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Dear Language Arts Teachers

iPhone me
Dear Language Arts Teachers,

This morning an experience brought into focus something I deal with on regular basis. You see, I am one of you, an instructor in a professional writing program at a small professional college. Our students are not interested in a liberal arts education. They come to us because they want to work as writers, whether for game design companies, news media, or as publishing professionals.

This morning I heard someone read a heart-warming story of appreciation written by a fourth grader. The short personal essay was imaginatively organized and expressed deep gratitude. However, it also contained several very simple, yet cringe-making errors: “her and me sat together” and a basic subject-verb disagreement that I no longer remember because all I could think was, ‘doesn’t she know that’s wrong?’”

I happened to be sitting beside my local superintendent, and couldn’t help mentioning the errors to him. He explained, “It’s okay. They’re allowed a certain amount of free expression.”

That was when the penny really dropped.

While I wholeheartedly agree that students need to be allowed to give voice to whatever their thoughts are, not expecting them to master certain fundamental rules of our common language—to learn when they should code switch from what they would say to what they should write—is unreasonable.

I know what you’re thinking—this child was only in the fourth grade. However, I teach at the college level and I see these very same mistakes from my college seniors.  Including senior professional writing majors.* It’s not that I see such errors in works of fiction, where they might be appropriate to character. It’s that I see them in everything from personal essays to sample cover letters for job applications.

That twenty-one-year-old students  make the same mistakes as nine-year-old students is significant. In some cases, I suspect they have never been taught. In some cases, I suspect they were taught—once, probably in elementary school—but that the teaching was never reinforced. And in some cases, I suspect they were taught, but that they were allowed that “certain amount of free expression” and took it to mean that what they learned in Language Arts class did not apply when they were writing for themselves.** This does them a disservice when it could make a difference between receiving a request for a job interview because their cover letter and resume were flawless and never receiving that request because of basic mistakes in grammar and spelling.

Should grammar and spelling be the first things that matter? No. Persuasive content is most certainly more important. But that is not the same as saying grammar and spelling don’t matter at all. As author Kate Messner points out in Real Revisions: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers, (Stenhouse, 2011), it’s the last step, but it’s a crucial last step.

My fellow teachers, please encourage your students to make that crucial last step. Those of us who teach them after you will be grateful. So will they.

Sincerely,

Me

*Deliberate use of a sentence fragment for effect.

**Deliberate use of a conjunction at the start of a sentence. In this case, these sentences form a quasi-list.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
robinellen
Feb. 21st, 2014 03:25 am (UTC)
Amen. I so agree, and I cringe when I see kiddos in elementary school not being told how to make something correct. Why let them learn the wrong way? Yep, this is so, so true.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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Nation (Terry Pratchett), Men of Salt (Michael Benanav), Paper Towns (John Green), Lavinia (Ursula K. LeGuin), Weight (Jeanette Winterson), The Wizard, the Witch & Two Girls from Jersey (Lisa Papademetriou), Beastly (Alex Flinn), Hogfather (Terry Pratchett), London Calling (Edward Bloor), Before I Die (Jenny Downham), My Mother the Cheerleader (Robert Sharenow), Antsy Does Time (Neal Shuesterman), Against Medical Advice (James Patterson & Hal Friedman), Wait for Me (An Na), Doppelganger (David Stahler), The Year We Disappeared (Cylin Busby, John Busby); Little Brother (Cory Doctorow); King of Screwups (K.L. Going), Tyrell (Coe Booth), Goth Girl Rising (Barry Lyga), Bad Apple (Laura Ruby), The Sky is Everywhere (Jandy Nelson), Hold Still (Nina LaCour), Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green & David Levitahn), Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto (Eric Luper), Ostrich Boys (Keith Gray), Front & Center (Catherine Gilbert Murdock), Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler), I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett), Tales of the Madman Underground (John Barnes), Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King), Sex: A Book for Teens (Nikol Hasler), The Girl Who Became a Beatle (Greg Taylor), Crazy (Han Nolan), Pull (B.A. Binns), Pearl (Jo Knowles)

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