How to Promote Literacy and Skilled Communication

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You may or may not agree that English-language usage is deteriorating, but it is clear that many young people are unable to express themselves well in writing according to contemporary standards. How can we develop a population of competent writers?

First, we must avoid exaggerated notions of an entire generation of illiterates. It is true that electronic communication media like texting and Twitter discourage careful composition. (Twitter requires conciseness, but coherence is often a casualty.) It is true that absorption in high-tech entertainments such as computer games distracts youth from the rewards of reading. It is true that a tragic focus on quantitative evaluation of students has caused a decline in qualitative expression. But I’ve read lots of articles and books written by people who weren’t even born when I began writing and editing professionally but are already more talented than I’ll ever be. The English language as we know it isn’t going anywhere (not in our lifetimes, anyway).

Yes, we must acknowledge that our society does not value the written word the way it used to, but we must not dramatically bemoan the death of literacy. Here’s what we can do, both on an individual level and a societal one, to improve our collective competency in writing:

We can advocate for extensive and intensive writing experiences for children that are developmentally appropriate. Don’t push children to learn to read and write when they aren’t ready, but when they are ready, inundate them with meaningful opportunities to express themselves in writing — crafting narratives, not filling in worksheets.

An effective cumulative process includes modeled writing (demonstrating practically to children how one translates thinking aloud into writing), shared writing (having students collaborate to produce a piece of content such as a collective account of a shared experience or a summary of what they’ve learned), guided writing (monitoring students’ individual writing to help them learn to generate and express ideas), and independent writing (encouraging students to craft their own work by writing and rewriting).

We can also teach reading rationally. Public education has suffered from politicized mood swings between various approaches to developing children’s reading skills. Educators, parents, and the general public must accept that phonics is neither a cure-all nor a curse and that whole-language instruction should neither be the sole means of instruction or be avoided. Why not incorporate both approaches? (Indeed, that is the basis of a strategy called balanced literacy.)

But this combination should take into account that children are most motivated to learn to read when the material is meaningful to them. They should be encouraged to read their own writing and that of their peers, and although assignment of high-quality reading texts is productive, they should also be given free rein to choose their own reading materials, even comic books and other writing forms that are not necessarily considered substantial.

The greatest challenge to literacy, however, is not children’s apathy toward or antipathy about reading and writing, and it is not adults’ bickering about the best teaching strategies. Two other interrelated factors are responsible: inadequate funding for public education and a cultural devaluation of writing skills.

Government and school officials have eroded public confidence in their ability to use education funding wisely and effectively to teach children basic literacy skills, resulting in voter skepticism about the wisdom of approving school bonds and other financial resources. Not only does this failure degrade the quality and efficacy of the curriculum, it also results in deteriorating infrastructure in the public schools, which erodes teacher and student morale. But high-quality public education requires carefully considered, long-term planning and generous infusions of funds.

Also, the general public hears and sees media reports hyping the peril of poor writing skills in texting and other high-tech communication, and observes these facts firsthand. The business world, and the journalism and publishing industries, do suffer from poor communication skills among workers. But these problems aren’t limited to the younger members of society; they permeate all age groups.

The answer is a well-thought-out, well-funded educational system and a network of support including continuing education (wholly or partially funded by employers for their workers) and/or internal mentoring. And we, as a society, must accept that people will shrug off substandard informal writing, but we must also demand that they demonstrate respect for the language and for those they share it with by striving to communicate well.

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11 thoughts on “How to Promote Literacy and Skilled Communication”

  1. As a reporter, I covered a local school board for a few years, and one of the problems I saw (regarding students with poor language skills) was that the teachers in that school district were, in many cases, themselves unable to use anything approximating proper grammar or even common pronunciation. So if the teachers can’t speak or write properly, we have little chance of the students doing so.

  2. I agree that educational opportunities should be many and often. Unfortunately there are those that don’t even want kids to be educated. Please read story about wanting to end mandatory education. How horrible. Those that most need and benefit from it will be denied. it.

