Last month The Wall Street Journal reported on the 2011 SAT test results, noting that the writing scores were the lowest they had ever been, continuing a downward spiral that began in 2006, the first year student writing skills had been tested. Strangely enough, the College Board, which oversees the SAT, seemed to blame the decline on the increased number of Blacks and Latinos taking the test. Can you imagine a white Republican saying, “Well, of course the scores are down. After all, more Blacks and Latinos are taking the test, and we all know their scores will be lower than those of white students”? The outcry would be deafening.
But drawing attention to the obvious double standard of the media is not the purpose of this article. Instead, I would like to focus on why Johnny still canʼt write after decades of research, gimmicks, and millions of dollars.
The first reason, although not the most important one, is that Johnny is inept because teaching writing skills necessarily involves, on the part of the teacher, reading thousands upon thousands of essays, and that requires hundreds of hours, most of which will be accomplished outside the classroom and, most likely, at home. Few teachers are willing to put that much effort into their classes while their colleagues in other disciplines rarely take work home with them. So, to avoid the tedium, many English teachers simply put writing on the back burner or give grades on essays based upon the “feelings” expressed by the writer. Johnnyʼs self-esteem rises while his skill level decreases.
As bad as this is, the greatest reason Johnny canʼt write is that most teachers simply do not have the fundamental knowledge of grammar and punctuation and are, therefore, incapable of passing that knowledge on to their students. Ask an English teacher to define an adverb clause and give an example of one, and my guess is that you will only receive a blank look. And yet the rules covering grammar and punctuation are the building blocks that enable anyone to express himself in a cogent, understandable sentence. Once a student understands how the language works, good writing becomes a reality.
But there are those who say that grammar and punctuation rules are boring and that grammar check on the computer makes learning the rules unnecessary.
In response to those claims, I will turn to the author of one the best books on writing I have ever read. In fact, the book is simply entitled On Writing, and the author is Stephen King, famous for his many best-selling books of horror and suspense. Comparing the skills necessary for good writing to a toolbox, King writes the following:
Youʼll . . . want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox . . .One either absorbs the grammatical principles of oneʼs native language in conversation and in reading or one does not. What Sophomore English does (or tries to do) is little more than naming the parts . . . If you can remember all the accessories that go with your best outfit, the contents of your purse, the starting lineup of the New York Yankees . . . you are capable of remembering the difference between a gerund and a participle.
Communication composed of these parts of speech must be organized by rules of grammar upon which we agree. When these rules break down, confusion and misunderstanding result. Bad grammar produces bad sentences.
If you donʼt have a rudimentary grasp of how the parts of speech translate into coherent sentences, how can you be certain that you are doing well? How will you know if youʼre doing ill, for that matter? The answer, of course, is that you canʼt, you wonʼt. One who does grasp the rudiments of grammar finds a comforting simplicity at its heart, where there need be only nouns, the words that name, and verbs, the words that act.
Grammar is not just a pain in the ***; itʼs the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.”
The educational snobs will turn up their noses at the likes of Stephen King. But as an English teacher for thirty-six years, I know that he is right on target.
There are, of course, other factors that lead to writing deficiencies. A lack of reading is one of them, and I shudder to think of the short- and long- term effects of texting. But a teacher who insists that his students learn the rules of grammar and punctuation and is willing to put in the time to read what the students write will discover one important thing. In the not-so- distant future, many of his charges will thank him for giving them the skills that enabled them to be successful in college and to get that job that means so much to them.
I am reminded of a dialogue between the characters of Richard Rich and Thomas More in Robert Boltʼs play A Man for All Seasons. Rich is upset because he does not have a government job:
More: Why not be a teacher? Youʼd be a fine teacher. Perhaps even a great one.
Rich: And if I was, who would know it?
More: You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that . . .
Not a bad public indeed.