Teaching of basic literacy skills is being eroded in our schools

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 11:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 January, 2014, 9:12am

I find the lack of literacy skills among young people today quite disturbing. My son, who is soon going to high school, uses the word "of" in sentences instead of "have" and "they're" instead of "their". He seems to be taught few of the basic language skills at school. Is he expected to pick these up? I do not mean to sound old-fashioned, but I firmly believe that grammar, spelling and punctuation should be taught properly.

The acquisition and application of language skills underpin success in all areas of the curriculum. Educational styles tend to move in cycles: there have been periods when it was fashionable to focus on key language skills, and others when they have diminished in perceived importance. The rigour of teaching these skills also varies from school to school even today, depending on the type of curriculum and the pedagogy that runs alongside. The range of approaches is wide in Hong Kong but whatever the school's strategy, these basic language skills are important - they need to be taught explicitly.

I firmly believe that grammar, spelling and punctuation should be taught properly

This is not to say that the teaching of grammar and punctuation has to be dull. Perhaps this was the case in days gone by of endless drills and boring dictation. Research shows that when these skills are taught in context, making relevant links to the learning in class, they can be more meaningful for children, making it more likely that they retain the key concepts. For example, teaching reading comprehension skills through researching areas of interest or teaching drafting and editing skills through creative writing is already taking place.

This tends to be much more interesting for students than a grammar lesson that is unrelated to anything. Teaching in context takes careful planning by the teacher to make sure that basic language skills are covered in an organised way.

Some research goes as far as to say that pupils transfer very few de-contextualised skills to their other work. A student may get full marks on a spelling test yet spell poorly in free-writing exercises.

In some schools there has been a move away from teaching the basics, or the three Rs. Sometimes, teachers can be constrained by a tight timetable which leaves little time for explicit language teaching.

Recent international tests have shown that standards of literacy are slipping, and as a result there has been a concerted effort to teach grammar, spelling and punctuation. This not only includes writing skills but also reading, speaking and listening

Strong language skills will set a student up for success in most subjects. To write in an effective way, children need to be able to use adjectives and verbs, and communicate with their readers in an intelligible manner.

Conventional spelling and grammar these days is being eroded with shortcuts used in social networking. Although some children know the difference and can easily switch between the two, others can find this confusing and get into bad habits. This does not change the fact that young people should be able to write grammatically correct English. Spelling is becoming a less important skill due to spell-check programs but students still need to understand the conventions of spelling and basic etymology where appropriate.

It may be difficult to define standard English but the ability to articulate ideas clearly and concisely is increasingly important in our information-rich modern societies. Children should be preparing themselves to engage fully in this process.

It is not old fashioned to expect grammar, spelling and punctuation to be taught properly. This is a vital part of primary education, laying the foundation for secondary school and beyond.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school.