  3. A few years ago, I attended a high school Hall of Honor induction ceremony. One of the inductees was deceased, so her daughter gave the acceptance speech on her mother’s behalf. In the course of a ten to fifteen minute speech, the daughter (a high school teacher) made several grammatical errors.

  4. I really do appreciate your desire to increase literacy, but that can only come though a proper understanding of the circumstances and addressing the issues correctly.

    I did poorly in high school and I am now trying to make corrections in my own life (which is why I subscribe to your mailing list).

    “The answer is… well-funded educational system”
    This statement is false and will continue to be a factor that facilitates the poor performance of public schools.

    I personally know some under funded home schools and private schools with good teachers that do a good job and get good results.

    Generally speaking, the issue with the public schools today is two fold (and has always been…):
    #1 The parent(s) have to be more concerned about their child’s education than their selfish wants.
    #2 Teaching suffers when (time / effort) and money is spent on activities and material that have no real/true/productive educational value.

    Just FYI, Some decades ago my father had told me about a boarding school (in New York State, USA) that taught the reading and writing of Latin and Greek Literature along with the other normal public school subjects.
    2 things were required:
    #1 They had to be kinder garden age because if they were any older they will have learned too many bad/lazy habits from their parents.
    #2 They had to be 100% diaper trained.
    They even accepted children that were considered to be (slow learners /educationally challenged).

    There are many good teachers in the public school system, but it is the parents and the system that are failing.
    No amount of money will produce successful students if not properly motivated and taught correctly.

  5. Thank you for your recent blog post, How to Promote Literacy and Skilled Communication.

    I must confess, in high school and part of college I was a horrible learner. Like many students today and in the past, I did not want to attend high school or college – it was pure drudgery! In high school, I did not complete English essays, term papers, reading assignments (I hated reading – too time consuming), and anything else that required outside of class work. My home life was a mess (parents went through a bitter divorce), I typically worked 25-30 hrs. /week and I, after all, was going to be a drummer who toured the world; therefore, school, in my little mind, was unnecessary!

    I barely graduated from high school, but eventually completed my undergraduate and graduate degrees, but not until I was in my mid-thirties and early forties, respectfully. In my current job, I read and write (and spend a significant amount of time on the phone) on a daily basis. I am responsible for submitting reports regularly and developing corporate training material.

    Because I was such a slacker in high school and part of college, I had, and still have, much catching up to do with reading and writing. I now read, but I consider myself an average reader. I read the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary on a frequent basis to learn new words and their etymology, subscribe to several writing blogs, such as yours, and the APA Publication Manual and The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers are good friends.

    What’s my point in all this? I don’t blame the school system or teachers for my inadequate education. I had teachers who really cared about by education and cared about me as a human being. However, I didn’t care, nor did I want to. There are many students who, as I did, reside in poor living conditions at home (drug abuse, sexual abuse, divorce, hunger, etc.) and going to school (learning) is just another “have to do,” not “want to do.” It’s a game of Survival. Though there are exceptions, teachers are not going to change student attitudes toward learning – students have to change their attitudes. And, like me, many students will not change their attitudes until they’re adults living in dire straits – married with four children and living below the poverty line.

    I’m not sure what the academic solution is for teaching students to become better writers, problem solvers, critical thinkers, and so on. I do know many parents do not invest in their child’s education and I am a strong believer that this is part of the problem. I believe education is a triune process to successful learning [student – parent(s) – teachers] and if one of these is missing, the student has a more difficult, not impossible, time reaching academic success (whatever that is).

    I could write more, but I hope I have conveyed my point. Thank you for your wonderful blog. I learn something new each time I read it.

    Keep up the great work!

