Teaching in today's post-literate world

March 02, 1998|By John Brain

THE Sun's series of articles on the teaching of reading is to be commended for bringing together a wealth of information and spotlighting the failures of pedagogy. But as some letters to the editor have pointed out, the whole-language approach to the teaching of reading was not an anti-intellectual conspiracy to prevent students from reading, but a misguided response to a system of education that was already breaking down.

Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. When a system that has succeeded in educating generations of children in the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic begins to break down, it experiences symptoms common to all failing endeavors; those involved blame one another, villains and scapegoats are identified, and a variety of fixes are proposed, each supported by rival factions. In fact, none of the diagnoses may be correct, and some prescriptions can make the situation worse.

What are the real roots of modern children's reading problems? Apart from the false fix of the whole-language approach, it may well be that our entire society is less reading- and writing-oriented than it used to be, and the motivation of young people to acquire these skills has atrophied.

One of the blessings of history is the wealth of personal letters that very ordinary people wrote to each other in days before they could pick up the telephone and call. Today, most children don't see their parents reading or writing very much. Dad used to spend time reading the newspaper; now he watches television news. Mom used to keep a diary and write often to her mother and send notes to friends; today she calls when she has time.

Reading and writing have become less relevant to young people's lives, more like the many academic subjects adults tell them to study, such as algebra and chemistry, but which they have little opportunity to practice and think they'll probably never use.

You might think that college students in a department of mass communication would have superior writing skills, but such is not the case. Only a few of the hundreds of students I have encountered as a teacher of public relations courses write well enough to be employed as professionals.

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The current crop will be graduating in a few years, and it is clear that all their years of schooling have taught them little about writing -- probably because no one has told them their writing is unacceptable and made them improve it. And these are the fortunate, the college-educated who will be the haves in the have-and-have-not educational world of the 21st century.

As the telephone has replaced letter-writing in personal communication, so television has replaced reading books as entertainment. I remember as an 8-year-old having little interest in the boring readers I had to explicate word-by-word in school; I wasn't fluent and it wasn't fun.

But when I discovered a stack of boys' adventure magazines, they motivated me to become fluent in reading and I never looked back. The books I read as a child were exciting escapes from the humdrum of life, even life in wartime England. There was no television, and radios were not portable and in any case were controlled by adults.

As an evacuee child sent out of London during the Blitz, I wrote each week to my mother, and she kept my letters. They are of no literary interest, but they made me practice writing. We were required to write a lot in school essays, punctuating practice, grammar, spelling tests. We also read a lot of good writing, poems and prose, which is the best way to learn how to write.

Today, most of my students write as if English were a foreign language, one in which they may never become fluent. This is because, for most of them, written English is a foreign language. They learn it and forget it, just as they learn history or geography, never mastering it because it is for them no longer an essential skill in daily use. What they do use every day is the teen-age ergot of their peer group, the language of pop culture, exclusively verbal, the communication code of telephone and television, almost untranslatable into formal English, a kind of electronic pidgin.

Not all the erosion of writing is electronic, though. The high standard of reading and writing I was fortunate to enjoy in my youth was very much limited to the middle and upper classes, the majority of working-class kids left school at 14, and in their factory jobs had little use for literacy. They inherited an industrial culture in which literacy was as discouraged by employers as it was by slave owners.

In part, modern U.S. educational problems result from the all-inclusive nature of democratic education, where everyone is entitled and standards have been leveled down to accommodate the semiliterate.

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