My response to your response to “Functional Illiteracy”


I never saw it coming.

As some of you may have noticed, this is a fairly “young” blog, competing with hundreds of thousands of blogs, which averaged 20-60 hits on its best days.

I’ve had over 6,000 hits since I posted “Functional Illiteracy” yesterday morning. When I was writing it, I was just seeing it as yet another rant in a series of rants about the state of education in the 21st century, but it has obviously really struck a nerve.

I’ve really enjoyed the ensuing conversation — exactly what I wanted when I started the blog in the first place — so many people feeling the same frustration; so many articulate and well-thought-out responses, it did make me wonder if maybe the situation isn’t as dire as I thought. 🙂

I have had many thoughts in the past 24 hours as I watched the post and comments “go viral,” and hope you don’t mind my sharing them with you.

There have been many mentions of the influences of technology on the 21st-century student as well as the importance of parents and their role. I would like to expand on both of those a bit.

Yes, there are a lot of cultural influences on our children which are either completely foreign to our experience, or which we adopt without allowing them to “pervert” our use of language or monopolize our time, because we’ve already learned to use language and manage our time. I agree that children shouldn’t have cell phones or access to facebook until they are old enough to see the impact these potential addictions could have on their lives. I worry about cell phone usage in young children with thinner skulls and the potential for tumors, and I also have grave concerns about cyber-bullying; with a 9-year old daughter and all of the requisite “friend” drama, there’s no facebook until middle or high school and then only if I’m a “friend.”


Our children will need to live in the world in which they live. I text using textspeak because it’s faster to type on that tiny little keyboard, but I don’t use textspeak in any other situation. Children can, and should, learn the difference. Facebook is fun; I enjoy posting jokes or links to The Onion or a youtube video of a 3-year-old conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but I can ignore it when I want to, hide people who insist on posting incessantly about what they are eating or who like to berate those who don’t agree with them, and don’t need to check it 100 times a day to feel like I’m “keeping up.” I had a good friend who very strictly regulated the amount of time her sons were allowed to play computer games; her eldest son then went off to a very expensive private college and flunked out because he sat in his dorm room all day and played World of Warcraft. Wouldn’t it be better for them to learn to manage their time and responsibilities and interests when the stakes are a little smaller?

I also think the parent’s role is quite important, but probably not in the way many of you think. I always checked if my children had homework, made sure they had a plan for when they were going to do it, and was happy to look it over at the end to see how they had done. I didn’t feel it was in their best interests for me to correct it for them and have them redo it — if the teacher doesn’t know that my kid is struggling with the material, how will the teacher know he/she needs to spend more time on the topic? I was also pretty sure I wasn’t going to go to college with them, and thought it was important that they learn to structure their time and responsibilities themselves. I did make sure to write a note on the homework if it wasn’t done because my child just didn’t understand it; I also made sure to encourage the teacher to build in some natural consequences if it wasn’t done, i.e. the child sits at his/her desk at recess completing the homework.

And I don’t think we can change our children’s fundamental tastes and personalities. I am an avid reader, as is my oldest son. I read with both of my sons until they were well into middle school. My second son reads the books he needs to for school, and enjoys them, can talk articulately about them, and will not read another one until he has to. I can’t change that, and if I tried to Make him into a reader, he would read, and enjoy it, even less.

While parent’s roles and influences are very important, so, too, are teachers’. My eldest son, now a physics major at Case who scored 33 on his ACT, barely gave a rip about school from first grade until after he had graduated high school. When he was in kindergarten he LOVED it — he had a nurturing, imaginative teacher who enjoyed and indulged his curiosity and complied with his desire for daily “homework.” His first grade teacher was pinched and unimaginative and should have retired 10 years earlier. She would complain to me that First Son worked too slowly, too meticulously, asked too many questions, wanted to “handle” things rather then sitting in his desk with his hands folded learning via The Worksheet. When I requested that she merely send the work home with him, as he loved “homework,” she refused. By the end of the year his work was careless and sloppy. He went from coloring his butterfly with every color in the box in an elaborate mosaic to scribbling over it with a black crayon in 5 seconds. This attitude changed somewhat in 6th grade, with another wonderful teacher who recognized his intelligence and abilities and always challenged him to do better, but the child who would score a 33 on his ACT, with a  perfect score in science and only 1 point off in math didn’t have a high enough GPA to get into Northwestern or the University of Michigan — his top two choices. Case took a chance based on his standardized test scores, and gave him a scholarship based on his GPA which he can’t afford to lose. He is finally waking up to a sense of discipline and responsibility. No matter what I did, what I said, how I fought, he was not convinced that it mattered. I couldn’t do it for him.

