Oscar Wilde wrote: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” (The Canterville Ghost – 1887).
124 years later, I suspect that we are also separated by our literacy. In my recent reading around the use of ICT in education, I have become unnerved by the news that so many schools, colleges and education districts stateside have removed hardbacks from their offer, because they have switched to eBooks instead. Some US Independent schools have paid for their move to iPads by removing the cost of text book provision. Obviously because I blog, I am used to reading and writing on-line, I love the fact that eMaterial is easy to search, mark up and link. But that does not mean that such skills and utilities replace the printed word, merely supplement it. Across the globe now, University research is showing that proper books are needed for deep reading, and their students report that with screen alone, they have trouble “learning, retaining, and concentrating” – see here for one such study – http://goo.gl/oLOII.
It gets worse of course. Now the same authorities are not using pen and ink in the classroom, they don’t believe junior school should teach handwriting. I understand that over 40 states have now removed this from a requirement in their taught curriculum. I can’t understand why responsible authorities would remove the acquisition of such a skill as a requirement. If children don’t learn to write, how on earth are they going to work in the real world, particularly when they are ‘powered’ down. Typing is simply not the same as writing; the fine motor control we develop as we learn to shape letters and characters is essential in all disciplines, practical as well as academic. No learning activity is successful unless it has purpose; the huge benefits that are gained by acquiring scripting skills far exceed just the skill of writing information down. For me, probably the most important benefit of teaching handwriting is that it links directly to ‘disciplined learning’ – in which children are rewarded by the quality and accuracy of outcomes. As a post on the American website “Teach handwriting” concludes “The lack of teaching proper handwriting from elementary school first grade is just one major mistake in education; the prevailing attitude seems to be that school is “fun”, let’s just not challenge those “poor kids” As a result it is obvious they have no discipline, no focus, no desire , can’t write, can’t read, can’t calculate, can’t retain information”.
Following a BBC Newsround report this week that that pupils living in Indiana in America don’t have to do handwriting lessons anymore, children were asked to give comment to this news. I have cropped the replies up to 15 July 2011 here – http://goo.gl/MuEml . The almost universal response from children encourages me hugely – it’s not just about the importance of writing itself, but about what your writing says about you too! As one young correspondent, Duan concludes: “In China handwriting skills are even more important than in other countries- handwritten Chinese words look more beautiful than words typed on computers”. Many years ago in the sixties, my mother Josephine Wilding moved Claires Court from cursive hand to italic; perhaps not so good for flourishing signatures, but excellent in terms of efficiency and time-management. The jury will remain out on which is the best for speed and accuracy – cursive, italic or block; partly because as we know, the more academically high achieving you are, the less readable your hand – this must be true because no-one can read the handwriting of Doctors in general practice :0)!
If books are gone, and handwriting practice is ‘off’ the curriculum, then what’s the position on teaching spelling stateside? The obvious answer is that teachers have given up on this too, but that’s not right. Teachers in US schools remain serious about teaching spelling, I think because it better fits their psyche to test, it’s easy to demonstrate that a ‘good job’ is being done. Ny the way, there are approximately 600,000 words in the English language. That means, if the average person uses 10,000 words on a regular basis, there are about 590,000 words which he uses less frequently, which usually means they won’t be spelled well. “It clear that establishing an effective spelling curriculum requires an integration of the three basic approaches to spelling instruction: Phonetics instruction, memorization of high frequency word lists, and using functional writing to master spelling words and skills. It is not simply a matter of combining one or two of these approaches, it requires a balanced integration of all three approaches” or so writes Beverly L. Adams-Gordon, Washington-based teacher and author, mainly on writing and spelling, Whilst there may be good focus on the acquisition of spelling skills now, in the 1990s there was a huge push to reduce the ‘pain’ for children, based it seems on the all-conquering arrival of the electronic spell-checker. As a humorous warning to users not to put too much faith in them , Jerrold H. Zar had this to say in 1991 (subsequently expanded in 1992 with help):
Candidate for a Pullet Surprise
I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.
A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when eye rime.
Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours o’er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.
Bee fore a veiling checker’s
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.
Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know fault’s with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear.
Now spelling does knot phase me,
It does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped word’s fare as hear.
To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should bee proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.
Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too pleas.
by Mark Eckman and Jerrold H. Zar
Back here in Blighty, good schools still take all three aspect of teaching literacy seriously, and real books continue to live at the heart of our work. At the end of term speech days, the prep. School audiences received two treats; at the boys’, headmaster Jeff Watkins read extracts from It’s a book in which a big ape clarifies for a clever donkey what you can and can’t do with a book (get a taste of that here – http://goo.gl/yVVF7 ), whilst at the girls’, Author Helen Pielichaty warned our leaving Year 6s of what lies ahead at secondary school, by reading from her ‘Simone’s diary’ , a perspective from a sharp Year girl following the transition. Marvelously Helen blogged about her impending arrival at the College, and gave feedback too – read that here: http://goo.gl/3l36K .
The English Language, whether of the US or UK variety, wriggles about left, right and centre. I have absolutely no doubt that on both sides of the pond, good schools teach English, the acquisition of its skills and the understanding of its literature seriously well. When whole states decide to eliminate curriculum essentials, it has to be a worry. I’ll close with a serious warning from Charles Duncombe, one of Britain’s serious entrepreneurs given last Thursday “Poor spelling is costing the UK millions of pounds in lost revenue for internet businesses”. His fears are backed up across the CBI and industry at large – “42% of employers are not satisfied with the basic reading and writing skills of school and college leavers and almost half have had to invest in remedial training to get their staff’s skills up to scratch”. Sadly, I am not surprised!