Do we still value English?

english pic

It seems hard to believe that I am now old enough to utter such phrases as, ‘When I was young …’ But I am. A couple of weeks ago, in Western Australia, Year 12 students received their final results, which dictate what universities they can enter and what courses they can take. After the results were released, the West Australian newspaper reported that only 17.1% of students achieved a scaled score of 50% or more in stage two English. However, the newspaper also said that, regardless of whether they achieved a score of 50%, two-thirds of students will still be eligible for university entry.

Furthermore, when asked about this statistic, the President of the English Teachers Association of WA said that there was no longer a need for students to achieve a scaled score of fifty as there were so many ways to get around failing English, and that it didn’t even get mentioned much anymore as an issue because there was a plethora of ways to get into uni.

I was a little gob-smacked by this. When I was young – there, I’ve said it – passing English in the final year exams was mandatory for university entry and, what’s more, people genuinely believed it was important to pass English because a good grasp of English was essential to being able to successfully study at university. Not to mention essential for being able to get on in life. Okay, this was twenty years ago, but has the world changed so much that a competent grasp of English is no longer deemed desirable?

I teach creative writing at university, in between writing novels. Some students I’ve taught have a poor grasp of basic grammar, punctuation and spelling. Because of this, it makes their creative writing very hard to understand and it is often confusing to read. I fail them, not to be mean or to prove a point but because I believe that for a story or a poem to work, it must be readable. I also give the student as much feedback as possible to help them improve, including directing them to bridging courses that may be appropriate. Yet I’ve had conversations with other tutors who will pass the same student in another written assessment because – in their words – you can’t fail someone for being bad at English. Why not? If someone is unable to communicate a message, isn’t that a failure?

This might sound like an exaggeration but I feel as if our world will be much poorer if we strive for anything less than english competency. It doesn’t matter what job you have after you finish university, you will still be required to communicate with people. If people can’t understand what you’ve written, or take a different meaning from it to that which you’ve intended, then how can you succeed in your job? Indeed, in some professions, such as nursing, poorly written notes can have dire consequences.

And I don’t mean to blame anyone – it certainly isn’t the fault of teachers or anyone else. I think it’s a collective failure of contemporary times – how sad that we live in a society where it is seen to be okay to provide ‘ways around’ the requirement to be competent at English? How can we condone a university system where this is acceptable? It makes a mockery of the whole idea of passing a test, and of having rules for grammar and a basic code for the way in which words work to create meaning.

Once again, I’m not for one minute suggesting that universities shouldn’t offer bridging courses to help students who need extra assistance. But I’m wondering if anybody feels the same as me – that if we continue to set low standards, we run the risk of eroding the wonderful gift that is communication, the wonderful gift that is storytelling, and the capacity we have to make markings on a piece of paper that can move others to tears and to laughter.

I’ve always felt that if parents showed their children that reading and writing were valuable, then the children would grow up with the same belief in their value. But if the systems these children aspire to enter when they are grown do not value reading and writing, then how can the children hold onto that belief? What do you think? Am I yearning for the long-lost era of English competency that has somehow ceased to hold any charm? Or am I right in thinking that good English can and should be central to our children’s lives? (And God help me if there are any spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in this blog!)

31 comments

  1. I’m almost too scared to leave a comment for fear of publishing my own grammatical and spelling errors! But I’ll take the risk and congratulate you for highlighting this issue. I can’t believe that you can find a way to get in to University after failing Year 12 English.

    My English is far from perfect – I’m the first to admit it. But it is certainly annoying when you watch a school teacher make spelling mistakes in the words they are writing on the board for their students to read. The system seems to be failing our children and not to mention the future of the English language.

    • I agree, Anita. Unfortunately I have seen spelling and grammatical mistakes in the worksheets my daughter receives from school for homework. Of course everyone makes mistakes, but they happen more often than I am comfortable with and I think it’s a big issue given the age of my children. They are just learning to read and spell and I would like them to be exposed to correct spelling, punctuation and grammar at school. I correct the worksheets and send them back and hope they are fixed. I’m probably the kind of parent teachers hate!

  2. I’m an ESL teacher with knowledge of grammar and spelling. This is not common these days, sadly. Some of my colleagues have little concept of either. I usually teach adults from overseas and, without a doubt, those students with an idea of grammar and study skills have better understanding and results. I think the sad demotion of the primacy of good English is reflected in the general devaluing of teaching and learning too. It is distressing to see the scant, shallow nature of general ignorance not just language skills amongst ‘professionals’ even journalists and especially appalling amongst teachers. We have neglected good educational values in favour of admitting all comers to degrees and more. Degrees are now seen as tickets to jobs not as broadening minds, education for its own sake. So long as there’s no dollar value on correct verb formation etc, seems to me we are fighting against a massive dark side.
    The English language is resilient and developing, changing as ever. It is bigger than all of us. Still we should be demanding that our professionals are enabled to communicate effectively and well. 50% ability is not good enough.