Parents and teachers need to support, encourage, provide healthy learning opportunities and environments, and help students realize that THEY are responsible for what they learn, not the other way around.  What good would it have done for me to force him to comply to a standard I set, only for him to get into a college at which he’s not willing or able to succeed?

The passive learning attitude we see so often is a direct result of exactly that — parents, teachers, “teaching” the child that they are not responsible. This has to change.

Teachers also need to be qualified, and some simply are not. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten syllabi from high-school teachers filled with grammatical and punctuation errors. If we aren’t providing a good example for our students, how can we realistically expect good work from them?

I often think also that the bar is set too low. The Vice Principal of First Son’s middle school was overheard saying once that his job was just to get them through the day. This premise is ridiculous. If students are challenged, interested, stimulated, they will get themselves “through the day.”

And testing, especially today’s standardized testing, is making it worse; Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” does leave them behind, because it fills the teacher’s day with the broadest base of factoids known to man and requires them to cram it down their students’ throats. This leaves no time to be sure students actually understand, or can apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate this information — in other words use this information to further their own understanding. Because teachers have to teach only to Bloom’s lowest level of learning, there’s no depth to the knowledge — it consists merely of factoids, information, to be memorized and regurgitated. This is a mistake and has to change.

Students are also not taught to respect those in positions of authority. One comment touched on exactly that — parents need to be parents first, friends later (as in when their children are in their 20s). And if parents are demanding respect but the teachers are not, children will constantly challenge that authority.

When I was a Masters student, back in the 80s, and needed to contact my piano teacher, it was suggested to me that I call him. Call him? Really? I could do that? I still call my piano teacher from my undergraduate days Mrs. V_______; she has asked me numerous times to call her by her first name. I just can’t. I’ve had students call me to my face, and in email, by my first name, despite the fact that I name myself Dr. (Lastname) in the syllabus and in every email. I’ve had students email me to challenge the fact that I have information on the review sheet that I said wouldn’t be on the test; I’ve been told that she (the student) didn’t “like my attitude.” Technology allows for this; I would hope at least that most students wouldn’t dare say such a thing to my face. But the fact that they can say it at all astounds and disturbs me.

Students don’t move their feet when I walk between them in the hallways. Students have failed to write down what was going to be on a test, or failed to show up to an exam, and then gone to my department head and lied, telling him that I “changed my mind” or wasn’t where I said I would be. Sometimes the chair supports me, sometimes I get a long email explaining how I need to be more student-centered. This lack of support by administration, and giving students the benefit of the doubt over teachers, needs to change.

I could write for at least this long over the loss to our students as arts and music programs are cut while the football team gets new uniforms and trips to away games that cost thousands of dollars. If there is anything that teaches comprehensive, evaluative, synthetic thinking, it is literature, arts and music. Not to mention “building” adults who are automatons, unable or unwilling to recognize or understand beauty, music, or poetry.

To get back to the point of the original post, the problems I see in writing aren’t merely of this type: lacking of capitalizations and textspeak and using “what” instead of “was.” Students don’t know the difference between there their and they’re, write “could of” instead of “could have,” don’t bother (or don’t know how) to have their verb tense match the rest of their sentence, or the subject is plural and the verb is singular or vice versa. While this isn’t “functional illiteracy,” as I can interpret what they mean, it is a definite problem that should be being addressed in 4th grade, not a college humanities class.

Thank all of you so much for your interest and contribution to this important discussion and topic. This is obviously a source of great concern for many. Knowing this, NOW what do we do?

21 Responses to “My response to your response to “Functional Illiteracy””

  1. November 13, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I am so glad, to be honest, that so many others agree with your view points on ‘functional literacy’. Well done! I can’t say that I am a grammer genius in any way, however, I think I know a little about ‘the right’ way to say things. Like, i ain’t gonna just, like, say whateva, innit?!
    I am whole heartedly behind your fight for the proper teaching of good English and agree that as with many things; it is down to the parents.

  2. November 13, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Now what do we do? Good question. I am scared to death to talk to you! No really all of your thoughts are valid and true. Your job must be very frustrating. It’s a sad time.

  3. November 13, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    When I was in engineering school as an adult student, back in the ’80s, I had a professor for a critical class that had just lost a grown son to suicide. All he could muster the courage to do in class each day was to expound on the idea, apparently contained in the tome edited by Benjamin Bloom, that one couldn’t “teach” synthesis. Since we needed to exit our Micro-Electronics course with the ability to synthesize new designs, this statement apparently let him off of the hook emotionally from his responsibility to us.

