proud to ask a peer to proofread my work, particularly if it is going higher, or public. My friends often ask the same of me. Some of the atrociously written material I’ve had go over my desk saddens me sometimes.

That’s why I will sometimes pick on a poster at a blog for poor language use. The odd typo is perfectly understandable, particularly in a heated debate, but some of the comments I read are barely English. To me that undermines any valid point the poster may have had. If they can’t be bothered to write in a comprehensible manner, why should I bother to read it? It demonstrates a lack of thought and reasoned expression.
End rant.