November 10, 2013 in Opinion

Jamie Tobias Neely: Language arts skills are vital

Jamie TobiasNeely
 

The smells of chalk dust and geraniums waft through the memories of my childhood classrooms. Minutes click through the long, black hands of a wall clock, while the alphabet stretches across the top of the blackboard in cursive letters.

Those memories and the accompanying nostalgia certainly color my expectations for today’s elementary schools. But so, too, do my experiences both in the university classroom and the workplace.

That’s why I was pleased to learn recently that several of the educational basics I remember from my childhood will be returning to Spokane classrooms.

Fourth-grade writing scores have dropped for Spokane Public Schools: Only 57 percent of students passed the state test last year. As a result, the school district plans to improve its language arts program, bringing back school staples such as cursive handwriting, grammar, spelling and vocabulary.

Even sentence diagramming will be making a comeback, Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger says. 

Employers and universities alike, she says, have been pressuring school districts to improve students’ writing proficiency.

As a university professor, I have the privilege of teaching many smart, well-prepared students. Nonetheless, I’ve heard a few startling questions in my classrooms.

I was surprised one day when a college junior, enrolled in a writing-intensive major, raised a hand in class to ask, “What’s a verb?”

It began to dawn on me that the K-12 reading and writing curriculum had so profoundly shifted away from grammar that even the most basic parts of speech were unfamiliar to some college students. In my upper-level editing class, students who lacked experience recognizing verbs found it nearly impossible to recast sentences in the active voice.

Students have always shown up in college puzzled by the use of the semicolon. But in recent years, I’ve encountered a few college juniors and seniors who, despite their ambitions for a writing career, failed to grasp the basic concepts of sentence structure. They did not appear to realize that sentences start with a capital letter, contain both a subject and a verb, and usually end with a period.

Recently, I was surprised again when a student confessed that because he’d never learned cursive handwriting in elementary school, he now couldn’t read comments his professors wrote on his college papers.

Redinger promises Spokane’s new language arts program will address these issues, along with requiring more nonfiction reading and more writing based on facts rather than opinion.

Certainly, not everyone will agree with this back-to-the-future approach.  Some will argue, for example, that in an age of keyboarding, cursive writing is as outdated as an inkwell.

It’s true that both college students and employees type on keyboards more than ever. But cursive writing engages the brain in significant ways. In high school and college, cursive writing is particularly well suited for taking lecture notes quickly and speedily composing answers to essay test questions.

In the workplace, cursive handwriting (or a cursive-printing hybrid) is more impressive to co-workers than childish block printing. Being able to read cursive certainly comes in handy when a supervisor has jotted a message on a sticky note.

Cursive writing can also provide a mysteriously fluent alternative for penning first drafts. Handwriting researchers describe a process much like a musician’s experience of muscle memory in which the notes on a page transfer to the fingers without seeming to engage the brain.

Spokane schools, like many in the country, are scrambling to prepare for the Common Core curriculum, the national standards that will arrive with the 2014-15 school year. The new language arts approach reflects many of those rigorous standards.

As the curriculum changes, I expect that students will graduate from high school better prepared for both college and the workplace. At the same time, it will be important for educators to strike a balance.

Grammar drills and red pens still shouldn’t be allowed to stifle voice and creativity. The Encyclopedia Britannica shouldn’t chase away literature.

After all, one of my most indelible memories of grade school came during the magical year my teacher read aloud “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. As a spider named Charlotte spun the letters “some pig” and “radiant” above Wilbur’s pen, she managed to simultaneously save her friend’s life and forever convince this former fourth-grader of the amazing, transforming power of the written word.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former member of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board, is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is jamietobiasneely@comcast.net.

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