    • Hi Elaine, it’s great to have another teacher’s perspective because it’s hard to know if what I see amongst the students I teach is widespread or not. And I agree with you, degrees are seen to be a way into a job, rather than an experience to be enjoyed because learning is a wonderful thing.

  3. You’ve said what a lot of us are thinking, Natasha. English has been “dumbed down” so much; there is so much written laziness around. It’s not just in the abbreviations or “text” language – it’s lazy spelling; it’s like an overall can’t be bothered-ness. There’s a big difference between making a mistake and sheer laziness. My rant over.

  4. NGC

    The problem with Stage 2 English is that it should not be an examinable course. The reason so many students fail this course is because of the ridiculous scaling situation with the external examination. Every year I want to weep for the students stuck in this horrible situation. The reason universities are allowing entrance even with a fail in this course is in recognition that the situation is untenable for students. They are weaker English students, yes. If they were not, they would complete Stage 3 English. However, they are penalised by the system for taking a ‘lesser subject’. Thank goodness the Minister for Education has recognised (finally) the problem and will hopefully act on his words to do something about the plight of these poor kids. Many students are achieving 50% or better for their school based assessment, it is the scaling system that is doing these students a massive disservice, seeing them needing to get anywhere from 65 – 70% in the external examination to pass the course. Stage 3 English students, on the other hand, can fail their examination (raw mark) and still pass the course due to the bonuses put in place for Stage 3 subjects.

    I have seen brilliant maths and science students fail their English course, should these students be denied a place at university because their aptitude lies with maths or science and not English? Of course students must be able to communicate effectively, but I would argue that many of these students can, it is the scaling system that is failing these students.

    • Thanks for your comment. It’s great to have a teacher’s perspective. I had heard of issues with scaling so it’s good to hear more about what those issues are. I agree, if a student is brilliant at Maths and competent at Englsh, they should be able to enter university. I do sometimes wonder, though, whether competency means something different now than it did 20 years ago. I see so many students at university whose English skills I would deem to be barely competent. It makes me worry that technology is causing us to revalue English and its necessity in our lives. I hope I’m wrong and that English and technology can find a way to co-exist and be equally valued.

  5. It’s a worry. I was teaching (part-time) at Murdoch and always spent a 3 hour lecture on grammar when I returned the major essays to the students. Many were surprised: this is an Education course, they said, not English. I was also concerned that to fit the pattern, particularly for on-line, teaching, I had to choose weekly ‘Readings’ and guide the students in reading these passages. I often wondered when they would read a whole book and follow a book-length article. If people cannot read a fully developed argument, they will find it difficult to write one.

    Of course, the work of most classes produced a bell-curve: a few students were highly literate and a few were illiterate and most were somewhere in between. But I agree strongly that we (as a community) should not be complacent about communication standards.

    • Hi Ted, I have to agree with you. I am always amazed to find that many students enrolled in creative writing don’t read books. I just can’t imagine how anyone would want to be a writer without having a great love of reading. The two go hand in hand for me. I think it’s very difficult to learn to be a writer without studying the books of the great writers who have come before us.

  6. Glen Hunting

    Hi Natasha. Happy New Year.

    First of all, I’ve been saying ‘I remember when’ for a long time. You’ve only just started down the road of reverse ageism. But I have stumbled too far down its crooked, crumbling byways to turn back now. And I’m younger than you are.

    It’s not just the humanities that are experiencing a diminution of standards. Less and less children in Australia have basic numeracy, particularly compared with those in other developed countries. And the number of Australians studying sciences has been declining for years. I’ve heard that at least one local engineering degree is now relaxing their former requirement for entrants to have completed Year 12 calculus. Bridging courses used to be available for people who hadn’t done the ‘higher’ maths subjects, but I don’t know whether or not they still are. But I can’t imagine how anyone could hope to understand engineering without understanding calculus. The same goes for the physical sciences.

    I’m cynical enough to suggest that, because universities are commercial institutions, they’ve begun relaxing their entrance criteria to achieve a higher throughput of students. I can’t state this as a categorical fact, because I’m not in the education system, but I suspect it’s true. Presumably the internet provides a relatively cheap means of making up the shortfall in other teaching resources, such as lecture theatre capacities. Moreover, both secondary and tertiary examiners have long been scaling their results to achieve pass/fail proportions that accord with statistical distributions of abilities amongst the population. Have you been under any pressure to pass more students than you felt inclined to pass, because of this?

