Education Parenting Technology

Functional Illiteracy: The Repost

People who know me know I’m struggling this semester. I try to explain how a larger number of my college students seem to have weaker skills this year; how I can’t get them to use capital letters (or, in some cases, how I can’t get them to stop randomly capitalizing words that don’t need to be capitalized); how they won’t stop writing “im” instead of “I’m”; how I can’t get them to stop using the letter “u” when they mean the word “you.”

“They don’t know how to outline!” I exclaim. “Or write in five paragraph essay format!”

People think I’m exaggerating. “Things can’t be that bad,” folks say.

Finally, here is a perfect example of why my panties are in a bunch this year.

This post called “Functional Illiteracy” from Just Sayin’ addresses some of the very real struggles that educators are facing today, even at the college level.

Do you have discussions with your kids regarding their use of language? Are they writing as well as you would like? Do error-filled papers (with high marks) come home from your children’s schools? Do you think their grades are inflated? Because, I am here to tell you, graduating high school students are not using capitalization or punctuation.  Many high school graduates have not figured out basic written communication skills which my peers and I had mastered in the 6th grade and spent the following years perfecting.

Many of this generation’s students are essentially unemployable, and if you don’t believe me, read this post from my friend, Michael Hess, of Skooba Design. Because as a business owner, he cares about the way people write.

Do you care about how you write?

Or r u 2 busy txtin 2 care?

31 thoughts on “Functional Illiteracy: The Repost

  1. They are unemployable. Not only does the present economic direction point to a permanent underclass, but the young have little chance of ever rising from it. And yet everyone from the President on down blames teachers and schools. Until this (and the last) generation become participants in their own education, all is lost. One problem is that today’s English majors leave college with disproportionate study of gender and ethnic literature and literature as a whole with no training in grammar or the ability to teach it. One retired teacher recently found 137 errors in text from a Sunday issue of The Miami Herald!

    1. I find errors everywhere. The media is the worst offender. It’s hard enough to try and teach kids to have noun antecedent agreement, but it’s near impossible when the news anchors are saying things incorrectly. Not that anyone watches the news anymore. Or that we even have news shows anymore …

      I don’t have a problem with college students reading non-canonized works; however, I stand firm in my belief that high school graduates should know how to use capital letters and end punctuation, commas, semi-colons and colons. I cannot teach it all in 15 weeks, every other day for 50 minutes, nor do I believe I should have to spend as much time as I do to grammar. I am teaching at the college level. (*sticks out tongue*)

  2. Hi Renee:

    Thanks for raising this very important point!

    The current level of literacy among people in my province of New Brunswick is shocking. According to a 2003 survey conducted by Statistics Canada: “Less than half of New Brunswick’s working-age population (16-65) have the literacy skills required for coping successfully in today’s world [NB scored the second-lowest averages nationwide for literacy & numeracy proficiency].” Further, only 16% of New Brunswickers have no difficulty with literacy or numeracy. As a bookstore owner, this is quite a disturbing statistic.

    On a positive note, one of my recent blog posts was titled: “Wilde and Snowy Weekend…” My 12-year-old informed me that I’d spelled “wild” wrong…I had spelled it the way I did because we’d attended an Oscar Wilde play. All of my children correct their friends’ grammar (and spelling), as I have corrected theirs, and my father corrected mine.

    Some of us do care about how we write, but, sadly, I think we’re a dying breed…


  3. If we blame ‘functional illiteracy’ entirely on text messaging then some hope does still remain. I confess that when I write texts I did occasionally use shorthand (u = you etc); however, with my new phone the predictive text/spellcheck is so advanced it’s actually easier for me to write properly. Parents must simply buy the most advanced cell-phone technology for their teenagers 🙂

    Aside from that though, in England the situation appears equally dire.

  4. I get quite cross with my daughter’s primary school every time I go to a parents’ evening. I look at her work and there are spelling errors everywhere, but only a few of them are marked in red ink. The teachers tell me that they only correct words that are on the child’s spelling list. Their argument is that they cannot be expected to know words which have not appeared on their spelling list so they are not corrected. It drives me batty! When I was at primary school every spelling error was written correctly at the bottom of the page by the teacher and the pupil had to copy it out three times. We had a spelling test each week as well..

    My feeling is that if a child is capable of understanding a word well enough to use it then they are capable of spelling it correctly too. Perhaps I am just an old curmudgeon.

    Capital letters and punctuation they are quite hot on though, so I haven’t lost all hope yet.