    While I sympathized with the professor’s pain — pain I could scarcely imagine, at the time — His application from the taxonomy (of the modern sum of knowledge about how to teach) didn’t help me much.

    Except for taking the (typical, critical) opportunity to stick a finger in George Bush’s eye for trying to do something about the problem with “No Child Left Behind”, I’m not sure how the “state of the art” in education is helping your functionally illiterate students either.

    John Maxwell, in his teaching on leadership, asserts that to be effective in building into the lives of others, one must convince them that they matter to us. Otherwise, their judgment will be that our opinion just doesn’t matter very much.

  4. 4 dp
    November 13, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    From a teacher (substitute), and perpetual graduate student (wannabe),
    and as an author, artist, musician, and poor, disabled, queer, public servant,
    I thank you for your conscientous, thoughtful, public discursiveness.
    My neice used tu allow textual errors, id est, “typos”, all over her tesxt proze,
    perhaps because she thought it acceptably honest, or
    because she didn’t know bet, but I bet she did.
    Chill on the vernacular.
    Focus on the potntial,
    rmbr yr source,
    adyb and gfi.
    Thanks again,

  5. November 14, 2010 at 2:04 am

    Loved your follow up entry. Very well thought out. I don’t have children and I don’t know what we should do. I know education has degraded since I was in public school, and it wasn’t as good when I was there as when my parents were, so this slide has been going on for a l-o-o-o-o-o-o-ng time. But we are failing our children miserably at this point, and are allowing our nation to slide into an abyss that’s going to be harder and harder to pull out of. Glad there are teachers like you who are thinking hard about what needs to change.

  6. November 14, 2010 at 4:41 am

    I really enjoyed reading this post, but I point to your post on September 7th: educational pratfalls, as evidence that the greater issue is with the educational system. I myself am a medical school student, still befuddled by the intricacies of grammar. I frequently engage in inappropriate use of the hyphen, semi-colon, and colon, not to mention the abundance of comma splices that can be found in my writing. In fact, I had no idea what a semi-colon was used for until I was in tenth grade and took it upon myself to learn independently.

    I recently wrote a blog post which points out the inability of top researcher and professors to even engage one another in their research. It can be found here.

    If we honestly care about the future of our country, we must invest in education. I don’t mean monetarily, although that would be nice. I mean, that we must embrace technology as a way to communicate with the younger generation and we must do it in a way that generates such interest that they want to participate.

    We have to get children writing and reading about things that interest them. If Bobby wants to write about World of Warcraft, then let him, as long as he does it in a way that furthers his understanding of proper grammar and gets him interested in writing.

    My challenge to everyone is to try and remember the literary works you were supposed to read in high school. Did they inspire you? Did you learn something about how to construct a sentence or how to develop a plot from reading them?

  7. November 14, 2010 at 5:57 am

    Just sharing a thought.

    Although it may be pretty smart to keep your children away from all the technological fads, it wouldn’t help them when they are exposed to classmates who are allowed to. When they start education, their world expands, and they see that there is a larger society out there. A society in which they would like to fit in. Not being able to enjoy the same technology that their classmates can get access to will mean being excluded, and that is very painful indeed (believe me, there’s more to the effects of being socially excluded than the obvious emotional ones. All this I learned from my Psychology courses).

    I’m not against limiting time and access. Maybe just banning children completely from these kinds of technology. At a certain age of course, parents must be there to supervise. Let them learn when and how to properly use these things.

    But we must all accept the fact that times are continually changing. Some methods that were successful in the past generations may not be the appropriate ones to use now. Sticking to traditional forms of teaching may simply backfire. I think the challenge for all parents and responsible adults today is how they can adapt to the new technology whilst integrating discipline (not completely shutting out their kids from the world).

    I’m still studying at university, and I’m quite certain there’s still hope for the future literacy of my generation. 🙂

  8. November 14, 2010 at 8:59 am

    Second son was on his way to becoming a facebook/Xbox addict, despite all of my best efforts (and I’m with you; you can’t deny it completely, or the child feels left out and may suffer socially at school) until he decided to audition for the chorus for his school’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was a magical cast, and an incredible inspiration, (and they did a fantastic job!) and when the craziness of the play-practice schedule was over he wandered around for a day, doing exactly what he used to do, and said, “I’m bored.”

