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Writing Real Good

May 15, 2003

High school English teachers just don't get it no more.

College instructors who teach freshman English composition think grammar is the most important writing skill for students to have, a national survey found, but high school English teachers put it in last place, below such items as style and punctuation. Thirty percent don't teach grammar at all, even as part of essay writing. That's part of why so many freshmen end up warming a seat in a remedial English class. This don't come as no surprise to experts.

ACT, maker of the college entrance exam of the same name, does this survey every few years. For the last decade, grammar has crept lower and lower on high school teachers' agendas.

Nearly half the freshmen who entered California State University last fall ended up on the remedial English bench. Many were stunned to find themselves there. They had always made good grades in English.

John C. Briggs, an English professor at UC Riverside, is unsurprised by such stories. As the director of English placement introductory courses for freshmen, he continually hears about students who are amazed to see their graded papers covered with corrections of grammar and other basic mistakes.

They're all, like, "My high school teachers never did that to my papers!"

Grammar is tougher to teach these days. English is a second language for many students. Pop culture, from rap lyrics to Valley speak, inculcates bad grammar. Much of America has dropped the differentiation between "lie" and "lay." With teaching loads of 180 students or so, Briggs says, most English instructors have given up correcting papers with a fine pencil.

Still, Briggs says, teachers could do a lot more. Many, for example, consider it unkind to correct students when they speak ungrammatically.

Teachers lecture less, so students hear less English that is proper. And reading assignments are often so shallow and elementary that they are no model of good expression. Youngsters have to hear and see good English to learn it.

Please, teachers, tell them when they done bad on English usage. It's lots kinder in the long run. Yeah. Er, yes.

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