A staggering 66.4 percent of Mäori are below the minimum level of “ability to understand and use information from text,” and an equally tragic 41.6 percent of non-Mäori. 40 percent of employed New Zealanders and 75 percent of the unemployed are below the minimum level of literacy competence for everyday life and work. Universities organising remedial reading and writing courses for first-year students report that "University students can't read, write or spell," and that "Students fail basic skills," and the Labour Department estimates up to 530,000 New Zealand adults have inadequate literacy and numeracy skills.
It's not good, but the problem is not confined to New Zealand. Lecturers at some UK universities are calling for "a public debate on standards because they say functionally illiterate students are being passed so they do not drop out of courses." Meanwhile, as Martha Brown points out, the United States, like Haiti, is among the seven out of 39 Western Hemisphere nations that entered the third millennium with a literacy rate below 80 percent.
Things are bad all over.
Literacy figures across the western world have been getting worse and worse for years, and Martha Brown's article suggests some of the reasons. Can you imagine then, in a world of rampant and increasing illiteracy, a school which goes against fashion and where students are actually taught to read, and to write well?
A school whose students are asked to correct their parents' letters? A place where, when a law professor evaluated the school for her children and she saw samples of the junior high students' essays, she asked whether she could photocopy them to show her law students what real writing looked like. A school in which new entrants learn to write complete, articulate, properly punctuated sentences; lower elementary students learn to write coherent, grammatical, well- structured paragraphs; upper elementary students learn to write clear, fluent, logical essays; for junior high students, who have been through this evolution, the writing process is second nature. Says Lisa Van Damme, who runs such a school,
In an age plagued by misguided efforts at preserving students' "self- esteem" (by leaving their mistakes uncorrected), classrooms bursting at the seams, teaching-to- the-standardized-test methods, and a disdain for the traditional, rigorous, academic approach to education, essay writing is simply not taught. It is taught at VanDamme Academy.The method of teaching she outlines is is not rocket science; it's something every school could do if they weren't busy with more fashionable and more politically correct "learnings," and if teaching writing and thinking was a genuine focus.
At her school, says Van Damme, the writing process "is broken down into small, incremental steps learned, practiced, and mastered over the course of their nine years at the school" -- those steps are outlined at Van Damme's article, The Writing Process: One Step at a Time [available here shortly at her Pedagogically Correct blog].
Make no mistake about the importance of good writing. It's full importance is not just that it allows us to communicate with others -- it's real import is as a tool for thinking, for collecting and organising one's thoughts. Says Van Damme:
It is important that a child learn to write not just so that he can draft a compelling essay for his college applications or compose a persuasive cover letter for a resume. The repeated practice of a deliberate, structured, systematic approach to writing is critical for training students in a deliberate, structured, systematic approach to thinking. It is in writing class that they are asked to take the knowledge they have gained in other subject areas, contemplate it, organize their thoughts, and express their understanding with clarity and purposefulness.As I said here the other day, children have an enormous capacity to learn, but most modern educationalists steadfastly refuse to use that capacity; they fail to fill that enormous capacity for knowledge and and for learning, leaving these young students (even as they reach adulthood) adrift in a world they can barely understand and with brains that have never automatised the skill of actually thinking.
If we want students to develop clarity of thought on any issue, if we want them to harness the power of the knowledge they gain over the course of their education, they must learn, practice, and master the skill of writing.
George Reisman berates educationalists for that signal failure in his article A Root Cause of the Failure of Contemporary Education. His criticism of contemporary educationalists and their factory schools -- and the "simple uneducated men and women" produced by those schools who emerge with very little ability to understand the world in which they live -- stands in stark contrast to the teaching championed by educational heroes like Van Damme, and the students produced by her Academy.
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UPDATE: Lisa Van Damme's article The Writing Process, One Step at a Time is now online at the Principles in Practice blog.