How to Promote Literacy and Skilled Communication
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.