Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Help From My Granddaughters

The two girls above were grilled the other night by their grandmother--me! I had some questions about what is being taught regarding writing in today's schools. So who better to ask than my two oldest granddaughters who live in suburban Dallas. Alexis is starting 10th grade in a couple of weeks, and Gracen  will be a 7th grader. Both are good students and participate in extracurricular activities. They're 'with-it' kids.

But perhaps I should back up and tell you why I felt I had to consult the younger generation for some answers. I am in the process of reading entries in the nonfiction category of a Youth Writing Contest. They were grouped by grades, from 1st through 12th. Prizes will be awarded at the state authors club convention. I looked forward to reading what the young people had written. The old teacher in me bubbled to the surface, raring to go.

What I found disturbed me a great deal. All the entries were typed, all were nameless as should be. Many were original and well thought out. Some sounded like something read in a book the student had used for research. Putting the information into their own words escaped a few. Many were filled with expressions we hear in everyday conversation. What bothered me most were the many entries that had extremely poor capitalization and punctuation. Spelling errors were in far fewer numbers. With no capitals, no commas or periods, sentences ran on and on and....

I thought back to my teaching days. I taught both third and fourth grades, and in both those levels, we emphasized good writing in all our subjects, not just the English papers. I found the 3rd through  6th grade entries to be the worst. I counted far more on the content than the mechanics of writing, but I did take the latter into consideration. No matter how good the content, if it was a trial to read a full paper because of mechanical/grammatical errors, it didn't deserve to win an award.

It bothered me enough that I decided to call on my own personal experts. I told Alexis and Gracen what I had been doing and why I was concerned. "Did your teachers work on capitalization and punctuation a lot, a little, or not at all?"  Then I asked them if they felt it was important to learn or not. "And be honest," I told them.

They both said they had some emphasis on those two parts of writing but not a whole lot. Gracen said that her English teacher last year (6th grade) worked on it a lot, but her teachers before that had only done a little. She added that teachers in other subjects didn't mention it much. Alexis has been in many advanced classes and she said you were kind of expected to know those things. Both girls said yes, that they felt it was important to learn the right way and use it in everyday things.

So, why are so many of these contest entries coming in with glaring errors? In our technology based world today, shortcuts are the norm. Look at texting and email where people use abbreviations, pay no attention to capitals etc. Is that part of the problem? I have also read that some teachers, not all, grade an essay only on content, no points off for mechanical errors. Are they doing the children any favors by doing so?

I'm going to go back over the contest entries again and look primarily at content to select the award winners. But I will put notes on the papers to tell the children to watch their capitals and punctuation. It's not teaching them how to do it, but perhaps it will make them aware of the problem. I'll also add something positive in my note. My aim is not to humiliate or tear a kid down, only to bring some awareness.

Next, I'd like to sit down with a group of teachers and get their thoughts about how English grammar and writing is taught in our schools today.

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