I have long mourned the descent and “textification” of proper English over the years (and naturally I am a big old snob about it, too). Every so often, I find something that really hits home about this, including the following by Catherine Gaffaney, an NZME news service reporter based in Auckland; if you Google it, look under “War of Words.”
Read it and weep.
“We investigate the state of basic writing skills.
- New Zealand needs houses that are “more warmer,” according to Housing Minister Nick Smith.
- “If your 18 by any chance don’t forget to vote!!!” wrote Prime Minister John Key on a Christchurch school whiteboard before the 2014 General Election.
- All will be well if you vote Mitt Romney “for a better Amercia.”
- “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” asked George W. Bush on his 2000 United States presidency campaign trail.
- “This is just a note to wish you luck toomorrow” wrote Tony Blair in a letter in 2001, while Prime Minister of Britain.
Spelling and grammatical errors may not rank highest among political gaffes of our time – but if leaders fail to accurately use English, what hope is there for the rest of us?
HOW BAD ARE WE?
Ministry of Education statistics show, of the three main learning areas – reading, math and writing – writing repeatedly has the lowest percentage of primary school students in achieving at, or above, national standards.
The latest ministry data reveals 70.6 per cent of Year 1 to 8 students’ writing skills are at or above national standards, compared to 74.6 per cent achievement in math and 77.9 per cent in reading.
A study by literacy adviser Dr. Jessica Craig found alarming numbers of secondary students were “catastrophic spellers” – with a quarter of students getting nearly every word wrong in a test to gauge word skills.
Craig tested the spelling of words such as “laboratory,” “fulfil” and “government.” She found 79 of 310 students got less than five correct out of 40.
Her year-long project also revealed up to 35 students did not know how to write vowel blends such as “oi.” The students were 13- and 14-year-olds from six North Island schools.
Craig says her findings highlight a lack in education around word skills. Lacking these skills can limit a person’s growth as a reader and writer – and their career prospects later on.
COMMONLY MISSPELLED WORDS: SEPARATE, DEFINITELY, MANOEUVRE, EMBARRASS, OCCURRENCE, CONSENSUS, UNNECESSARY, ACCEPTABLE, BROCCOLI, REFERRED
HOW HAS THIS HAPPENED?
Craig believes some teachers are ill-prepared to handle students with major gaps in fundamental learning.
“Part of the problem with people who have difficulty reading when they get to secondary school is, they weren’t taught about how language is structured,” she says.
“Kids aren’t taught to break up words, they’re told to focus on whole words …
“It’s about understanding how an alphabetic language works and that letters are used to write down sounds.
“There are 43 sounds in English and only 26 letters, so we need to combine letters to make sounds but kids aren’t taught so that they understand that if they can’t pronounce [a letter] one way, they should try another.”
She also says spelling lists shouldn’t be used as a one-size-fits-all teaching method.
“I think there’s been a real reluctance to think about how to teach spelling well.
“People just teach it the way they learned. Some kids can rote-learn with lists but others can’t. There needs to be more approaches and more understanding about how the language works.”
Teacher training should have a greater focus on how to teach such skills, she says.
“I think teachers need to know more about how to develop basic skills, not just for writing, but also for reading.
“Lots of people think spelling isn’t important because you can use a spellcheck, but you can’t use a spellcheck unless you can recognize the word spelled correctly. Often there are homonyms – the words that sound the same – so it’s a real word but it’s the wrong real word that your spellcheck has found for you.
“I think that attitude is a cop-out.”
WHAT OF THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE?
With many roots and stems, English is – and has always been – a language of odds and ends.
Each evolution from Old English to Middle English, Early Modern and Modern has introduced new peculiarities.
The latest changes – the use of text language and new understandings of words such as “like” and “literally” – are often called improper or just plain wrong.
However, literacy experts say such changes aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
Craig says it’s possible that text language hinders how people grasp English but she’s unaware of any solid evidence of a detrimental effect on our ability to communicate.
Meanwhile, renowned language master Stephen Fry says the evolution of language – use of words such as “chillax” (a combination of chill and relax) should be embraced.
“Most of the people who think they are the ones who actually care about language … the kind of people who moan about a confusion of disinterested and uninterested and think that they’re terribly educated and that they really understand language aren’t actually being guardians of language,” he told UK TV host Jonathan Ross.
“To be a guardian of language is to enjoy language and to understand it.” He says no one should believe their use of language is superior. “Language is changing all the time, it shouldn’t be seen as right or wrong.”
ARE WE DOOMED?
Fry is optimistic about the way the third most spoken language in the world (after Mandarin and Spanish) is changing. He’s particularly upbeat about the rapid rate young people find ways to shorten words and give them new meanings.
Craig likewise says people shouldn’t be frightened by the English language.
“English is one of the most challenging languages to learn to read and write because it has variability in the way letters are pronounced and the way sounds are written, but it’s not impossible.
“People say ‘oh, but there’s so many exceptions’. But that’s because people aren’t taught to look at patterns.
“Your brain is wired to look at patterns. If you teach patterns, kids will start to notice them and everything isn’t such a mystery.”
The impacts of not learning the basics can be longlasting, however.
“Poor spelling limits your vocabulary growth and writing because when you’re writing you just write the words you know,” Craig says.
“It can also limit your career choices. It’s amazing how many people enter adulthood without a grasp of basic spelling and grammar.”