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Shakespeare Didn’t Blog – April 24, 2008
Although my unschooled daughters were never taught to read and write, they both learned those skills and both use them now in their personal and professional lives. I tend to credit their lack of schooling for their talents in those realms, as well as for their love of both reading and writing. However, they grew up in a pre-PC and therefore pre-email and pre-text messaging world. And according to some theories, that is why their communication skills are so strong.

A media release I received the other day is entitled “Shakespeare Didn’t Blog: Author Says Texting and Testing Are Destroying Kids Writing Style.” (The lack of a possessive apostrophe is the PR writer’s, not mine.) The item being promoted is a new book called K.I.S.S. Keep It Short and Simple, written by a former teacher named Jacquie Ream. She contends that text messaging and the Internet are destroying the way our children are reading, thinking and writing. “These kids aren’t learning to spell. They’re learning acronyms and short hand,” says Ream, “Text messaging is destroying the written word.” While she may have identified a problem, I disagree with where the blame should be placed.

In the U.S., a National Center for Education Statistics study reports only one out of four high school seniors is a proficient writer. A College Board survey of the nation’s blue-chip companies found only two thirds of their employees are capable writers. Trouble is, this isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. For at least 25 years, I hired interns who couldn’t put a sentence together, let alone a complete magazine article – and they were usually college students, some in journalism programs! Despite a whole industry dedicated to teaching reading and writing, the levels of functional illiteracy in North America are huge – over 40 percent of adults in Canada can’t read the directions on their medicine bottles or hazardous warning labels on products. Many of them are over 40, speak English as their first language and went to at least elementary school.

So let’s not wring our hands about the loss of the good old days and blame modern technology for the problem. In fact, I dare say kids are more motivated to read and write than they once were, now that they’re text messaging, blogging, facebook/MySpace posting and researching online. (Neilson/NetRatings reports the average 12- to 17-year-old visits more than 1,400 web pages a month.) Sure, language will be changed dramatically by electronic communications, and maybe the jargon will clutter it up and dumb it down a bit…although I wonder if the effect will be much different than the slang we used as teens. But I bet these kids have a good chance of becoming more dedicated readers and writers because they are actually reading and writing about real-life things that are important to them. Ream does note that critical thinking – or perhaps, says I, thinking of any sort – is not a priority when teachers are focused on teaching to standardized tests.

As for good old Will Shakespeare, his beautiful, flowing prose might have been popular once upon a time – and still is to some who have the patience to understand it in context – but in today’s world, it’s an acquired taste. And I can’t imagine that being forced to study it in high school creates a love of reading and writing in large numbers of teens. As someone whose four decade-long writing career has been driven by a quest for succinctness, most days I’d prefer to try and understand a text message than a passage of olde English. (Better still, bring on a William Carlos Williams poem!)
2008/04/24 2:51 PM

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