Over the past decade, the literacy rate of college graduates has dropped alarmingly. The trend is disturbing and perhaps even dangerous to the continued health of the business community in the United States. Many students, some of whom have obtained advanced degrees, are graduating from prestigious colleges without being able to write a simple, well-structured five-paragraph essay.
Admittedly, they are not all English majors. Yet how can we justify graduating students who do not know the basics of written communications? After all, a diploma is a certification that the bearer has certain core competencies. As technology progresses at warp speed, our students’ written communication skills are simultaneously regressing at a rapid rate. The negative effects are far more serious than we would like to think.
Technology strengthens the left brain
New classes in HTML formatting, social media, and programming are replacing classic subjects in the arts and humanities. The right side of our students’ brains are shutting off. Indeed, technology is affecting every facet of students’ lives. Given the pull of technology and its applications, students no longer have time to put in pure “thinking time.” And thinking time is exactly what is required to craft a well-written, grammatically correct, one-page document.
Writing requires students to use logic and make mental assessments, all the while utilizing proper grammar. This demands a level of discipline and creativity that takes years to develop and refine. Formerly, children were provided the opportunity to develop these skills at the K-12 educational level. If they went to college, most could hold their own without remedial coursework. That is not the case now, nor has it been for some time.
The Internet catalogues information for this generation of students in written “sound bites” that eliminate the need for the necessary mental reflection that correlates with strong verbal and written communication skills. From Spark Notes and Wikipedia to Ask.com and Yahoo! Answers, the Internet provides a brief snapshot of nearly every topic in existence. Rather than do real research, gathering data and opposing viewpoints, analyzing the data and differing perspectives, then crafting a well-reasoned paper, students too often settle for the snapshot. It’s a choice that does nothing for the student’s skills, yet many take advantage of material that is so readily available.
Poor writers beget poor writing
Some educators are allowing students to take final exams on classroom computers with access to spelling checkers and the Internet—the very tools required to obtain just a snapshot of the subject at hand. As a result, students no longer have the desire or the background to excel in written communications. Additionally, texting has become the norm. Phonetic spelling, abbreviations, and spelling mistakes are expected. These texting “shortcuts” are perfectly acceptable for that medium. Yet texting has become so ubiquitous that the habits and methods acquired in texting are destroying the “old hat” discipline of writing with disciplined logic and grammatical correctness. The troubling aspect of this is that students are increasingly taking message-level skills to the classroom and examination rooms. Bottom line, one should not use “text-speak” when writing an essay on Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Many new graduates—whether they go on to an academic or a professional career—find themselves in a position to transfer their own poor writing skills to co-workers, students, customers, and others. In this way, they become complicit in the perpetuation of poor writing.
Let’s face it: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” In other words, if you never acquired the appropriate writing skills during your student career, how can you be expected to differentiate between good and bad writing? The societal tolerance for poor writing has also increased, with the bar being significantly lowered. So how can students be expected to learn if they never receive constructive feedback?
Setting higher standards
In the workplace, employers are left scratching their heads when examining an employee’s written work. This creates a huge talent gap between employers, who are expecting efficient and professional writing, and the reality of poorly written, inadequately expressed, illogical, and repetitive writing. Despite written and oral communications skills being a requirement in just about every job vacancy, employers no longer have access to the writing skills they require of employees to be successful. It is an unfortunate probability that, with ten applicants for a white-collar job, none of the applicant pool will have acceptable writing skills.
All students, whether they are studying botany or business, must be held to a higher standard for reading, writing, and speaking proper English in our school system and in the workplace. In addition to setting higher standards, we need to enforce them. The distinction between texting and more formal writing skills needs to be made clear to students at an early age. Employers who are seeking hires with strong oral and written communication skills need to hold employees accountable for the writing they produce.
If we fail to do this, the problem is certainly not going to go away. It will only get worse.