    My husband went to boarding school. Every week he had to write a letter home. He tells me that one of his letters to his father came back to him in the post with all the spelling and punctuation corrected in red ink!

    I know a lot of children and teenagers think that punctuation doesn’t matter as long as they can get their point across but they have to understand that there are a great number of pedants (perfectionists) out there, many of whom are employers, and they will not be as understanding as your “BFF”.

    If you can’t appeal to their better nature I would suggest you use their own vanity against them: tell them that writing in the way they do makes them look like illiterate morons, and that if they cannot understand the basics of punctuations then they truly are illiterate morons.

    1. Writing in the way they do makes them look like illiterate morons, and that if they cannot understand the basics of punctuations then they truly are illiterate morons.

      I cannot SAY this to my students, but I sometimes think it. Sadly, many of my students are battling addictions. Some have been in jail. Some are the first generation to go to college. And some just should not be there. They are there because they have parents forcing them be there.

      I want my students to succeed, and many of them do. Rather than get cross, I have to take a step back and realize today’s students come from a culture that has promoted them and promoted them and promoted them and allowed them to get to this point. They are shocked when they realize they DON’T have the skills they thought they had.

      Apparently studies show failing students is bad for their self-esteem. Well, guess what? Promoting an entire generation is trouble – and now we have a demographic that lacks the skills and the work ethic to be successful writers and thinkers. Shame on us.

  5. I wanted to leave a comment on your Micahel Hess’s blog but it requires me to register my business and join in a community of magnificent traders which are both uninteresting and irrelevant to me in the UK.

    Please tell your friend I enjoyed his article but am unable to add my personal story of email horrors to it because of pop up windwos that make unreasonable demands.

    🙂 <—- smiley face.

  6. I pre-grade all of my daughters English – I mean Language Arts – papers and make her re-write them until they are acceptable. I refuse to let her become one of those text writers or people that can’t spell popsicle without having to look it up on

  7. I totally agree with your viewpoint that things are deteriorating in this area. I do not think texting shortcuts are all bad. It is the slang of present day youth. All younger generations go through some phase of language individuality. BUT they need to know there is a time and place for everything. Remember when we were younger and often used “dirty” words or told “dirty” jokes with our friends. I remember when the phrase DDT for drop dead twice was the current slang translation of “no way.” But we would never do that around parents, teachers or other relatives. We knew where the line was. Poor grammar and spelling is the result of texting behavior. Unfortunately, parents have joined this club, maybe in an effort to stay young. Just wait until these younsters apply for a job. Maybe then – or not- they will get it.

    1. There is definitely a lack of understanding about one’s “audience.” Each semester I have to explain to students that they have to be bilingual. AND no, I don’t mean they have to know English and a foreign language – because Modern Standard English IS a foreign language to many of them. I tell them they can communicate with friends in one way – casually – but they NEED to know how to communicate formally in Modern Stand English whenever they are writing to someone to whom they might be trying to impress: like a professor, for example, or a potential employer. In those cases, it is not acceptable to say: “Yo!” or “Hey!”

      Many students are utterly perplexed by this.

  8. i have to admit that sometimes i use the short way of writing things cuz its easier n im lazy. u have been givin me a complex now for months. i even fear that youll somehoww know when i do it like u r secretly peeking over my shoulder. but u r da best!!!

  9. I’d agree with you that these kids are unemployable. I can’t imagine ever writing badly so it’s hard for me to comprehend why these kids are not embarrassed (yes, that) that they are incapable of writing and expressing themselves properly. I have often wondered whether it was the fault of their teachers for not telling them to use a dictionary to check their spelling etc. I asked a good friend of mine, who is a primary school teacher, about this question and she told me that teachers have a hard enough time getting these kids to express themselves on paper that they’re delighted to see some writing being done. I was shocked since I know, from having attended secondary school with her where she was a fiend about good grammar and good spelling, that she would now accept badly written work from her students. She replied that the problem was that standards had dropped as a whole from when we’d been at primary and secondary school. So, she was forced to put up with what really frustrated her since the other teachers were doing the same thing. We reminded each other that when we were children that we were rapped on our knuckles (we were in the UK mind you) if we put a capital letter in the middle of a word let alone a sentence if the word was not a proper noun. We realised that it could appear as if we had grown up in another era entirely. Yes, we had. She told me that bad grammar and bad spelling was not commented on. Oh dear…it seems that we’ve a mass of illiterates on our hands. Who’s going to pay to keep them since such a large group of people does not bode well for a highly developed economy.

