A California teacher made it onto the woke watch list with this TikTok post. Don’t feel the need to watch it; she identifies as ‘cringey’ and the title of this article sums up the rest. In short she suggests that we should focus on ‘honoring the spoken word’ and get rid of the ‘language of power’, which according to her include thesis statements, citing sources, and using transition words. She does her best to undermine such ‘b.s.’ because writing conventions are ‘made up rules’. Therefore (ouch, she would cringe at this word), rather than teaching writing, she will focus on celebrating the spoken word, which she feels is equally, if not even more important than ‘writing properly’.
In her view, language used to talk with friends takes precedence over learning the ‘language of respectability’ that your boss might expect. This teacher is not a lone wolf. In June 2021, speakers at Towson University’s virtual “Antiracist Pedagogy Symposium” criticized university writing curriculum and programs for being racist and perpetuating Whiteness. University of Washington English professor Cristina Sánchez-Martín stated that her efforts are designed to contribute to “undoing Whiteness” in university students’ writing. She stated: “The repeated references to ‘correct grammar’ and ‘standard language’ reinforce master narratives of English only as White and monolingualism and a deficit view of multilingualism”. Oh yes, and grammar lessons are also white supremacy.
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I would counter that students can celebrate their spoken language at their heart’s content during recess. The purpose of education is not to affirm what you already know, but to expand knowledge, to grow, to communicate in ways that take practice, persistence, and diligence. We don’t celebrate tying shoes, or getting dressed (unless you are in kindergarten), why should we celebrate the act of simply speaking in whichever way we choose?
One of the most obvious oversights in wishing death upon academic language, is that there is a distinction between formal and informal language use in all languages around the world that have a writing system. Most students learn literary, formal French, while French people actually speak using a familiar register and colloquial slang. Indeed, in French the language register you choose affects not only the vocabulary, but also the whole sentence structure as well as the pronunciation. In Italian, there are major differences between formal and informal usage in the tone of voice used and the level of politeness. Japanese builds deference and respect into the language, using a different register with family, friends, and children while showing more respect to elders and those of higher rank.
In our spoken English language we use around 3000-5000 words a day. This may sound like a lot, but a kindergartener is expected to know about 5000 to 10’000 words. A well-educated student should know about 30’000 to 50’000 words by the end of high school. This expanded range of vocabulary is used in reading and writing to help us express nuances and subtleties that are not present in a spoken ‘Hey, what’s up?’ Shakespeare knew well over 60’000 (and the TDSB is voting just now to make him a thing of the past indeed). When getting into academic and scientific language, English reaches up to one million lexemes. Removing writing instruction that includes academic advanced vocabulary and replacing it with the spoken word works to actively emaciate language in the direction of TikTok lingo.
What this teacher is suggesting is retrograding language. With the advent of the printing press, the written language allowed abstract ideas to flourish, it helped us to access higher levels of thinking, careful analysis, and arguably a higher level of consciousness. The ability to write clearly and coherently is invaluable for the development of science, history, philosophy, literature, etc. This cannot be achieved by simply having a chat and celebrating that we can gab to our heart’s content.
My guess is that ‘let’s celebrate the spoken word’ is code for ‘let’s dumb it down because it’s just too darn effortful’.
The lack of focus on academic writing instruction is already causing a ripple effect at institutions of higher learning. Many colleges and universities are lowering their language requirements. For example, at Wilfrid Laurier University students applying for admission to their English B.A. need to meet a mere 60% to squeak in. Because of their lack of readiness for academic writing, many universities require students to take a mandatory English writing course during their first year. Even with this additional support, professors lament their students’ inability to communicate clearly and lower their standards in turn, fearing scathing reviews on ratemyprofessor if they mark to harshly.
Keep in mind that international students are still required to meet academic English standards through a rigorous testing process. I should know; I used to administer and score English proficiency tests for universities. Students practice rigorously for these exams and are well-versed in academic conventions and advanced vocabulary. This very knowledge of our formal written English is disappearing from our public schools. International students will be well-prepared for higher academic learning requirements, while our students are left behind.
What to do if you want to make sure that your kids still learn the necessary academic English skills?
- Resist the retrograding of English academic standards. Make your views respectfully known to your student’s teacher, administrators, and school board trustees.
- There are ways that parents can counter these abysmal English teaching strategies: Teach Latin stems and classical words. The larger students’ vocabulary the greater their capabilities for abstract thinking. Each new word opens up a new pathway and leads to better expression of their own thoughts, as well as understanding others.
- Institute for Excellence in Writing has great video-guided courses for all age levels, or enrol in online English courses offered to homeschool students. These courses are rigorous, teach excellent academic writing skills, and still include Shakespeare, Victorian Literature, modern classics like 1984, or Fahrenheit 451.
My oldest son just finished reading this dystopian tale which takes place in 2052, although he noted that we seem to have arrived early as much of it sounded like reality to him. In the novella’s coda Ray Bradbury warned:
“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
This ‘cringey’ teacher is surely trying to turn the English language into a heap of ashes. It is up to you as a parent, teacher-or anybody who cares- to equip students with richer, academic language, not less, if they are to comprehend, resist, and act as purposeful individuals in a dumbed-down society.
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