“Filling in the Gaps: Incorporating Linguistic Doctrine into Writing Programs” by Skylar Alexander

Though few contest the importance of good communication skills, many people continue to fumble with their words well into adulthood, just as many survival novices fumble with making fire.  This, I believe, comes from a misguided notion that expert written communication is easy, just as those watching a survival movie might think creating fire is simply rubbing two sticks together; in reality, it is far harder than it first appears.  This misconception disregards the fact that all skills are built on a foundation of process, experience, and technical knowledge learned over time, and glosses over the graveyard of failures behind every successful expert.

The development of my communication skills has been an uphill battle.  Being raised by those who barely managed a high school education in rural Iowa and Missouri, I developed a vocabulary built on my parents’ mispronunciation of common words: “ramen” was pronounced “ram-e-yan” until I was ten, “pretzel” was “pren-zel” until I turned 15, and “divorce” remains “di-vor-ess” even today.  High school taught me that my mother’s famous utterance of “I don’t want no pie” every Thanksgiving was frowned upon by the speakers of Standard English.  As I advanced through school, I cut away more and more of my natural accent until, entering college, I had Standard English—though at the time I called it “Right English”—down pat.

At college, I enrolled in a linguistics course and everything was turned on its head.  Suddenly, my father’s accent—a unique blend of the rare Southern Mountain Dialect he inherited from his father and Midwest Rural—was a thing to be celebrated.  Fascinated by language in a way completely ignored by my previous education, I enrolled in several grammar courses that highlighted the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar, and cemented the various parts of speech, and revealed the delightful and terrifying ways it can all unravel.

As I advanced in my studies, I couldn’t believe how many misconceptions had been taught to me by my English teachers, how many archaic rules they still used to judge a constantly-evolving language—and I remain mortified at how this has poisoned many to all but the most rudimentary forms of communication.  I had been terrified coming into college that my background would leave me trailing behind my upper-class peers, but I was shocked to find everybody had similar language gaps.  The only thing that we all equally shared was a hand in the education system.

Now, some would say that a call to reevaluate how we are teaching language to our youth, and change it before it’s too late, might sound a little overdramatic—but educating educators, and in turn having those educators pass the subsequent knowledge onto their students, is not.  In fact, I think years of turmoil could be avoided simply by just letting young people in on the following misconceptions about language.

First of all, before we even start trying to teach the highly elusive art of writing, we need to clearly mark the distinction between “writing” and “language.”  Any linguist would tell you that the ability to write and the ability to communicate are separate entities; writing is a tool—a skill that can be explicitly taught—whereas language is inherent to all creatures on the planet, i.e. something that can’t be explicitly taught, but instead learned through example and exposure.

Research conducted at New Dorp High School, a school on Staten Island that faced the revoking of its accreditation due to abysmal test scores, revealed that for reasons unknown, these students had missed out on the basic building blocks of language—that the skill of writing had never been clearly taught to them, that teachers and peers just expected them to inherently “get it” like they inherently understood language, and if they didn’t, they were stupid.  Peg Tyre, reporter at The Atlantic wrote in her article on New Dorp, “[the teachers] were doing their job…[the] students were simply not smart enough to write at a high-school level” (p. 10).  Of course, expecting a child just to “get” writing is the same as throwing a child into a river and expecting them to “get” swimming; it’s foolish, and it’s dangerous.  We must catch ourselves when we harbor this writing-is-language misconception and strive to teach the difference—not in college, not in high school, but as soon as our nation’s youth pick up a pencil.

My growing experience in working with the students at a local elementary school reveals that waiting until children are older can oftentimes be too late.  Overall, the children are delightful to work with and very bright—but kids will be kids, and they are quick to tease each other when one of them is slower at skill acquisition.   It’s obvious which of the kids have experienced challenges related to writing—who didn’t just “get” it right away; even as young as the age of eight, they would rather blow off and avoid this thing that makes others make fun of them, as if ignoring it would make it go away, and as we all know, communication—and writing, the skill that facilitates it—is something that doesn’t go away.

On a related note, another problems faced by students at New Dorp (and many others throughout the country) is the added stress of either hiding or compensating for their lack of basic grammar knowledge.  While we are learn perfect comprehension of our language’s grammar as we grow, being able to write requires us to put names to faces, so to speak, and stretch beyond what may be colloquially comfortable.  If my own experience is anything to judge by, besides vaguely labeling verbs, nouns, and adjectives, grammar simmered on the backburner.

People traveling through our education system today have little exposure to explicit grammar; when grammar was discussed, it was in the form of rules of thumb—“don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” for example—without ever really explaining what a preposition was, or asking why such a rule existed in the first place (look it up sometime; you’ll probably agree it’s asinine).   Every English teacher I’ve ever had assumed that the building blocks of grammar had been taught in the grades below theirs, and when confronted with their class’s insufficient knowledge, they were at the best agitated, at the worst disgusted.

With this kind of attitude toward learning gaps, it is unsurprising that only 1% of high school seniors are deemed competent writers (Tyre, p. 8).  Holes in writing not only affect English classes, but every subject matter; As Tyre notices, “Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays…severely impede[s their] intellectual growth in many subjects” (p. 3).  Furthermore, if a student can’t understand what they’re reading, the knowledge contained in the book ends there.  We must strive to become more open-minded in our ingestion of grammar and more balanced in our consumption of literature; we must teach ourselves to read for the story and for the way the story is told, and then teach our students to examine their texts in this manner.  After all, we all have ideas we want to articulate, but it is only after the mechanics of writing are mastered that this creative expression—and, I argue, any fundamental mental or spiritual growth—can truly begin.

At the elementary school where I volunteer, I have had the opportunity to work closely with a child, who we’ll call Peter.  Peter exhibited all the signs of a child who’d already given up on writing—from the first activity, he wouldn’t focus on the task before him, copied off of those sitting around him, wrote in fragmented sentences, and misspelled the few words he did put to paper.  At first, engaging him was impossible, but by letting him approach the task on his terms and agreeing to meet him half-way, we began to make progress.  For one of our activities, we filled out a Madlib story.  Peter’s ability to tell a story far surpassed his ability to put it to paper, so instead of having him fill it out by himself, I grabbed a spare paper and began writing down his answers as he said them; this kept him on task and also offered him an example so he could learn to spell the words he said properly.

I was shocked when Peter deviated from the formula of the Mad Lib and started inventing his own sentences, which I quickly scrawled on the side of the page.  I took the liberty of rewriting it on lined paper to make the whole thing easier to read, but kept him engaged by having him read his version of the Mad Lib aloud to me.  He struggled over some of the words—“ancient,” in particular, he hadn’t even seen before.  He was very excited to read his story to everyone, but when the time actually came, he wanted me to read it for him.  He said, “I want to make everyone laugh, but I don’t want to read.”

In the end, Peter and I read the story together, alternating paragraphs.  I told him afterward that we should publish his story in the book–which will soon be available for purchase–that the Iowa Youth Writing Project planned to put together at the end of the semester, and he seemed really excited about it, and wanted to give it as a gift to his family for Christmas.

Skylar Moore reads from an earlier version of her essay on language and education at the first-ever University of Iowa Writing Tailgate in Fall 2012
Skylar Alexander reads from an earlier version of her essay on language and education at the first-ever University of Iowa Writing Tailgate in Fall 2012.

Skylar Alexander is a UI undergraduate, a poet, and a staff member of UI’s literary magazine Earthwords.

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