    He’s been in every theatrical production available to him since.

  9. 9 Me too
    November 14, 2010 at 10:29 am

    What do we do? I ask that almost every day, as I beat my head against the wall. I believe the answer is parental involvement and reinforcement, but we can’t make the parents care. By the time students arrive in my college classroom, it seems as though it is too late to change their ways and teach them anything. College has become a consumer atmosphere. With that and my constant frustration in mind, I have decided to change professions and go back to the elementary school classroom. Perhaps there I can make a difference.

  10. November 14, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    >>Students don’t know the difference between there their and they’re, write “could of” instead of “could have,” don’t bother (or don’t know how) to have their verb tense match the rest of their sentence, or the subject is plural and the verb is singular or vice versa. While this isn’t “functional illiteracy,” as I can interpret what they mean, it is a definite problem that should be being addressed in 4th grade, not a college humanities class.

    … just don’t make a few use-mention errors when you criticize your college students for making a “4th grade” mistake. ;D But I get the idea; there’s a big difference between not knowing a rule and simply slipping up (though knowing it).

    btw, I wrote a blog post which is tangentially related to your famous post.

  11. November 14, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    My mom frequently took me to the library when I was younger and, while she suggested books, she also let me look around and decide what I wanted to read. I think this is one of the factors which influenced me to become interested in learning, instead of just seeing it as a chore that needed to be completed. I realized that there was so much more to learn than just what adults were teaching me; I realized that what I was learning in school was a foundation on which to build, rather than a complete set of facts to memorize.

    I had a mix of good and bad teachers, and I think the inspiration I experienced from the classes of the good teachers helped carry me through the classes of the bad ones. I can’t imagine what it must be like for students who are in really bad neighborhood with bad schools, where most of the teachers may be bad, whether unable to teach or not knowledgeable about the subject.

    The behavior you describe is familiar to me, because I’ve seen my fellow students do the same things. (I’m a college student.) It always makes me cringe. I don’t mean to imply that the teachers never make a mistake; they sometimes do. However, there are times when I think that the students are just complaining about nothing. I understand their frustration, since the material can be very difficult (especially in some of the pharmacy classes I’m in) but that’s not an excuse to blame the teacher.

    Concerning technology, budgeting my time has definitely been an important lesson for me in college, even though I was a good student. I have to spend more time studying in college than I had to in the past, so it required some adjustment.

    I am uncertain about what can be done, but I it is essential to change people’s attitudes about education. If a person goes to school thinking that he/she just has to get through this, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to learn, then the standard will be too low. On the issue of literacy specifically, I think there are people who take the view that if you can understand them, it’s fine if they wrote something incorrectly. This attitude amazes me. Can you imagine Shakespeare’s plays written in textspeak?

  12. November 14, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    I agree with you two previous posts – there is a crisis in the education system in this country and unfortunately it seems that I will be joining the system soon (I’m doing my masters in education).

    As a college graduate (BA in History) and current graduate student, it feels that I coasted through my school years. Not that I was a horrible student (different story) but it feels that I was among the generation of US students who got a half way decent education before our current crisis. And to agree with someone who commented, this trend of failing education standards has been a long one.

    As for teachers and parents: the system is broken as far as how teachers are portrayed and how they CAN’T do certain things. I’m not asking for spanking in the classroom (*cringe!) but what I am asking is for teachers to be able to do their jobs – to be teachers and not to be tools to the political system.

    Forgive me if I have any grammatical errors and such, blame it on the education 😛

  13. November 14, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    The examples you give of mistakes (verb tenses not agreeing?!) terrify me. I was a TA during m master’s and most of the writing I saw was fairly good (although there were some hilarious and obvious thesaurus abusers) but I had friends in engineering and math show me some examples of papers they had to mark that were pretty abysmal.

  14. November 14, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your posts on this problem of functional illiteracy. I am currently a freshman college student, and have often times throughout the course of my academic career noticed this problem popping up more and more. During my last years of High School, I can definitely say that I struggled often with this. I noticed how you pointed out that this text-speak is really ruining the way current generations of children speak and think, and it really is a sad realization. Luckily, I was blessed with two parents that greatly revered intellectual abilities and habits, and I was constricted to what most kids refer to as a somewhat “sheltered” life. Now, I realize it really was for the better. However, I can say, through personal experience, that the subjects taught in school and the teacher’s engagement and true desire to help you learn really make all the difference. Yes, the parents have a lot to do with it, but I also felt it so much easier to study or learn in a class that I really enjoyed the subject matter, or the teacher made learning fun, even if at first I hated the concept of the class. Case in point, my chemistry teacher in High School was so adamant about his job, so enthusiastic about chemistry, that I actually was compelled to check out library books, do additional research, and try to learn more about chemistry all by myself. It was a general consensus in the school that chemistry with this teacher was one of the best classes you could take. On the contrary, students taking the class with another teacher hated it. So, I would argue, at times the teacher is even more important than the parents when it comes to developing cognitive abilities, habits, and desire. I now have channeled that energy I have for learning and doing something I like into my blog, which I love to write comedy. It’s humor that I think appeals to everyone, especially those with an appreciation for the horrors of functional illiteracy.

