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It’s all on paper

English. It’s the mother tongue for many of us, yet we suck at using it. Especially when it comes to writing it down. Essays, emails, exams, cover letters — we’re great at communicating, but awful at putting words to paper.

The University of Waterloo co-ordinates an entry-level English language test for all of its first-year students. In the past few years the number of students who do not pass the minimum level has risen from 25 to 30 per cent. Our generation might be doomed when it comes to grammar.

Grammar is the rules or guidelines that bind a language together. It’s serious business. Without grammar, we’d have a jungle of words and no way of using them. When we abuse these rules, the ideas we try to communicate become scrambled — which is a problem when trying to argue a thesis in an essay. Professors reward clarity and precision. Become lazy with grammar, and you can expect your grades to suffer.

“If the grammar in the essay is so bad that you can no longer understand the meaning, it’s a problem,” says Stuart Murry, an English professor.

Anver Saloojee, a politics professor, deducts marks for poor grammar and has had many students rewrite essays to fix errors and mistakes. Though he’s never failed a student simply for bad grammar.

English professor Monique Tschofen has taught at Ryerson for 10 years. She says students tend to have difficulty with sentence sequencing, pronoun abuse, transitional paragraphs and basic construction of essays, among other things.

Having a solid grasp on grammar is especially important for journalism students. “For a career as a writer, you need the tools in order to write anything clearly and correctly,” says Anne McNeilly, a journalism professor. “It’s like a carpenter. If he doesn’t know what tools to use how can he build a good house?”

When we were young

The journalism school’s grammar test is the only one of its kind at Ryerson. First- year journalism students have three attempts to get a passing grade of 75 per cent before they can continue with second-year journalism courses. Though the grammar test is designed to be basic, says McNeilly, “lots and lots of students are completely floored by some of the questions.”

McNeilly says the problem is students are no longer being taught grammar in elementary and high school, but are expected to know it by the time they get to university. Saloojee also blames high schools and elementary schools for university students’ poor grammar. “I think the problem lies at a level outside the university,” he says. “It’s really the primary school and the secondary school system where a lot of the foundation work has to happen.”

Murray suggests secondary schools can be more firm when it comes to teaching grammar. “I think high schools often treat their students as clients and want happy customers rather than good writers, and so they don’t force them to learn grammar because they don’t like to learn grammar,” he says. “But then they get to university and they wonder why they are failing their essays.”

It doesn’t help that the removal of Grade 13 from the high school curriculum compressed five year’s worth of work into four, leading to students arriving at university with less knowledge than before. But with text messaging, tweeting and blogging creating a habit of abbreviating sentences and avoiding apostrophes and other punctuation, it’s no wonder we struggle with proper grammar.

“The culture of writing is not quite as sophisticated or ingrained as it used to be a century ago,” says Irene Gammel, an English professor. “Good writing is really the result of working on it, the result of practicing it constantly. There needs to be an ingrained culture of writing through which we practice the craft on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis and that does not happen anymore.”

Well, not ALL of us suck

That culture does exist at Ryerson, but in an unlikely place. Anglophones tend to take their knowledge of English for granted, as they don’t need to analyze the mechanics of their native tongue. But many students with English as an additional language (EAL) undergo formal training from an early age, which gives them a more conscious understanding of grammar and its rules.

“In my experience grammar problems are not so much an issue for EAL students, because they already have another language,” says Murray.

EAL students might not speak English as well as native speakers, but grammatically do much better than those who learn English from oral communication alone. They might know how to identify the passive voice, for instance, or a dangling modifier.

Their secret? Lots of support. English is a difficult language to take up, but EAL students learn quickly, says Murray. Iram Khan, who works at the English Language Support (ELS) centre, says those coming from abroad are motivated to fit in, and language is a primary barrier. It helps to have friends to correct all the little mistakes, but for the bigger ones Khan suggests seeking learning support services.

The ELS centre helps multilingual students improve their language. The Learning Success Centre (LSC) provides workshops in critical reading, editing and essay writing. The Writing Centre helps students with problems related to grammar, referencing, and sentence and essay structure.

With these programs finding a new home in the Student Learning Centre, EAL students will have easier access to the support they need. “The hope is that there will be improvements,” says Christina Halliday, director of Student Learning Support. “What the Student Learning Centre will mean is that [these programs] will come together in one space. They won’t be located all over the campus in hard-to-find places.”

Yes we can!

What works for EAL students can also work for native speakers of English. “What we try to do in our program is to get students to be aware of their common errors, start to self-identify and then start to correct,” says Chris Brierley of the English Language Support program.

Getting a good grasp on the mechanics of the English language takes time and practise. While Ryerson students are better than their Waterloo counterparts, the odds are against them. Gammel recommends taking liberal studies courses with writing components. “If there was a quick fix it would be nice, but there isn’t.”

And proper grammar can help earn more than higher grades. “I think it’s really useful for every student to have, no matter what their profession,” says McNeilly. “It’s always going to be win, win, win. So if you don’t have it you should. It’s our language and how we communicate and express our ideas.”

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