Illiteracy in Elementary and Secondary Schools
November 21, 2012
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[The decline in the public education system did not begin yesterday. These paragraphs are excerpted from a book published almost 60 years ago. The difference today is that most people accept this as normal – they don’t remember a time when things were different.]
Is it possible that this timidity, this excessive appeal to “interest”, this consequent concern with the modern, the familiar and the simple in theory, combined with a multiplication of methods and techniques, is responsible for the well-known fact that up to the end of the intermediate or junior high school stage many Canadian pupils cannot read? This is not a wild accusation. It is based on statements in the programmes of study, all of which deal with the problem of remedial reading at every stage, some of them at considerable length. Moreover, teachers in social studies and mathematics are warned that difficulties may arise from their pupils being unable to read. One high school mathematics teacher asserts that this is literally true, and that pupils need help in deriving any meaning from problems expressed in perfectly grammatical and unambiguous English. Programmes of study warn teachers to beware of this, to adopt remedial measures, and to guard pupils (aged thirteen to sixteen) against perils like “absolute owner” and “toll bridge” – children, by the way, who have received years of instruction in “dictionary skills.” It is not suggested that if they can derive no meaning, either from the context or from the dictionary, they should not be in even a junior high school. It is never suggested that there should be a pons asinorum over which non-readers may not pass. It is simply assumed that many secondary school boys and girls cannot read.
To this frank admission of the schools that many of their senior pupils cannot read must be added the very frank accusations of universities and other institutions that too many secondary school “graduates” cannot write. The matter has been much discussed, particularly in those universities which are compelled to introduce remedial English courses – from which it must be admitted students emerge still with a very feeble paragraph sense. It is not easy to begin to teach things that should have been learned ten years earlier, and the student who has spent the years in poised if not polished oral composition undoubtedly lacks motivation for wrestling with the written word. A recent comment on this matter comes from the University of Toronto, where, it is reported, the president, deans and professors join with becoming modesty that when the students fail in engineering and other examinations because they cannot write English, the fault undoubtedly rests with the university. There is, in fact, just the faintest hint that some professors at this university cannot speak English. Can these professors be the products of Ontario’s progressive schools?
– from So little for the Mind, by Hilda Neatby, Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan, copyright 1953.