  15. November 15, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Stumbled upon here from WordPress.

    I think you have a lot many things going on here. Grammatical correctness, functional illiteracy, technology in learning, bloom’s taxonomy and values and morals and respecting teachers and elders.

    I am an Instructional Designer from India and I have come across many a clients and SMEs from US who speak and write incorrect english and can give similar examples as you have.

    In India, I think we manage to touch the Application level in our schools but am sure most of the teachers are unaware of Bloom’s taxonomy or even pedagogy.

  16. November 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    What to do is the key question. Right now in the USA the avalanche of ‘collapsing empire’ woes means it’s a heroic effort just to maintain the status quo, but we can’t allow education to fail. If we do, a temporary crisis of national purpose will devolve into a permanent inability to do what needs doing. We simply won’t have the skills.

    Many of the answers lie outside the educational arena. Teachers at the college level simply cannot instill proper listening, reading, or learning habits in students — it’s too late by then. But primary and high schools aren’t able to develop these habits, either. It comes down to the family at home.

    What’s different about 2010, as compared to (for example) 1999, 1975, or 1950? Any time in the mid-century period, you can point to a superb, well-funded educational system, a relatively disciplined student population (unaccustomed to questioning authority), and a meritocratic approach to advancement.

    Jump ahead a generation: I was a student in 1975, and a poor one. My parents, the 1950s-educated Boomers, were utterly wrapped up in their own thing; they knew what I ought to be doing, but didn’t have the time or energy to make sure it was happening. This wasn’t just self-adsorption. They both had jobs, and there wasn’t a system in place for families with two working parents. At the same time, authority was a dirty word by then. Vietnam, Watergate, the Cold War — authority had proven itself to be a hollow, self-serving thing.

    Leap forward again to 1999, and we have the height of the “every kid is special,” “every kid gets a prize” approach to child-rearing. Self-esteem as the most important thing. Performance indexed to the individual rather than the group. I sound bitter about this (and I suppose I am), but I mean to be reasonably dispassionate. My point is simply that kids born into that world, when authority had failed, when collective responsibility had been abandoned for the fetish of the self, were set up for failure from the beginning.

    This is not universal, of course. There are lots of kids of all ages, working to their full potential, who don’t make excuses for themselves or blame others when things don’t go well. I’m worried about generalizing, but this is supposed to be a comment, not a screed.

    I think what needs to happen is a refocusing on what it means to be a parent. Kids must not be shielded from failure, disappointment, or consequences. I don’t mean that in some Dickensian sense, as if children should be worried about their very survival in order to become competent adults. But I’m seeing a generation reaching its majority today of which a significant percentage doesn’t understand the basic idea of effort proportional to reward, or the notion that a child does not have authority because a child has not earned it.

    It seems that a new emphasis on parental roles, on how to instill respect for genuine authority (as opposed to knee-jerk authoritarianism), and some kind of collective mechanisms to allow for parents to BE parents, which this modern life of endless distractions and obligations doesn’t presently support, must be undertaken. Unfortunately, penning a best-selling book on child-rearing, or having remedial courses for adults on how to raise their kids,are not practical solutions.

    It’s going to take a campaign of awareness-building, creating and making available the materials needed to help parents figure it out, and giving students themselves a sense of the urgency and importance of a purpose outside their own gratification. It can be done. It requires a groundswell of popular will.

  17. November 15, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Just ran across this on “The Onion.”

    It seemed tangentially related. Plus it made me LMAO.


  18. November 16, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    This is rather germane… the good papers may be written by a ringer.


  19. November 17, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Sometimes I stand in the midst of the kids in the hall, who are sitting down with their feet out in front of them, until one of them finally looks up and mumbles, “Oh, sorry” and moves them. 😉 That drives me crazy! I’m sure most of them don’t do it intentionally to be rude, but the lack of courtesy is stunning sometimes.

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