With shows like Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? mockingly comparing the average individual’s intellect to the basic skills of a 10 year-old—and the answer in most cases is seemingly off-putting—the role of highly flawed classroom curriculums has been illuminated in the media.
Like the creators of the show, educators and university professors are noticing a general trend in language proficiency skills amongst incoming students—and that trend, much like the general hint of the show’s title, is a negative one.
Ann Barrett, whose job as the managing director at University of Waterloo’s English Language Proficiency Program is to test students’ language proficiency, said she believes such a program is crucial for the development of students’ writing skills.
“Our program is two pronged,” she said. “We have a writing centre and an exam. The exam is commonly known as the English Language Proficiency Exam and is unique to University of Waterloo—every single incoming student must write it and must pass by a certain date.”
The program has been active since the University of Waterloo was established in 1957 and tests students on argumentation skills as well as basic spelling and grammar proficiency. The exam consists of three essay questions, each of which must be answered in a well-formatted four to five paragraph essay.
“Most students who fail the exam the first time come in for a 45-minute appointment with us—where they can see their results, their mistakes, where they went wrong—and often that appointment alone is enough to give them a good enough understanding of what they did wrong and help them pass the second time around,” she said.
Barrett said the program urges students not to re-take the exam until they have understood the root of their failure.
Thirty per cent of students fail the exam, a number that has gone up five per cent in the past five years. Barrett attributes this to the short nature of the four-year high school curriculum.
“In my own opinion, missing Grade 13 is a major part of this [problem],” she said. “The elimination of that in 2003 was a major turning point, because it was a polishing year, a year for everyone who had aspirations of going to university. It must be very difficult for teachers to try and fit the entire curriculum into only four years.
“Another major aspect of this is the maturity level of students. Some students are only 17 years old when they get into university, and that’s an awfully young age to take on the responsibility of a university degree.”
Barrett said she thinks every university should offer students the same type of program as the one she is involved in.
“I think that would be the ideal,” she said. “But it’s a costly exam and the administration of any university has to be dedicated to funding the cost of this. There is currently no charge to students—whether to attend tutorials or take the exam—so the university must put money behind the program, which is a big dedication. Some universities had a program but eliminated it due to budget funding.”
The program costs the university $15 per student, not including tutoring costs.
Philosophy professor Christine Overall said although the decline in English proficiency skills has been evident amongst some students, their analytical and logical skills remain at high levels.
“Some things have declined, but I don’t think it’s hugely serious, partly because the strengths of Queen’s students help to make up for that lack,” she said. “Students are very good at dealing with ideas, but in many cases they don’t know the difference between a comma and a semi-colon, or where to use a colon.”
Overall said students retain a high level of ability to communicate, and make arguments.
“It’s not the quality of the arguments, but rather, in the accuracy and care that I have noticed a decline,” she said. “This phenomenon preceded Twitter. It might be connected to technological use, like blogging, text messaging, e-mail and all quick communication forms, but the major problem is that students lack motivation to go back and edit—so it’s not merely a technological problem.”
Overall said she attributes this decline to a deficiency in early education.
“This goes beyond high school,” she said. “Teaching students these things should start in primary schools, so if they don’t get that education early on, by high school it might be too late to teach them these things.”
Overall also attributes the general decline in grammar and spelling proficiency to the lack of studying languages in school.
“Students are not studying languages as much as they used to,” she said. “One obvious example is Latin. I hated Latin with a passion, but I was forced to study it and it actually did me a lot of good. I understand a lot about the structure of the English language because of studying Latin—and it’s not just Latin. I also studied French and German and studying those also helped me understand a lot about the English language itself.
“I think you also get a really good grasp of the structure of the English language from reading a lot of very well written material—great novels by incredible authors like Jane Austen and George Eliot. Students are reading, but what they’re reading is not necessarily these kinds of works.”
Overall said she often says she will deduct marks for spelling and grammatical mistakes to encourage more care and effort, but rarely practices it.
“I don’t do it unless it’s persistent and very bad,” she said. “I always hope students will strive to improve first before I deduct marks. On the first paper I always correct all the mistakes, even if I don’t deduct anything. I try to motivate students to learn and correct their own mistakes, I want them to have a chance to learn.”
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