Sunday, October 05, 2008

Literacy in the Workplace

The Age featured a large article this weekend on literacy in tertiary institutions and the workplace, citing Monash University as one uni that has come out and complained about having to teach their first year students grammar and punctuation, saying this is the kind of stuff they should have learned at high school. How true. But how to fix it? Or more to the point, how to get the students to care about it, so they also want to fix it?

The grammar stuff can be pretty boring, I admit. I used to teach it in my course. But we have two great editing teachers now who do their best to make the classes interesting and engaging, along with trying to instill the basics into people (young and older) who didn't get it at school. I have my own personal theory, based on some linguistics stuff I've read about, that the years from about 11-14 are the ones where this kind of basic knowledge best sinks in. Research has shown that children who have been isolated from language (the extremes are the ones kept locked up in cellars and attics) can recover and learn correct sentence construction and grammar if they start before about 14. After that, something in the brain, presumably to do with maturity, stops "taking it in".

Our course is about writing and editing, in all its various forms and genres, from business writing to picture books and poetry. We have a simple grammar and punctuation test for applicants that very quickly sorts out who has a grasp of the basics and who hasn't. Someone who has no idea where to put a fullstop in a sentence (never mind a comma) may well fail Editing 1, a core compulsory subject. It makes a big difference to us how an applicant performs in this test (there are other selection criteria as well) as we don't want to accept people knowing they are likely to fail.

However, the other big component in this is how much they want to learn. It constantly amazes me how often students will say things like, "That's the editor's job to fix my grammar after they've accepted my story." Not. Poor grammar and punctuation in a piece of writing means automatic rejection 99% of the time, and very few people write brilliantly enough for this to be overlooked. Many older students, who felt they didn't learn the basics at school, and understand how important they are, put in 120% in Editing 1, and get there by sheer hard work.

But a lot of younger students find they know even less than they thought, and also find they can no longer get away with Spellcheck and guessing. When they discover that the only way forward is to work really hard and learn it all properly, they can't be bothered. A 51% Pass in Editing 1 means you are still getting 49% of your grammar wrong!

In The Age article, they also quoted a number of employers who said they can tell just from letters of application for jobs who is OK with grammar and who isn't. One said that errors in a letter tell him that the applicant didn't care enough to make sure it's correct. It's all about first impressions, and if the first impression you give is that you don't know how to spell or write a decent sentence, that doesn't bode well for you getting the job. That's a big bonus for students who complete our course successfully - they may never write a best-selling novel, but they are going to be way ahead of many other job applicants in terms of their language ability.

1 comment:

Kristi Holl said...

This is really well said, Sherryl. The people I've taught in the writing course over the years say the same thing--that it's the editor's job to fix the punctuation. They really don't believe that it will never get as far as an editor's desk with rottenly punctuated query letters and proposals. If writers just hate punctuation and spelling, they at least need to hire someone GOOD to proof it before they submit it, including their queries. It DOES matter.
Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog