Christine Brown, a sophomore at La Salle University, is an enthusiastic student, does well on tests, and hopes to one day become a teacher. Though a model student in other respects, Brown struggles with her writing. “I’ve always hated English class,” she says, “I so feel self-conscious writing papers; I’m a terrible writer.”
Brown is not alone. The National Center for Educational Statistics administers writing assessments to high school students across the United States and their most recent report in 2007 shows poor performance among students. According to the study, “about one student in five produces completely unsatisfactory prose, about 50 percent meet ‘basic’ requirements, and only one in five can be called ‘proficient’.”
If students’ poor writing skills from high school are not corrected in college, students could be adversely affected post-education. “We are judge on how we communicate. We are judged on how we speak and how we write,” says Madeleine Dean, English professor at La Salle University.
Some argue that increased text messaging and Internet use are to blame for students’ poor writing. Eleanor Johnson, English professor at Columbia University, agrees. “I think that text messaging has made students believe that it’s far more acceptable than it actually is to just make screamingly atrocious spelling and grammatical errors.”
An April 2008 study conducted by the Pew Institute and American Life Project reported that while 60 percent of teenage students participating in the study did not consider text messaging and other forms of electronic communication to be “real writing,” two-thirds of the students used emoticons and Internet abbreviations such as “LOL” in academic papers.
David Crystal, a British linguist and author of the book Language and the Internet, rejects the notion that the Internet harms students’ writing. “The main effect of the Internet on language has been to increase the expressive richness of language, providing the language with a new set of communicative dimensions that haven’t existed in the past.”
Professor Dean also does not believe that the Internet necessarily leads to bad writing and says that she has noticed an increase in the number of her students who use technology in their writing, which she says “has its ups and downside.” Dean thinks that language should change and technology can influence that change, as long as it adheres to a foundation in what she considers “correctness.” “I am very much a student of the evolution of language,” Dean says. “I believe language should change—effectively change, not just weakly embrace bad language—but it should effectively change to accommodate the needs of our culture, still upholding the standards of good English.”
As Dean asserts, language is meant to change, to evolve. Modern English is not the same as Shakespearean English, nor should it be. The purpose of language is to communicate, so language and writing should adapt to the method that makes communication most effective. If the majority of high school students are not proficient writers, then the majority of high school student cannot effectively communicate in an academic setting. This trend carries over into college writing, and if not corrected at that level, colleges and universities will produce graduates who are not prepared to compete in the workforce that requires strong writing skills.
Regardless of whether poor writing habits come from text messaging, Internet use, or another factor, educators need to emphasize to students the basics of good writing. Grammar and spelling lessons may not be the most glamorous side of teaching, but they are imperative if students are to improve their writing skills. A great writer does not pick up his or her pen for the first time and write a best-seller. Strong writing comes from repeatedly learning the rules, practicing those rules, and hopefully mastering those rules. Outside factors cannot damage students’ writing as much if students understand what is and is not acceptable in academic writing. Starting with the basics.