Thank you to Michelle for forwarding an article by Washington Post writer Michael Skube, titled Writing Off Reading.
This quote summarizes the essence of his observations:
"If words are the coin of their thought, they [college students] are working with little more than pocket change."
An interesting read for everyone concerned about declining reading and writing skills. Could the underlying cause be as simple as schools no longer teaching words?
My daughter's school books teach vocabulary via multiple choice. Most school books I've seen operate on a similar basis, and most everyone can get through these exercises without breaking a sweat.
But does this mean that the students will own these words?
Will they know them enough to have them available for both fluent reading and writing?
Are these words going to "come to them" with ease and without slowing down their train of thought?
Is it enough to recognize a word, or is it important to be able to recall it, to know what it means, how it sounds, how it is written?
Recently I had a conversation in a charming little cafe, Coffee Catz, in my hometown, Sebastopol.
A few tables away from mine, an elderly man and a young woman just discovered that they both worked in college education, and both specialized in teaching remedial English.
After they had compared notes about how difficult, even impossible, it was for some students to make the cut, because they were "disadvantaged," and how one had to be satisfied with even little progress, their conversation trailed off, at which point I introduced myself.
"Overhearing your conversation," I said, "and understanding that you are experienced in teaching remedial English courses to college students, I am very interested to learn how much of the problems you are facing are related to basic word knowledge, in your opinion."
When I said "word knowledge" the young woman abruptly turned around in her chair so she no longer faced me.
The older man took on a condescending tone, the one you use to explain to someone ignorant that she has just committed a crime against political/social/overall correctness.
"No...," he said, "I mean, maybe, but we don't teach vocabulary, that is outdated. The only way we teach words is by providing them in context."
"That's great, but what about students who are not served by that? Students, who are in your remedial courses because they simply do not have a sufficient vocabulary? How do you provide further study for words that surface as problematic in the context of your instruction?"
"Oh, they'll somehow get it at some point."
"What if they don't? Do you have a way to know? How do you make sure they get the assistance or tutoring they need? What assistance is provided to students where lack of word skill is indeed the source of the problem?"
"No," he said with a tone that meant you're just not cool enough to get this, "we just DON'T TEACH words!
Well, we tell them simply not to use big words. It's good style anyway to express your thoughts with the small and simple ones. There is no need for all these complicated words anyway. Anything that's important can be said simply."
"Oh," I said. As a matter of style, I happen to agree. But would you want to experience a reduced vocabulary as a limitation in your own life, I wondered?
How much would you enjoy reading academic texts, or even the New York Times laying on your table, if your vocabulary was limited to the simple, short words? How would your own life have evolved if you had to operate on a minimal vocabulary, because your teachers said that was "good enough" for you?
"Plus," he said, a slight smile on his face, "our students are not going to do it anyway, they wouldn't think it's fun. Maybe the Asians, or ESL students, but not our regular English students."
Conversations like these leave me sad and aggravated; I've heard these type of statements too many times:
"We don't teach words."
"We don't require our students to be able to spell."
"We only teach in context." (Or - "We only teach phonics.")
"Somehow they'll be fine."
"Students won't do it anyway."
Oh, what convenient statements!
So much easier than getting down to the nitty-gritty of making sure that students not only carry "pocket change" but a wealth of vocabulary with them into their lives.
Or insisting that they work on building their language foundation, which is truly their foundation in life - regardless of whether they think it's "fun" or not.
Could you, dear reader, imagine living in a world where communication depended solely upon context?
How would it feel to walk around without fluency in your own native tongue?
What are your favorite books? Who are your favorite authors? What would the world be like for you if those questions left you blank and speechless?
If we respond to these questions with a shrug, what will become of this language we love?
If we don't build students' active vocabulary skills, reading and writing skills will continue to decline. ("Duuh!" my daughter said, reading this. How come this is obvious to a 12 year old, but not to our educational system?)
I come from a country, Germany, where books were once burned on a gigantic scale. Fueling the fires was the thought that all people needed to know was what they were told by the system.
In modern society, such drastic steps are no longer needed to keep people from thinking critically and leave them disenfranchised.
Leave the books on the shelves!
Post them on the Internet!
With students who grow up in a culture that tells them learning words is not really important, that they are fine with multiple-choice level vocabulary skills and a spell checker, and that everything is about "having fun," books are no longer dangerous.
Why burn them? Just let them gather dust.