  6. In general, an excellent article, Mark. But I agree with Tracey that parental involvement is crucial. My husband and I support a privately-funded inner-city K-8 school that is achieving outstanding results on what is, by public school standards, a meager budget. Although only about 60% of the budget comes from tuition, every family is required to contribute something toward their student’s education–even if it’s only $20/month. “Skin in the game” conduces involvement. Participation in parent-teacher conferences is high, and many students go on to receive scholarships to private college-prep schools. The question is, how can we foster that kind of involvement in our public schools? Some form of “skin in the game” is vital.

  7. @Tracy, et al.:
    So many teachers and students do not know that words in English fall into patterens. Where did this come from? You wrote:

    “know some under funded home schools”
    There are a hundred different actual words that begin with “under” or “over”, inding these examples:

    underfunded, underbite, underdefended, underdeveloped, underfed, undergrowth, underlain, underpaid, understatement, underused, underwear,…

    overfunded, overbite, overcome, overdrawn, overfed, overhang, overlook, overpaid, overrun, overstated, overused, overwrought,…

    I think that teachers in elementary schools and junior high schools just do not teach such things anymore — even if they know these themselves.

    I see problems with the writing of compound words all the time now.
    You might think that this is trivial, but I see serious problems in vocabulary and reading comprehension.
    For another example, many people obviously do not know what “nevertheless” or “heretofore” mean.
    I have seen “never the less” in writing too many times.


  8. I wrote to The Weather Channel this morning about its reporters continually saying “incicee” as in “heat indicee”.

    I pointed out to the supervisors there that the singular of the word is “index”, as in “heat index”, and the plural is “indices”.
    Since this is the plural of a word with a Latin root, this does not imply that the singular is “indicee”. We are already supposed to know that the singular is “index”.

    I pointed out that there is a whole family of singualar words from Latin that form their plurals in the same way. I will just mention the singulars: codex, directrix, helix, index, and vertex.

    I am not sure about the words apex, ibex, and orex, so I will leave these up to you to look up. Multiplex is a verb, not a noun, so multiplexes is just fine. Radix and simplex are words that only have singulars, so their plurals area a nonissue.

    Some people seem to want to insist on the plurals helixes, indexes, and vertexes, but I do not see any trouble with Latin plurals. Why not? They are simply exceptions to the usual form in Engish, and there are not too many of them.

    Also, I don’t have any trouble with automata, continua, errata, maxima, minima, optima, quanta, spectra, and ultimata, though it seems to me that “continuum” is a word that only has a singular.

    The subjects of cellular automata is still an important area of research, and I believe that cellular automata are used in video games, too.

    I have agreed with most that “data” is a collective noun that is singular. “The data are” seems to be a peculariaty of British English.

  9. In my experience, the manner in which children learn to use standard English has three influences.

    1. Culture: Recent research suggests that culture, more than socio-economic status, affects the degree to which children learn, i.e., does a child’s culture promote education and literacy? If not, then children raised in that culture will develop the same attitudes and are less likely to recognize the value of their educational experiences. (Some of us have been promoting this idea for years.) Changes in culture come from community-based outreach and promotion.

    2. Education: Again, recent research indicates that teachers are not using academic or formal language in instruction, thus reducing children’s exposure to standard English, ability to use standard English, ability to communicate appropriately in diverse settings, and ability perform on English assessments, which are typically written in standard English. (I have worked with many, many teachers who are unable to parse even simple sentences, understand the confusion caused by double negatives, or choose the correct personal pronoun, such as “I” or “me,” for example.) If teachers do not model, instruct, or understand standard English, how will they be able to teach it and how will students learn it?

    3. Experience: Experience comes from the first 2 influences. In brief, it means children are exposed to language registers in various contexts so that they may become flexible in their language use. The appropriate language register in one culture, or context, may not be the appropriate register in another. (We may talk one way with close acquaintance and another way with professional colleagues.) Without language register flexibility, a child or adult will be shut out of various cultures.)

    My three cents.

    @Dale, re. “data” – I regularly encounter “data” used as a plural, though more frequently in the hard sciences than in the soft (i.e., social) sciences, and more often in quantitative research than in qualitative research.

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