A Word To The Wise

19th September 2014

As a new survey reveals that nearly two-thirds of teachers have docked marks
in tests because they struggled to decipher what pupils had written, while more than a third have seen emoticons included in a pupil’s answers in an exam, Claire Moulds asks: isn’t it time we made a stand for the written word?

The survey was carried out by stationery firm BIC, who might perhaps have a vested interest in the results, to be fair, but those who participated were nevertheless clear on the root cause of the problem, stating that the decline in handwriting standards is directly linked to an ‘over-reliance’ on new technology and that youngsters are losing traditional skills as they spend an increasing amount of time on tablets, computers and smartphones.

A recent study carried out by paediatricians at the Cohen Children’s Medical Centre in New York underlined the fact that the English language is being undermined by technology from birth, demonstrating that children up to the age of three who play non-educational games on touch-screen devices have slower verbal development.

Worryingly, the same study revealed that the majority of parents are replacing books and general baby toys with touch screen devices, with 60% claiming that there are ‘educational benefits’ to be had for a child from using smart phones, tablets and readers – even though the research team found no evidence of this.

Common sense says that talking and interacting with your offspring is the best way to encourage learning, but the widespread use of touch screen devices to ‘keep children occupied’ is replacing vital dialogue between parent and child. Take a look around you in restaurants, on public transport, in the park and even at your local swimming pool and you will see children engrossed in whatever device their parent has handed to them to keep them entertained, and oblivious to their surroundings.

Moreover, even the traditional opportunities for interaction, such as the bedtime story, are being eroded. Over 80% of young fathers, for example, admit that they don’t enjoy reading to their children.

So, what can we do?

The onus has to be on parents to instil a passion, and a respect, for language from an early age. I vividly remember both my parents spending hours teaching me my alphabet – how to recite and write it – and how to spell before I started school, as well as reading to me whenever they could. They also introduced me to our local library, which saw me regularly leave with a new stack of books to enjoy. That stood me in good stead before school was even added to the mix.

When I was growing up, mastering the English language in all its glory underpinned every aspect of the curriculum. From spelling and grammar to reading hour and creative writing – with handwriting lessons thrown in for good measure to ensure our sentences looked as good as they sounded. As pupils we were left in no doubt as to the power of the written word.

Essays were all handwritten, with emphasis placed not only on the content and the way an argument was conveyed but also on the neatness of your work. No doubt those of my generation and older will remember having a ‘rough book’ where ideas were jotted out, reviewed, edited and polished before the final draft was even started. Now it’s all too easy to dash a submission out on a laptop and to let the spelling and grammar check do the rest – however haphazard the end result.

I check copy from time to time at a local PR firm. If I had a pound for every time a graduate has asked me to review a piece that is littered with errors – from the incorrect use of a word, to a misplaced apostrophe, to sentences that don’t even make sense – I would be… yes, well, you know how the cliché ends. Many of these young people have left university wielding a 2:1 degree or above and yet they still haven’t mastered ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’.

Worse still, they struggle to recognise their mistakes, even when they have been pointed out to them. Sometimes, when greeted by an uncomprehending face, I even ask them to read the offending sentence aloud – as my primary school teacher used to do to me – so that they can hear that it is incoherent and yet, even having listened to themselves, they still look blankly at me.

My friend was horrified to discover during the summer term that her son, tasked with writing an essay for his history teacher, had absolutely no idea how to plan out, let alone write, a compelling piece with an introduction, discussion, conclusion and evaluation, despite the fact that he is already in the throes of studying for his GCSEs.

And it is this lethargic approach when it comes to conveying meaning that is really undermining our language, where the emphasis now is on ensuring the reader ‘gets the gist’ rather than the creation of the perfect sentence or powerfully constructed argument.

Watch any reality TV show featuring people in their late teens and early twenties and it is shocking how many of them are unable to use words correctly, either using the wrong word entirely or the wrong tense or muddling up well known phrases and expressions. However, as their fellow participants all ‘get’ what they mean, nobody corrects them or acknowledges that the English language has just been butchered in the process.

It’s a trend that has been fuelled by the meteoric rise of ‘text speak’ which now litters our phones, emails and social networking streams. While languages do evolve over time, and their rules change, nobody can argue that ‘text speak’ has improved our vocabulary or enhanced the clarity with which we convey our thoughts and emotions. It is simply a time saving, and error prone, shortcut.

People will argue that social media is about communication, not spelling and grammar, but surely the two are inextricably linked? By failing to abide by the rules of our language across all forms of communication – including text messages and tweets – we are raising a generation so used to using ‘text speak’ and emoticons in place of the Queen’s English that it’s no wonder that these are now seeping into their exam answers.

The fatal error wasn’t introducing children to new technology but failing to set clear guidelines on how the use of language should adapt in response and the minimum standards to which all forms of communication should adhere.

The results of not making a stand for the English language then are now plain to see. Not least is the fact that, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, one of the many reasons that young people are struggling to find work is their poor written communication and their insistence on using ‘text speak’ in correspondence with prospective employers.

Unfortunately, it’s not simply a case of revisiting how children are taught in schools. We also need to reinstate the craftsmanship involved in good writing, including the art of penmanship. The sad truth is that children have become disconnected from the written word because technology has taken them a step away from its physical creation. The sense of pride and ownership of those words is gone because they are nowadays so infrequently handwritten.

Until then ‘progress’ in our classrooms continues at breathtaking speed. A survey of 636 UK schools carried out in May this year by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) revealed that teachers predict that in two years’ time tablets will make up 37 per cent of classroom computers and that by 2020 this figure will rise to 56 per cent. As a result more and more pupils will be able to research a topic, put a document together and share it amongst their classmate without ever opening a book or writing anything down.

There are no words…

The internet and modern technology are wonderful inventions. Both will equip our children to go on to do bigger and better things than were ever dreamt of in our philosophy, to misquote the bard – but we must all ensure that it is not at the expense of equally valuable knowledge and skills.
If we don’t preserve the beauty of the written word now, how much further will its power and eloquence have been eroded by the time our children’s children begin their academic career?

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