College Writing and Literacy

One of my side interests is genealogy, and several months ago I visited my grandfather’s cousin to see some old pictures and discuss family history. Her husband is a professor at Mercer University, and it is my understanding that he works with teachers in training quite often, though he is a professor Religion and Philosophy. He asked me if I had noticed a decline in the writing ability of my students during my tenure as a teacher. I nodded, understanding his meaning, but I need to explain… I have been teaching nearly eight years, and I feel that my students do not write as well as my own peers did when I was in school; however, I don’t feel I have been teaching long enough to see a long-term trend of decline. Indeed, my first year teaching was at a poor rural school in Middle Georgia, and my students’ writing skills were nearly nonexistent. My current private school students are much more advanced than my previous public school students, but I still see some rather startling issues in their writing. Duane, my “cousin,” explained that his college students did not write as well now as his students have in the past. We had a very interesting discussion.

Today, I came across Friday’s New York Times article about declining literacy levels in today’s college graduates. I believe firmly that reading and writing go hand in hand, and the more a person reads, the better he or she will write. It is a matter of being exposed to writing models much more often. For example, last year, two of my students moved up from the lower track to the middle track. They also just happened to be the two students who read the most on their own. Less able writers who do not read do little to expose themselves to effective models for writing.

What I find alarming about the article is that “[t]hree percent of college graduates who took the test in 2003, representing some 800,000 Americans, demonstrated ‘below basic’ literacy, meaning that they could not perform more than the simplest skills, like locating easily identifiable information in short prose.”

OK, I’ll ask the question. How is it that these people became college graduates if they cannot perform basic reading skills? I find that frightening. It tells me that a college degree today must be worth less than a college degree awarded, say, in my own parents’ generation — the late 1960’s.

The usual culprits — television and the Internet — were blamed for the decline in literacy. In fact, many of you are probably aware that the works of Shakespeare will be available in text message form, ostensibly to be a good study resource. I fail to see how that can possibly be true, but that’s beside the point. The fact is, we’re living with a generation who routinely inject chat speak in their essays and spell “ludicrous” like the rapper “Ludacris.” As teachers, we have to do something to get students to read. Tim Fredrick suggests offering more choice, which is fine if the curriculum allows, but I think part of what we need to do as English teachers is help students establish a cultural literacy that comes with reading. For example, students of The Scarlet Letter will understand what it means if someone says, “Fine, why not just slap a scarlet letter on my chest and be done with it.” Or even this — watching a Star Trek movie and understanding what Alfre Woodard means when she says Captain Picard is like Captain Ahab, still chasing that white whale when he expresses determination to pursue the Borg. There is a world of meaning in our collective cultural consciousness. I don’t think it will die out. There are those that will carry it on; however, I do worry that the gulf between different socioeconomic classes will remain as long as there is this disparity between literacy levels.

Two students in my class recently had an “argument” over whether a quote by Walt Whitman could be used to bolster one student’s contention that John Steinbeck was Marxist. I’m not worried about them. But they are part of the smallest minority, and that worries me.

You can read more about the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.