Both Grammar & TechSpeak should be taught in our schools

Check out Sarah Boesveld’s article in yesterday’s National Post titled “Grammar 4Eva.” It is very well written and balanced and a great way to get the debate going on TechSpeak versus formal written English.

Should it be either/or?  In my opinion, no.  In fact, as a literacy specialist, I would suggest that TechSpeak is simply a new form of the English language and a very creative one at that. I use it myself when texting my grandchildren.

Yet, the very idea that I would use that form of English to write a formal letter or email to someone I don’t know or even this blog post, is ridiculous. Yet, in Boesveld’s column, a linguistics professor shares how an inquiring student did just that.

So, why are some so quick to suggest we take away aspects of literacy that we need as a society? We frequently hear it said that the train has already left the station. What train? The TechSpeak train may have left the station, but taking that metaphor to its logical conclusion, other trains are still available.

Reality check: Writing formally in any situation requires a working knowledge of English grammar and spelling just as you can’t read for comprehension until you can decode what you are reading.

Now, in terms of the debate about formal grammar versus incidental teaching, I come down with the latter. Former grammar would be useful but at the very least, young people need to know the basic parts of a sentence if they are to know when they have written an incomplete sentence (such as when they have to write something formal for school or work).

The argument that computer software can tell us what to do is similar to the notion that we don’t need to teach our kids how to add, subtract or divide any more because calculators can do it all for us. Well, when I was teaching back in the 1970s and 80s, we taught kids how to calculate before they used the calculator.

Case in point. I was making a purchase the other day and there was a 33% off sale. The cash register was down for a couple of minutes so the sales clerk was going to have to do the calculations herself. She was apologetic, not because she couldn’t do the calculations on the spot, but because she hadn’t brought her calculator. Luckily for her, the power came back on again.

From the late 1980s and into the 90s and 2000s, I operated a private reading clinic for children, youth and adults who had reading and writing problems. So I know of what I speak. Reading, spelling, grammar and written language are in the same learning family. You can’t do one without the other.

You need reading decoding skills to be able to identify and understand words before you can learn to spell the words. You also need reading decoding skills to be able to comprehend sentences and eventually, paragraphs. In fact, for comprehension, the fluency skills must be completely automatic, otherwise, you are spending all your time trying to decode.

It’s why reading fluency skills are referred to as “learning to read” skills while reading comprehension skills are called “reading to learn” skills. And, you need both to be able to write. In fact, I would go so far as to say you can’t successfully deconstruct written language into TechSpeak until you actually know what you are deconstructing. So, if I use “adjctv” in a text message, I obviously have to first know “adjective.”

And, I haven’t even begun to deconstruct how the mind moves from knowing how to decode words into the physical process of writing — what we used to call penmanship. But, that is a column for another day given cursive writing is now up for debate as well. I wrote about that topic here.

What I found in my private practice was that printing slows the writing process down because the mind thinks faster than the hand can function — and why shorthand was invented in the first place.

Then, there is the issue of self-check programs, spell checkers and grammar checks, be they on our cell phones, tablets or computers. Some seem to suggest that’s all anyone needs.

But like the calculator and the sales clerk’s example I give above, children and youth really ought to know how to do something before they rely on a tech invention that may not always be at their fingertips, literally.

In my opinion, then, the crux of the matter is that teachers need to continue to teach students how to write, even if grammar is only taught on an incidental need-to-know basis because it is very hard to deconstruct a language into TechSpeak when you don’t know what the correct grammar or spelling are in the first place.


Endnote: Some technical articles I have written on this or related topics are here, here, here, and here.