  10. While I agree that texting plays a huge part in this problem, I see a much larger part of the problem in the way the elementary schools now teach writing. Kindergarteners are “writing” paragraphs and discussing “nouns” and “verbs.” Instead of focusing solely on phonics and reading words, these kids are “learning” skills that should be taught at a later date. And it is a downhill slide from that point. Kids are being taught higher-order thinking and abstract ideas before they are really ready to digest it. They learn to mimic, but they never can truly grasp the more advanced stuff because they have NEVER mastered the basics.

    Kids need a good grounding in the concrete and in the basics before they learn to write paragraphs. They need to learn how to read and spell “dog,” before they learn it is a noun and what role it plays in a sentence. I guess I just think that kids aren’t mastering the basics because we aren’t spending enough time on these vital building blocks in the lower grades (where they need to be taught). At the college level, we should be focusing on the higher-order writing skills and the abstract thinking. Instead (like you), I spend my days grading papers that are unreadable because of BASIC grammatical errors.

    The other concept that really bothers me is that good writers are usually good readers, and the reading books being used in the early grades SUCK!!!!!!! When I was young, many of the stories were ones that made me want to read. The stories in the books now are dry, boring, and wouldn’t drive any kids to WANT to read. The stories now all “teach” morals, environmentalism, and other ideas in such an obvious, dry way, that I HATE listening to my children read for homework. I have 3 active boys (and one girl), and I want my boys to love to read. I supplement their reading with my own choice of texts, but it makes me sad to think what the other students in their classes are reading.

    Anyway, I will step down from my soapbox. Until the idiots setting educational policy (and those well-meaning dolts who brag about the advanced crap kindergarterners are learning and refuse to see beyond the facade) spend a few weeks in reality, they will continue to make policies that result in the poor writing skills we are seeing at the college level. When you force children to grow up and do college-level work too early, they get to college, and they only have a childlike version of college work to offer.

    1. Melody, I am in love with you. Every fiber of my being is throbbing with adoration. The question really is what CAN we do to fix this? I have a 6th grader who receives high grades on his English reports, yet I know these papers are riddled with errors. Like you, I am supplementing his learning at home – teaching him the grammar skills that I know he will not ever be expected to master in school.

  11. I think that it’s not a big deal to use an acronym as a substitution for the original word. There are many people who do not know how type properly that need a good amount of time to type their response and what not. Also, there are people who are busy at work, school, or another event of some sort that are trying to respond as fast as possible. While being lazy could be a reason it may be easier to use acronyms instead. If you were to email me and ask what I was doing I could respond by saying “nuthin wat r u doin,” and it is still CLEAR to see what I am saying to you. Since you are my teacher and have expressed your concern about student response’s being a peeve of yours, I respond in the way you prefer. It’s different for each person that it applies to.

    1. I don’t have a problem with texting so much as a problem with the way it is interfering with people’s ability to remember when to use proper English. I receive papers where people write “u” instead of the word “you.” Students often forget to capitalize the word “I.” These are obvious problems. The bigger problem is that this generation of students (ages 18-24) has not been taught grammar. You have been kind of left there to figure things out by yourselves, and I am trying to figure out how this has happened! I have heard some teachers say, “Put commas wherever you hear a pause.” Ummm, no! This is absolutely not correct! As you know, if you put a comma every place you hear a comma, you will have a paper with a lot of comma splices. And many people don’t have a fine-tuned ear; they can’t hear the pauses. Folks need to know the rules. Employers will expect you know the rules. Unfortunately, the onus is on your generation to get motivated and learn the things you have missed.

      1. I am an individual who has grown up in the generation of texting. I agree and disagree with some of the things that are said about texting. To be honest, I type more in a day when I am texting than I do when I am doing most of my homework assignments, which consist of essays and journal entries. I do believe that this does affect our communication skills. Many adults who do not text have excellent penmanship because that is what they used when they were growing up. Adults were taught to write using cursive. We were also taught cursive but because we text, we do not use it. This contributes to the poor penmanship that many students have today. However, I do not think that this makes us unemployable. I may not be the best English student, but I have many other qualities that make me an excellent employee. There are many skills that I have that were not acquired in a classroom and these skills may be valuable in the working world.