    People tend to value language in the world of industry and commerce only when either they, or someone else, can’t make themselves adequately understood. I’ve encountered numerous examples of this in my working life, and it beggars belief how it can be allowed to go on happening. When I was a consultant engineer and had to edit and correct the reports written by the new junior engineers, my project manager and I would virtually have to tear the documents up and start from scratch. And the people who’d originally produced them were tertiary qualified. As a first year student, everyone in my course had to pass a year-long course in scientific report writing, and it gave me an awareness of grammar that I’d never previously had. I don’t know whether my former colleagues had to do likewise in their undergraduate courses, but their command of written English was appalling.

    Employers are still being dogged by the lack of literacy in their personnel, but the education sector still isn’t correcting this. As I get to the end of this little screed of mine, I find that I still can’t quite understand the disconnection. It’s almost as if the workforce still perceives that it’s airy-fairy to insist on good written communication skills in their prospective employees. But by the time they receive their technically proficient candidates who can’t write, it’s too late to address the inadequacies that weren’t adequately addressed earlier.

    As for an appreciation of English in the Keatsian sense i.e. as a thing of beauty and a joy forever, I tend to think of recent response by a writer on the value of short stories. When she was asked whether she thought short stories would be important in the future, she said that they would still be important to the people who cared about them. I tend to think the same about the written word in general. I really can’t say whether schools or parents are ‘doing enough’ to foster a love of literature – you are far better placed to comment on that than me. But both schools and parents can only spread the message. There have always been children that hear and believe that message, and those that don’t. And there always will be. We all end up hearing and believing the messages we want to believe.

    My God. You’ve unleashed the verbosity monster in me. I’d better shove off and do some real work!!!

  7. Rachael Morgan

    I completely agree with you Natasha. I feel that our English skills are failing us as our language evolves. People don’t feel the need to speak correctly, even text messages are lacking full and correct words; it’s no wonder people can’t spell. I’ve had students actually believing LOL was a word and that love is spelled ‘luv.’ I know first hand what a great tutor you are. I really enjoyed your classes and I completely agree with you that if a piece of work is unreadable, it loses meaning and unfortunately an F is all it can be given.

    • You’re right, Rachel. And apparently okay is now spelt ok and the only adjective that exists in the English dictionary is awesome. Capital I is unnecessary because it is quicker and easier to type a lowercase i. These are more examples of what you have mentioned and I see them all regularly in work submitted by uni students.

  8. Glen Hunting

    I’ve just seen NGC’s comments since I was waffling on, and what he/she says about the current scaling inequities in tertiary entrance English courses is quite right. And yes, hopefully the Minister will address it. But it won’t be until after the election, of course.

  9. Hi Natasha, I must agree with your entirely.

    I spent a good portion of my life unable to read and write properly because of relaxed literacy attitudes when it came for proper learning. I struggled through life with a mild but crippling enough form of dyslexia that the education system here didn’t care about. As long as I there was something scribbled on my school paper, they kept putting me through the grades.

    In 1976, I was fortunate as a child to spend six months abroad in the US and attended lower school — level 1 (which is year 2 here). The US state school in Michigan, noticed right away that my reading and writing skills were well below their acceptable literary standards. Seeing there was a serious problem; I was given a special ‘one-on-one tutoring’, from a level 6 student, having to painstakingly — I never forgot this — read out load to her, for around half an hour every morning, while the other kids played morning sports.

    Six months later back in Australia, and twelve years later leaving high school year ten; I could barely read and write a few pages of simple texts.

    I feel that the system let me down all the way through from primary school to secondary years with high school. I always felt there was a lack of care with the schools and teachers I had, and they had this ‘she’ll be right mate’ relaxed attitude towards literacy skills, while counting the days down till end of term, perhaps knowing that struggling students will be someone else’s problem the following year. Its like an ascending revolving door type failure. Your gradually climbing up grades every year — but your not really going where!

    Anyway, cutting a long and boring story short: I purchased a self-help Grammar course book –teach yourself guide — and then enrolled with an online course for creative writing. I worked hard making the right effort and I received pretty good and satisfactory results.

    Now I am working inside a profession preparing fine art sale catalogues, where correct spelling, and proper grammar is vital for promoting high end priced sale items — sometimes up to. and over million dollars in value. The catalogues I assist to create are published regularly and mailed out to clients Australia wide. I can assure you that poor spelling and bad Grammar tarnishes your level of expertise.

    Sorry you’ve had to endure that long and tedious story! However, I thought it be pertinent to the question being asked. I lost a great deal of my life suffering with poor literacy skills.

    Having furthered my education now, I can truly state that the greatest way to empower oneself is through the written word.

    • Hi Jay, one thing I love about blogging is that I am able to meet so many inspiring people who have stories that are much more enthralling than my own. Like May in her comment below, I think you have put it beautifully when you said that the greatest way to empower oneself is through the written word. Thanks for visiting my blog today and for contributing such a wonderful addition to the discussion.

