Friday, March 12, 2010

A Report From the Front Lines

I’ve just returned from the front lines and have this report. Once a year I go back to the classroom to stay in touch with what’s going on in high school English classes. The large high school in West Texas where I used to teach brings me in to coach students who have never passed the state essay. If they don’t pass, they won’t graduate. Here are some of my observations:

Texting Lingo. I noticed a decrease in abbreviations and shortened words in students’ writing. Teachers have been vigilant in trying to stamp out the use of b/c for because and 2 instead of two, to, and too. Whatever teachers are doing to emphasize the use of whole words and phrases in formal writing is working.

Slang. Trying to ban the use of everyday language in formal writing is a constant struggle for English teachers. Many students simply don’t know what the formal word is. If white middle class teenagers in West Texas are discarding the word friend in favor of homey or home boyz, I can only imagine what other slang has driven out formal language in the rest of the country.

Punctuation. Here’s where the influence of texting and tweeting is the most powerful. Students have lost the habit of using periods, question marks, and quotation marks. The comma, semicolon, and colon have been disappearing for years in student writing. I’m afraid it’s the last stand for end marks and the English teachers must win the war.

Capitalization. The good news is that students capitalized “I.” That is progress over past years. Texting and tweeting are the enemies, but I can see that English teachers are countering the attack and gaining ground. The next battle strategy is to add proper names and foreign languages to the list of capitalized words. Most of the students did not capitalize the names of their friends, but they did use upper case letters on the names of retailers like Old Navy and Burger King. Advertising pays off – they all nailed the tricky capitalization in Wal-Mart.

Spelling. I was shocked at how well the students spelled. Some shift in emphasis must have occurred in elementary schools. Several of the students were mediocre writers but excellent spellers. Two students told me that they learned to spell in Mexico in their English class. Come to think of it I am a pretty good speller in Spanish.

Handwriting. Again, texting, tweeting, and computers have a huge influence here. The good news is that most students print which makes their writing more legible. The few who write in cursive may as well be writing in a foreign language. Their scrawling defies deciphering. This is especially disturbing if the student writes well, but has illegible handwriting.

Grammar. Correct use of pronouns and irregular verb tenses really took a hit on the essays I read. Examples of incorrect usage included: “me and my cousin went to the mall,” “he gave presents to my sister and I,” “the bell had rang,” “I had ran all over town,” and “we drinked our Cokes.” The good news is that teachers seemed to have annihilated the use of “he don’t,” a phenomenal accomplishment. If "he don’t" can be corrected, anything is possible. I often think that English teachers can learn from the programs that teach foreign language. Conjugation drills may be philosophically incorrect in today’s classroom, but drills via computer programs might be successful. Anybody out there interested in applying for a grant to experiment with the English version of Rosetta Stone?

I return to the front lines tomorrow for another three-day stint. As usual, the teacher learns as much from the students as they learn from her.


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature.

She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479.

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