Schools get an F in teaching literacy


Greg Bean

The newspaper business is facing the biggest challenge in its entire history, as publications across the country struggle to find ways to appeal to the next generations of readers.

But for all our collective soul-searching in the industry — for all our attempts to make our publications more attractive, more colorful, more hip, more interactive and reader friendly — it seems there is at least one issue we simply cannot address directly. And that issue may indeed be nearly impossible, not only for newspapers, but for the entire print industry to overcome.

For at least the last decade, many of us in the business have bemoaned what we believed was a general deterioration in the language skills of young people coming out of college. And not just public institutions, either, but the most prestigious institutions in our nation.

We’ve cringed at the results of grammar and writing tests we routinely give to job applicants, and wondered how a young person with a degree in writing could not know the answers to such common grammatical conundrums as the difference between affect and effect, between principal and principle, between capitol and capital. And forget the more complicated rules that govern language, like punctuation and agreement, proper uses of pronouns and the difference between passive and active voice.

Those of us who are older — who learned the language in the days when teachers made students diagram sentences and write a word 100 times if they misspelled it on a test — have been a bit smug in our assessments of those young job seekers. And we’ve spent hours discussing exactly where we believe education went wrong when it comes to teaching language skills.

We still don’t know exactly where it went wrong, but I don’t think any of us truly understood the magnitude of the educational failure.

Last week, a story by The Associated Press reported on a national literacy study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts that found that students routinely fail to “lock in” key language skills, no matter their fields of discipline. The results were astonishing and profoundly disturbing.

The study looked at students’ ability to analyze news stories and other prose, understand documents and perform simple math skills like balancing check books and figuring out how much to tip at a restaurant. Those skills allow readers to understand things like nutritional tables and blood pressure charts, understand newspaper stories and the arguments put forth in columns and editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and summarize other important information, like the school report cards released each year to chart the progress of individual schools in our state system.

But the study found that more than half of students at four-year colleges, and at least 75 percent of students at two-year colleges, lacked the basic literacy to handle even those routine tasks.

The good news?

Even though they can’t spell or read very well, the Pew Trusts study found that most students at four-year colleges and community colleges have learned enough literacy skills to understand moderately challenging printed information, like identifying locations on a map. But 20 percent of students pursuing four-year degrees lacked the basic quantitative skills to estimate whether their cars have enough gas to get them to their destination.

The study, written after tests were given in 2003 to a representative sample of 1,827 students at public and private schools, had a 3 percent margin of error.

So it looks like those of us in the publishing business may have been very, very wrong when we hypothesized that we were losing readership solely because our stories were too long and dense, or too boring, our papers not colorful enough, not hip enough.

We may have been losing readership because people, particularly young people, simply can’t read or understand our product. And the failure responsible for that sad fact — the failure of our grade schools, our middle schools and our high schools to teach our children even the most basic language skills — may be the great educational scandal of the late 20th century.

As I said, I don’t claim to be smart enough to know exactly where things went so horribly wrong — which hare-brained educational philosophy led us to this dire strait — although there have been plenty of “new and improved” reading and literacy philosophies over the last couple of decades to choose from. I imagine that it wasn’t one single misdirection, but a multi-generational cascade of them, with that Whole Language disaster at the top of the list.

All I know for absolute certain is that we have to do a better job, and we can start by demanding that our institutions of learning prepare our children with minimum literacy skills. We can demand the same thing any football coach worth his salt would demand when his team starts to fall apart, that the players get back to the basics. By the last year of grade school, a student should be able to read and understand the information on an over-the-counter medication, a newspaper story about a crime at a local convenience store, or a recipe for making stew. If they can’t, the heads of those educators responsible for the shortfall should roll.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll believe we’re back on the right road the first time I see, or even hear of, a fourth-grader with homework that includes diagramming 20 sentences. I’ll believe it when I see, or hear of, a kid having to write a word misspelled on a test 100 times so he or she will never get it wrong again. I’ll believe it when I meet a recent college grad who admits to owning a copy of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” and has taken the time to study it.

They might hate those pedantic studies (I know I did), but at least they’ll know how to spell kat, and use it in a sentence with a subjunctive clause.

They might even be able to read this newspaper.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers.