July 26, 2003
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The sentiments expressed by this Guyanese teacher have resonance, not only in Guyana where every 40-something adult winces mentally when confronted by the poor reading and writing skills of some school-leavers, but also in a few industrialised countries. A story published in ‘The Christian Monitor’ of July 15, 2003, reports that more than two-thirds of the students in the United States of America still write below the “proficient” level. The report is based on the results of the writing examination held by the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress. It was noted that although the 2002 assessment did indicate that students in American schools are writing “a bit better today than they were fours years ago - at least in the lower grades”, overall, “the assessment found that more than two-thirds of the nation’s students still write below the ‘proficient’ level”.
The Christian Science Monitor article quotes Ms Kathy Christie, policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver as saying: “There are still too many below proficient, but the gains [validate] the direction we’re headed in and the emphasis placed on writing. Not only do many new state academic standards stress writing, but statewide exams now generally include a writing component as well, increasing the pressure on both teachers and students to make writing well a classroom focus.”
The article notes that the National Assessment tests challenge students to try their hands at narrative, informative, and persuasive writing. Younger students are asked to write for 25 minutes at a stretch, while older students may have tasks that require 50 minutes for completion. The report concludes with this profound line: “She (Ms Christie) thinks more credit should go to state standards and to a dawning recognition that ‘writing is a necessity of life, and we all have to get better at it’.”
Comparisons, the old adage says, are odious and it is not entirely fair to measure levels of literacy between the present and what obtained almost half a century ago. However, it is difficult to dismiss the modes of teaching and learning that obtained in the era stretching from the 1940s to the early 1970s. Back then, primary schoolchildren were exposed to all the rudiments of reading and writing. Dictation and composition were taught with vigour and “tough love”. Educators had a mission to imbue children with the basics of learning. They took failure so personally that their charges did their best to avoid this fate. Today, with the distractions of some inane television shows, video games and the ubiquitous Internet, children find it difficult to engage their minds both in the process of decoding the written word and in the task of translating their thoughts and ideas into language that others can share.
As has been noted in this column before, most of the children and teenagers who perform brilliantly at the SSEE and CXC tests come from home environments that value the arts of reading and writing. While we agree with Ms Christie that teachers and students should endeavour “to make writing well a classroom focus”, we would also urge Guyanese parents to do more to inculcate in their young children a love for the written word.