Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Failure to communicate?

Failure to communicate - The Boston Globe

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This article on the poor writing skills of younger people these days is subtitled " The inability of many students to write clear, cogent sentences has costly implications for the digital age." Unfortunately, it really doesn't go into what those costs are. It focuses on the shortage of English teachers and the lack of instruction in writing in our schools. I wish it had focused more on what it means that "Johnny can't write." Does the inability to write a coherent English sentence mean that Johnny can't communicate?

There's so much more to communication than grammar skills and paragraph construction. Good communication also involves listening, organizing, critical thinking, expressive abilities, and maybe even empathy. The mechanics of grammar and writing are the tools we use to put all of those skills and qualities together. Unfortunately we don't do any better with teaching thinking or listening than we do with grammar.

Two college students are sitting at a nearby table in the coffee shop where I'm writing this. One is working on one last paper he needs to hand in. The other offers to help edit. She reminds him how important it is to have correct grammar. I jump into the conversation, explaining that I'm trying to write about "why Johnny can't write" and what this means. They enthusiastically inform me about how reliance on spellcheckers and the MS grammar checker prevents them from learning to write and how they are were not taught to think critically in high school. They both tell me that the ability to communicate clearly and think critically is essential for a functioning democracy. Wow! I couldn't have expressed it better myself.

They are about to leave. The young woman offers me her copy of Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose. It's a classic on education and the underprepared, focusing on those who have trouble reading and writing in our schools and workplaces. I'm looking forward to reading it.

The two students have left. There's only one other customer in the place. He's reading a newspaper: the printed kind. I have a lot more reading and thinking to do before I will be truly able to write thoughtfully about the state of literacy and its implications for then workplace.

Stay tuned.

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