  12. I know this post is a week old, but I just had a conversation with my 4th graders’ special education teacher. And I thought you’d be happy to know that they are beginning to learn about the five paragraph essay! In 4th grade special ed! So, all is not lost. But, I could not agree with you more about how so few people, not just 18-24 year olds, do not have the basic writing skills that you would expect of an adult. I work on a daily basis with professionals and non-professionals from all ages. Many cannot write an email in such a way that I can understand what they are asking. They misuse there/their, to/too/two and all the other homophones. I do not remember in what grade(s) I learned specific grammar rules, punctuation, parts of the sentence, etc., but I do remember learning them. (Maybe it was just from Saturday morning cartoons. “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here”, “Conjuction Junction”, and all the other “School House Rock” favorites.) We were taught the rules for when and where to put an apostrophe, the difference between an adjective and an adverb, and what prepositional phrases are. We were tested on this material. All through high school, papers were graded not just on the content, but on spelling, grammar and punctuation as well. It always killed me when some kid would raise his hand after being given an assignment and ask, “Does spelling count?” Of course spelling counts!

    1. So when did we start settling for mediocrity? Why is it okay now? Is it because there is a generation of demanding, litigious parents out there who DEMAND that their children be put into AP courses when they don’t belong in those courses, so the bar has had to be lowered? Is it these same parents who want the schools to do everything while they go out and BUY everything for their children instead of being tough on them and DEMANDING that they do their homework before their beloved sports which (surprise!) are more fun than school?

      Is it that teachers coming out of schools are less prepared to teach this material?

      Why can’t be take a step back and agree that we simply must make sure that our children can communicate with fluency in their native language – because other children are communicating with fluency in two, sometimes more! Or do parents not want that responsibility? Would we father play on Facebook? Or go to the mall? Or go shopping? Or, to speak to the situation you describe, are adults not able to help their children because their own literacy is not where it should be?

      I wish for education reform and real solutions to these difficult problems.

  13. Ms. Schuls-Jacobsen:

    This is a topic so complex that I will probably have to write a post on it on my own blog.

    First, I admire your heroic dedication to teaching your students how to write properly. Your students, whatever level of proficiency they eventually reach, will graduate having known at least one person who sincerely respected the ability to read and write.

    I myself have been exceptionally lucky in regards to “language arts.” I spent more than half my childhood overseas; I was exposed to three foreign languages, American English, and one English dialect before I was 18: in chronilogical order, Brazilian Portuguese, English as spoken in Northern Virginia in the 1960s, Trinidadian Creole (“ting” for “thing” and “tree” for “three”), Spanish (as spoken in Costa Rica), and French (the King’s, as spoken in Paris). When I returned to the United States for college, I studied French and Greek.

    I am a published poet and a professional writer-editor. Neither of these careers has ever made me much money: I have earned a total of $25 for my poetry and I have yet to break the 50 grand barrier on the job front. I can honestly say that, in my experience, writer-editors get treated like dirt in our society.

    I am also working on a version in verse of the Epic of Gilgamesh (I recently passed the 10-year mark in this venture) and am fully prepared to self-publish the completed work on Lulu (or whatever the latest publishing technology will be when I’m finished). I am doing a great deal, I think, to raise awareness about both Gilgamesh and the joys of working in epic verse. But I realize that from a financial perspective, my undertaking borders on the kamikaze in its foolhardiness.

    Finally, three weeks ago, I self-published a chapbook of my poetry (including a 100-line extract from Gilgamesh) on Lulu. To date, I have sold three copies.

    Language is a migration. It’s always changing, and if we have to think about what we’re saying, there’s usually a problem. Teachers everywhere and at all times (this discussion brings to mind the Latin rhetoricians exiled to the provinces who bemoaned the many distortions inflicted on the purity of the language by the vulgar–without knowing that eventually they would issue in French and the other romance languages) have fought a rearguard action against the joy of language creation.

    The one exception to this rule I know of is Chinese, which has evolved into several languages (called dialects for the sake of national unity) over the course of history. The non-phonetic Chinese characters, however, have made possible a uniform (if arduous) instruction in writing for centuries.

    It helps to keep in mind, though, that no one wanted to get in the way of the First Emperor (who unified and standardized the Chinese characters); books written in any of the competing systems were burned, and scholars who taught any of these systems were buried alive.

    As a final irony, it may be that poets in China (before Westernization) were more highly esteemed than in any other culture.

    I think that everyone speaks two languages: the language we use when nobody is listening and the language we use when we face the world. The first language is poetry; the second is communication. Maybe we should teach our students to respect and use both. RT

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