Tackling basic literacy skills

According to Patrick Kinsella, Head of the School of Communications in Dublin City University, journalism students enter the university with excellent final school results but with major ‘gaps in their grasp of basic English, including spelling, grammar, punctuation and word usage.’ According to a report in the Irish Times, DCU will now ‘allocate more time to the teaching of basic writing skills to first-year journalism students’.

Many universities in the English speaking world now have similar experiences. But not everywhere. A colleague who recently came back from two months teaching in India told me that students there write in ‘beautiful English’ and with hardly any mistakes in spelling and grammar. When I attended an event at which a number of students spoke in China, not long ago, I was also hugely impressed with the standard of English in evidence there.

This is not a minor issue. Many institutions in these islands derive a considerable income from teaching English as a foreign language, and people coming to Britain and Ireland often do so to learn the language. In addition, the capacity of our students and graduates to express themselves clearly and correctly matters in all sorts of settings, including journalism, business, education, the arts and others.

The DCU initiative is to be welcomed, but others also need to address this problem. The English language is an important resource for us; we need to treat it well.

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16 Comments on “Tackling basic literacy skills”

  1. Al Says:

    Interesting development and welcome.
    But will this course carry a ECTS loading ?
    How does one assess skills?
    I would be interested in the listed learning outcomes for this!
    Fair play to DCU, problem identified and solution put in place.
    Twould have been easier to continue complaining about the leaving cert

  2. patrickl Says:

    Literacy is a major problem at third level. I was very struck when reading reports about the DCU initiative that it’s being set up to aid students who have more than 430 points in their Leaving, and at least a B in higher-level English. So this problem affects even the very best students.

    In my own work, I would estimate that perhaps as few as 5% of my Irish students are comfortable with the rules of grammar and syntax. I have also noticed that visiting students – both Anglophone and non-Anglophone – have a much better grasp of the mechanics of writing than Irish students do.

    A number of causes have been suggested for this problem, from rote learning in the Leaving to text messaging and so on. But it is not being taken at all seriously. Many of the students who arrive at university with literacy problems graduate with those problems unresolved. Many of those graduates will go into professions such as teaching and journalism But more serious is the fact that a student who cannot write properly is also a student who cannot express himself or herself clearly. Many people still think that grammar is a series of arbitrary rules, and that learning it stifles creativity. But that is completely incorrect. Literacy is a form of power: the power to understand others and to make others understand you.

    So I welcome the DCU initiative, agree that more needs to be done elsewhere (and indeed more is being done elsewhere). But without wishing always to blame second-level education, it is worth asking how these students can get through 5-6 years of formal education in English – and get a very high mark in Junior and Leaving Certs – without knowing basic grammar.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Forgetting the DCU thingy for the moment. Who precisely and when is the teaching of Grammar to take place.
    Is there a course in teacher training.
    Now to DCU. Isn’t it a bit rich to go all over hand-wringing and bleating about this issue. All while knowing that the kids aren’t getting reflected light never mind being lifted to the Sunlight.


  4. I’m sorry to hear that the American experience is being repeated in the UK and Ireland. I’m appalled by the lack of competency in simple, basic English that one finds among our high school graduates. While the DCU initiative is a good thing, I’m sure, it seems a tragedy that time, effort, and resources are being taken at the college level to do something that should have been done in secondary school!


  5. The Royal Literary Fund, in London, who employ professional writers, on a part time Fellowship Scheme, to help address this very problem, have a major report about this. which you’ll find on their website. I worked on one of these fellowships for four years, and felt that I really made a difference to many students, in one-to-one sessions. Essentially, this should be addressed in school, but so often isn’t.

  6. Conor Says:

    “Fair play to DCU, problem identified and solution put in place.”

    The problem is the lack of teaching in both primary & secondary levels. I went to two lectures covering “remedial grammar” in NUIM. It covered stuff I learned in 2nd class – primary school.

    I learned grammar by rote learning, just like I learned my times tables. Dont dump rote learning – it’s a valid method of learning, just not the only one.

  7. Michael Kielty Says:

    This issue has been long in the public domain and institutions are at the ‘let’s do something about it’ stage – and this is to be welcomed. The British Association for Lecturers of English for Academic Purposes – BALEAP – is an organisation that focuses on academic literacy but their target group are the international students Ferdinand mentions here. Well developed curricula are in place across the world and a whole industry has grown up around EAP (English for Academic Purposes) – with some success.

    In the department where I live something strange happened in 2004 – self-diagnosing Irish students starting to turn up for Academic Writing classes, doing us a favour in letting us know that their was an issue across the institution. Some years later the need is still obvious, if not more so and our implementation of a ‘College Writing Course’ for native speakers of English has evolved around the US system – Writing 101 – and I recommend the ‘Instructor’s Resource Manual: The New Humanities Reader’ by Kurt Spellmeyer & Richard E. Miller as a jumping-off point. Essentially the aproach links reading to writing and the problem may be that our young students in HE don’t read or don’t write about what they read!

    @Vincent
    An intervention is best left to writing teachers and grammar-police as our discpline-specific colleagues are snowed under as it is.
    (apologies for any dangling modifiers)

  8. Cathyby Says:

    There was a discussion on this topic on twitter a few weeks ago. Grammar is (teachers say) no longer on the Junior or Leaving Cert curriculum. Those “hardliners” who still teach it have to fit it in to first year, the only year in which they have time. This despite 10% of marks in LC English going for grammar and spelling.

    As for primary, I don’t know if it’s taught systematically between third and sixth classes, but it hasn’t be taught to my son (2nd class) as yet. Early days I guess.

    If it isn’t taught to him, I will do it (being a stickler). But it strikes me this is another area when children from homes where parents can’t fill that gap are disadvantaged. Disadvantaged not merely in lower points but in an inability to express themselves clearly, complain effectively, sell themselves in letters or CVs.

  9. Ernie Ball Says:

    Conor wrote: “I learned grammar by rote learning, just like I learned my times tables.”

    You learned to multiply by rote? How do you manage to multiply two numbers you’ve never seen before?

  10. Mark Dowling Says:

    It used to be (when I were a lad) that marks in ALL subjects could be lost for insufficient neatness and poor spelling and grammar.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Pedantically speaking, in Standard English as opposed to Hovis English, it is ‘when I was a lad’. There could also be a long debate as to whether you should put a comma in after ‘neatness’, so as to reduce the ambiguity of your final word!


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