Paul Budra, a dean at Simon Fraser University (British Columbia, Canada), got on the wrong side of a lot of people when he identified a problem with the way students are taught to write today. Fronting a storm of abuse, he said it is not due to social media—or not particularly anyway.

Here is his side of the story in Canada Education (Fall 2014):

Students are asked to generate ideas, plan their writing, do the actual writing, get feedback (often from peers), and then “publish”. This is in accord with what my own children experienced in grade school: they regularly produced little “books”. They were charming and creative but, like much of the work my university students are doing, full of grammatical errors.

This “process” method became the standard after a seismic shift in the philosophy of writing instruction. In 1966, at a conference at Dartmouth College, a new pedagogical model that emphasized “personal growth” was proposed and quickly gained popularity.[1] This new model “sought to move the focus of curriculum and instruction away from traditional models of cultural heritage and skills” (emphasis added).[2] Now, I have no problem with moving away from teaching a specific cultural heritage to something much more inclusive; in fact I encourage it. But basic writing skills? How are they a problem? We teach students skills in physical education class so they can play sports; we teach them skills in music class so they can play instruments. But somehow, since the revolution of ’66, skills have been seen as an enemy to writing.

By 1973, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores in the U.S. had fallen dramatically; students coming out of the public school system could not write.[3] The editors of the 2007 essay collection Best Practices in Writing Instruction cite studies that show that “the writing of approximately two thirds of students in elementary, middle, and high school [is] below grade-level proficiency. Moreover, one in five first-year college students requires a remedial writing class, and more than half of new college students are unable to write a paper relatively free of errors.”[4] This sort of negative outcome would, in most areas of human endeavour, be taken as empirical evidence of the failure of a technique. …

But it wasn’t. Instead, it spawned a whole new academic industry, which I can only describe as “dumping on competence.”

Budra’s U (Simon Fraser), probably in part due to his efforts, has instituted a remedial program. Good for them. Most students have simply not been taught, in taxpayer-funded schools, the self-expression necessary for workplace achievement, or even employability.

Did I say dumping on competence? Ah, memories. Years ago, I did freelance work for a school board, reviewing documents for equity (fairness).

An issue about “dialect” came up. Was it fair to penalize students for using a dialect from an overseas birthplace, rather than standard Canadian English, in their classroom speech and writing?

I thought about this for a while, and decided that the real concern should be, what is in the student’s best interests? So I reported: All languages and dialects are of equal value in principle. But not all are equally useful in a given situation.

The school should teach students to express themselves so that a vast majority of local strangers would understand what they are saying. I suggested using the speech patterns of national broadcasters as a guide.

Budra’s aims are likewise modest:

I am not calling for the complete abandonment of process-based writing instruction. I really do mean “a bit of time.” This is what needs to be taught: first, that a sentence is a complete thought. Next, that a sentence, which can also be called an independent clause, is different from a dependent clause, which is an incomplete thought. Once students grasp the difference between an independent and a dependent clause, they can tell the difference between a sentence fragment, a run-on sentence, and a comma splice, and they have the basis for understanding the proper use of commas, semicolons, and colons.

It is certainly better than sounding incoherent. And as for new technologies:

Here’s what I suspect will happen if the basics of writing continue to be ignored or are marginalized in favour of “new literacies”: not only will students become worse writers than they are now, requiring universities to spend more of their scant resources to teach them basic skills, they will become less adept users of new technologies.

Yes, of course.

It might be useful to distinguish between new technologies used to build a career vs. those used merely to entertain oneself. If new technologies are all just for fun, the student can quietly fail and move on.

But what if the student needs to read and understand a procedures manual in the workplace? What if the only truly interesting workplace involves seriously ill patients, high-security labs, or nuclear power? Nailing down basic grammar skills years earlier, would save a lot of time in grasping complex procedures manuals.

Here is a once a week, quick-and-dirty grammar tip, if you must write something for your job now and then (this podcast is from 2008, but she is still doing it):



Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...