Do you think it's wrong to expect journalism students to up on grammar and spelling? I don't. Yet for years, the spelling and grammar test required by the UNC School of Journalism has freaked people out. Every so often, the School tries to do something about it. Here's the latest, as reported in The Daily Tar Heel.
Two things stick in my craw. One, back in the 1980s, when I was at the School, most of us passed on the first try. And those who didn't went to the Grammar Slammer, an intense test-prep mod that probably taught less about grammar than it did about the test. But the point is, most of use arrived at the end of our sophomore years with enough of a grasp on spelling and grammar to get through the test and get on with our journalism studies. Today, it appears, a lot more kids aren't passing. And based on the questions shown in the article, I'm not at all sure why. Honestly, with the nation's love of Daily Oral Language, most kids should have encountered questions like these for YEARS by now. Not to mention the fact that the errors should be obvious to anyone who's got a high school diploma. Right?
The second problem I have is related to how we're going to address the problem. Some kids were just flummoxed by the test and don't actually have real issues -- this is true for any test. Test-prep will help these kids over the hump. But that's a small number. A lot more of the kids really don't have the skills. And no test-prep class like the old Grammar Slammer is going to fix that. I don't know what the School has planned, but I'm hoping it's based on best practice.
Research shows that the best way to teach things like spelling, punctuation and grammar is in context. That means you have to be working off text you've created, errors and all, so there's more meaning in the corrections. The test-prep model just teaches you how to do better on the test. But you don't need a pile of big-brained research papers to know the best way to do this. Professional writers know that they improved more from applying knowledge to their own writing than they did from taking tests or even just reading The Elements of Style. Asking kids to get better without giving them good tools and a fair chance to apply them isn't just ineffective, it's unfair.
Yes, I am mad as a wet banty hen about this. So I'm sitting down with Steve, a literacy instructor in his own right, and we're going to build a grammar and spelling class that will give kids a fighting chance. If the School's proposed class is approved as expected, we're going to submit our proposal. Of course, not being PhDs means we probably don't have a snowball's chance, but you can't win if you don't play. At the very least, we'll have a nice model to offer the Writing Center or something.
Why am I doing this? Because I know kids are coming to college without all the skills they need. Because I've got the research and the strategies already thanks to my brilliant husband! (Here's his approach to teaching spelling: All's Well That Spells Well). And, not for nothin', because I care about my profession.