  10. May

    Hi Natasha,

    I’m often left wondering if the ‘close-enough-is-good-enough’ approach to language is a world-wide phenomenon, or if Australia is at the forefront of what seems to be an increasingly rapid demise in written communication. It really is heartbreaking to see the mangling of even simple words and sentences everywhere one looks. English in full flight is such a rich and powerful language and we stand to inherit a culture of appalling linguistic poverty if not enough time and effort is applied at all educational levels to achieve a better standard than we have currently. Further lowering of standards, especially for tertiary admittance, can only make matters worse, irrespective of the course to be studied. The day that educational institutions became businesses that have to show a profit was likely the thin end of a number of the wedges.

    I could waffle on a great deal about this important subject, but feel that other contributors to this page are well and truly on the same wavelength. The comment that struck me as being possibly the most defining of all the above, however, is from JayCScott: ‘…the greatest way to empower oneself is through the written word.’

    Just words…

    • I think the thing that has struck me today, May, is that so many people seem truly passionate about doing all that we can to ensure we don’t become the linguistically poor culture you fear and I both fear. I hope that there are enough of us out there and that the influence of all the wonderful things that words can do is strong enough to withstand institutional devaluing of our language.

  11. I think a command and general respect of English has really gone down. Now that I’ve graduated I work among a lot of aspiring writers who have just finished year 12. The mass difference between skills with spelling and grammar is pretty surprising to me, especially when these writers are all studying the same sort of subjects at university now, either journalism or writing in general. Not that I’m without fault, I’ve always struggled with certain nuances of grammar, and I’ve recently been reading Lynne Truss ‘Eat, Shoots & Leaves’ which mentioned how back in the 50’s they would have classes in grammar and language up until their late teen years, compared to the education I received, where I feel as if those things were left to young children to understand and if they were missed, they might have been missed forever.

    • Hi Anthony, Lynne Truss’s book is great, isn’t it? You’re not the first person to say that grammar just isn’t covered in the school the way it might need to be. It seems as if once you reach high school, in our education system, it is assumed that everyone has a thorough enough understanding of grammar and that it needn’t be taught any more, but I think this does leave many people at a disadvantage.

  12. Been a while since I’ve left a comment here, but yes I think you’re absolutely right Tash, I believe we are indeed in jeopardy of losing not only the gift of communication but also a lot of other things due to lowering standards, being politically correct and ‘giving everyone a fair go’.
    My mums a year 5/6 teacher and some of her students cannot spell their own names. Most of them cannot piece together a coherent paragraph long fictional story even when most of the skeleton is laid out for them on the board. Yet, she can’t fail them, because the system thinks that ‘they should have a fair go’.
    We’re also living in an age where higher education is not bringing in the dollars like it once did, relative to more menial or laborious jobs. You know my work as a writer goes, but I’m also a damned good computer tech, yet I could go wash dishes on the mines and earn a heck of a lot more than what I do currently, aint that crazy?
    It’s also been brought to my attention that the lower socio-economic folk are having many more children than their high-educated peers.
    Run these two side by side for another 20 years and you’ve got a vast majority of the country uneducated, unworried about education and unworried about losing what education we have left… Actually an idea for a novel I’ve been kicking around (if I ever get off my butt and get back to writing that is)
    But I digress. I agree with you, if you can’t speak or write proper English sentences or words, you should be held at what level you are until you can. It’s essential to life and learning.

    • Yes, the mentality that no one should fail anything does people a disservice. We all fail at something some time in our lives and that teaches us valuable lessons, such as what our strengths and weaknesses are and how to try harder to achieve something. I hope you get back to your writing too!

  13. This being said, on the STAT exam, I only scored 148 for english, the passable cut-off was 145, so what does that tell you about some tests?

  14. steve

    I hear you. unfortunately while the education department continues to push students through the levels even if they fail this issue will stay for the long term. I applaud you for your ability to atay true to your convictions as a university educator. My hope is other educators follow your path. Maybe your university needs to uphold the English standard. I studied at ECU and gained entry through the STAT exam as an adult at age 27. I needed an English score of 85 from a possible 100 to study Psychology. I have since worked at Curtin and found that they were very stringent with English for international students but maybe not so for local students. Australian universities hold a good reputation overseas. Hopefully the lack of this standard doesnt affect that.

  15. Reblogged this on Travelletto and commented:
    A bit off topic for Travelletto, but this post I sincerely agree with. Every Australian should be competent in English. It’s fundamental to communicating with others in the community. I’m not talking about new immigrants here – they should learn it to help them live here. I’m talking about those born and educated here. It’s crazy to think that someone can fail English in Year 12 and still get into University!

    What do you think?

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