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The Decline of Literacy

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As a college professor for over a quarter of a century, I have been struck by the steady, almost annual decline in the literacy of students. This observation has been confirmed by colleagues in various disciplines at virtually all universities with which I have had contact. By literacy, I mean (1) the capacity to read a sophisticated written work and to understand the major ideas expressed by the author and (2) the capacity to write polished prose consisting of complete words, sentences, and paragraphs using standard English conventions. Oral communication is also normally included under "literacy," but I am mainly concerned here with two of the "three R's"-- reading and (w)riting.

I wish to comment on the national English standards published in March by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, since I fear that rather than attacking the problem of illiteracy they will only add to it. (See Education Week, March 20, 1996.)

Let me first address the problem of writing. One would have hoped that the leading language-arts standards-setting group in the country would have stated in plain English that our schools expect all students to be able to use proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation in written communication. Indeed, any normal person would have assumed that such fundamental matters would have been at the top of the list of concerns treated by language-arts teachers.

However, if one reads the roughly 100-page document, one finds virtually no mention of such things. In typical fashion today, the standards are long on vague, semi-assessable "higher-order skills" (critical thinking, construction of meanings, and so forth) and give short shrift to basics, even though poll after poll shows parents wanting schools held accountable for providing strong traditional literacy training in grades K-12 as a foundation for next-level skills. A truly literate person should not have to rely on the crutch of spellcheck or grammarcheck on a word processor; the measure of literacy is not one's ability to deftly touch a button on a computer (however much this might be a sign of "bodily kinesthetic ability").

It is strange that in a document dedicated to articulating standards, there is not a single reference to "rigor." There has been a general movement away from an emphasis on clear, coherent expository or analytical writing toward affective "creative writing" that devalues concise, tight expression of ideas. Creativity is fine, but what happened to instruction in the careful, rigorous use of the English language? With the new standards, we are at risk of producing increasingly illiterate kids who are good at talking off the tops of their heads or from the seats of their pants, or writing stream-of-consciousness prose baring their innermost feelings, but who cannot spell or punctuate their way out of a paper bag.

I am reminded of a literacy guru in the school district my son attends, who said the school board should not have been concerned about the failure of a recent literacy-committee report to include much discussion of spelling or grammar since these are only "superficial" concerns. Similarly, discussing in these pages an early draft of the English standards, John S. Mayher of New York University, one of the chief architects of the standards, proudly proclaimed that "it doesn't even tell you to teach grammar." (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1995.) When I called him to ask if he really meant this, he remained insistent that grammar is relatively unimportant and unworthy of instruction by English teachers. One has to wonder what it is they are being paid for. Actually, I cannot say I am surprised by any of this coming from the National Council of Teachers of English. After all, this is the same bunch that since the 1980s has given us "inventive spelling," "whole language," and "peer editing."

Inventive spelling presumes that kids' egos are so fragile and their creative juices so constipated that the mere correction of spelling errors by a teacher in early grades will inhibit the flow of ideas, produce instant "shutdown," and scar the poor child for life; this is symptomatic of a K-12 reform movement that is obsessed with its potential failures more than its potential successes and, hence, has taken "dumbing down" to a new level. Whole language, whereby all kids in a classroom are immersed in literature sets without benefit of phonics or any other explicit prior instruction in reading--which is considered too dreary to inflict on a student body suffering from collective attention-deficit disorder--has been acknowledged to be a disaster by the former California state superintendent who pioneered the approach. As for peer editing, it can only be characterized as the blind leading the blind. Is there any wonder Johnny and Shirley cannot write?

Regarding declining reading skills, the whole-language revolution is only part of the problem. Countless stories have been reported in the national media on the replacement of classic works of literature with "lite" versions or trendy "pop" fiction in English classes. Furthermore, the nonliterate culture has been gradually driving out the literate culture in K-12 education, as teachers try to accommodate those kids who come from homes where reading is not a regular pastime--now estimated by some to be at least 70 percent of the population. Hence, the growing emphasis on "visual arts," which are increasingly competing with traditional literacy training in an already overcrowded 180-day school year.

It is true that students must learn how to use the new electronic-media technology, but not at the expense of the written word. Before you search the Internet for information, you better have some idea what text is worth reading and what is worth ignoring. Will electronic-mail "chatting" become the primary mode of discourse in our society? The aforementioned Education Week article noted that the new English standards "would elevate media-viewing and visual representation to the same status as the more traditional language arts of reading and writing." The notion of "great books" is being supplemented with "great flicks" as the boob tube and silver screen are now considered coequal with literature as an intellectually taxing and rewarding learning medium.

Imagine walking into a K-12 classroom and asking the students, "Class, what would you rather do today, watch a movie or read a book?" Gee, what do you think the average student would prefer? Who among us can ever forget in our own education the sheer glee that would accompany the teacher's announcement that there would be no teaching that day but instead we would watch a movie? This kind of fun-filled, "feel good" education now has the stamp of approval of the group that purports to set the highest English standards for the country.

As critics have pointed out, the standards document is loaded with political correctness. One does not have to read between the lines to recognize this. Perhaps the single most loaded, and disturbing, statement in the entire publication is that students should "develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures." Translated, this is a code phrase which signals that teachers should not sit in judgment on students' technical proficiency in the use of the English language, since that use is shaped by different cultural experiences and backgrounds students bring to the classroom. In other words, the standards statement essentially says we should not hold students to any standards!

I would close by noting that I am a product of the "drill and kill" school of literacy training, complete with weekly spelling and vocabulary tests throughout K-12, along with 20- to 30-page research papers done on weekends at the public library (as opposed to the one- to two-page journal-writing exercises that now dominate English instruction). I, like so many others, somehow managed to overcome this seemingly "stifling" and "boring" education to develop a love for the written word and to author several books and numerous other publications. I never experienced "shutdown." I would venture to guess that most readers of this Commentary, as well as most English teachers old enough to remember what constitutes academic excellence, have had a similar sort of education and would test out as far more literate than the generation of students our schools are now producing. The new English "standards" deserve to be condemned by all of us who believe that literacy still counts.

J. Martin Rochester is a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is the author of five books.

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