Doper Profs: Has the quality of students’ writing plummeted in the last 15 years?

(My searches didn’t turn up any recent similar threads, but I have to think this has been done before. So, apologies if this a “re-thread.”)

The title says it all. My college-aged students are almost universally lacking in writing skills. With the exception of one student, they do not use punctuation (at all, let alone correctly), they do not capitalize where appropriate, and they have almost no grasp of grammar, style, or spelling. Distinctions between “they’re” and “there,” for instance, might as well not exist. I have trouble with basic comprehension when reading their written work, let alone their emails to me about assignments and schedules.

By contrast, my “adult” students (the 30+ crowd) at the same university, who are subject to the same admissions standards and take the same courses, without exception write in what I consider “standard” English. Their errors tend to be of the usual “gotcha” types, like the misuse of “it’s” vs. “its,” etc.

This leads me to think that there has been a profound shift in the level of writing proficiency students gain in high school in the last 15 years or so.

So…my question is, do you:

  1. think I’m noticing a genuine decline in this regard?

  2. think I’m just getting old, and just now noticing something that has always been true?

  3. think I may be falling prey to the moderate admissions standards of the institution where I teach?

  4. think something else?

Thanks for any input.

For kicks, here is the email that sparked this thread, received just this morning from one of my students. His assignments are written in the same way, so it’s not just an email phenomenon. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.


ETA: p.s. I’m not interested in debate over whether or not students should write in standard English, or whether or not it matters. I’m just looking for perspective, since I’m a relatively young teacher and I lack perspective on this issue.

Yes. On the other hand, when my laptop locks up while I’m projecting PowerPoint, they can find a work-around pretty effortlessly, so there’s a trade-off.

IANADP, but if the e-mails that I receive daily are an indication, we’re in deep doo-doo.

Long, rambling, stream-of-thought babbling, exclusively in lower case letters. No punctuation, sentence structure, or paragraphs.

And usually ends with “i ned help dude”.

They’re lying.

I am Ned Help, dude. My friends call me Ned.

Well, my perspective is that you’re in a position where you could damn well teach them. And don’t say, “But I’m a music professor.” That might fly if you were in P.E., but you’re not. Stop bitching and teach the kids. They’re paying good money for it.

Read enough web bulletin boards and you will see that a lot - an awful lot - of over-30s have an entirely different, and IMO worse, language problem. They abuse punctuation, commit grisly spelling errors, and (especially if they’re tighty-righties) pepper their sentences with Capitalized Nouns.

In case I’m not being whooshed here, by the time people reach college, if they can’t tell their their from their they’re or their there, I think it may be too late to do much about it. I’m not a teacher, but I am a naturally correct writer who did a lot of editing and tutoring in college. IME, those fundamentals (which really shold be learned and taught in elementary school) are extremely hard to learn later on.

Yeah, we’re in trouble if the music teachers start learning 'em grammer. Can you imagine it? No letters except A, B, C, D, E, F, G - and have you seen the penmanship? All musician’s leters look like little circles with a line running off top! And they only get, like 4-5 lines in per page, 'cause their writing just keeps going up and down, up and down.



Is this a joke?

I don’t recall saying that I was unwilling to offer them help, or claiming that being being a music professor somehow had anything to do with my question. For that matter, I don’t recall “bitching,” per se.

But since you mention it, I am an applied music teacher. And adjunct at that (non-salaried, no benefits, etc.). I get compensated to provide one hour-long voice lesson per week to each student. In that hour I am already, because of the limited resources of the department I work in, called on to be all-around music teacher, voice teacher, musical coach & accompanist (in pathetic fashion, I might add :eek: ), foreign language and diction coach, advisor, and mentor. My more advanced students already get a fair amount of pro bono time from me.

The fact that I give written assignments at all is an expression of my feeling that music students need more opportunities to learn basic research and writing skills. The fact that I am not able to use those assignments as a platform to teach remedial composition is just reality.

YES, and I’m not a Prof. or in any way considered a member of the teaching profession, however, I do work in a corporate environment and am surprised at the lack of English and grammar skills my coworkers display.

I also am disappointed with the pushback from those who choose to correspond like this, and am tired of the ‘it doesn’t matter, it’s the point of it’. No, it’s not. You appear uneducated and illiterate and I won’t bother to read what you have to say if you can’t present it properly.

I’m the grammar and English nazi and I’m proud of it. I often send out office-wide emails on proper use of words and tenses, and correct my friends, families, and SO’s pronunciation and word usage (like the saw/seen thing).

You’re not being whooshed. Am I? If the primary and secondary schools don’t do their job, the colleges give up and say the cause is lost? Is that your position?


That all said, Figaro really isn’t in a position to do much about it, and I apologize for my own bitchiness.

Another problem with students’ writing is the opportunity for plaguerism. I’m back in school, and seems like every class I take, the professor has to give a 15 minute spiel on cheating and what constitutes it. And inevitably, someone still gets busted for cheating before the term is through. I had an english teacher last term who refused any internet sources, and made us bring in any books we used in order to reduce undocumented sites. It was the biggest pain in the butt, but no one got kicked out of class

Also, as an ‘older student’ (I’m 25), I’ve found I always get extremely high grades in all of my english classes…I think it’s because I don’t write like the vast majority of college kids today…

I’m finding the same thing as an older student as well.

I seem to recall, when I was a lad, that teachers grading history papers and whatnot always said, “grammar and spelling counts.”

Somewhere along the way, maybe later in high school, non-English teachers said, “grammar and spelling don’t count, just get your point across.” The students, of course, thought this was fair because “it’s not an English class, it’s a _______ class, and I should only be graded in this class on my knowledge of ______, not English.” etc.

Therefore, I think this whole problem started around 1987. :wink:

To a large extent, yes. To draw an example, I just sent my youngest son to kindergarten this year. Among the things they stipulated during enrollment were:

  • Your child must be fully toilet trained. If he isn’t, we’ll send him home.
  • If your child cannot tie his own shoes, you need to send him to school in velcro or elastic shoes.

That’s because he’s not there to learn to tie his shoes or wipe his ass, nor to have either of those done for him. Those are things that should have been taken care of before he ever got there, and the teacher doesn’t really have the time at this point to take up remedial cases. And that’s as it should be: I want my son learning to read and add.

It isn’t too different in college (or at any educational level in between). I think it should be assumed that you can read and write coherently and correctly if you’re in college. If you can’t, that doesn’t mean you have to go home with your underwear in a plastic baggie, but it does mean you’re remedial and need to be taking steps to fix it on your own - and it certainly isn’t your voice teacher’s obligation to help you.

Apology accepted, kelly.

And though nobody’s asked me, my position is yes, if a college student lacks basic reading and writing skills, someone needs to tell them to go elsewhere and pick them up before enrolling in college. If college teachers are required to teach remedial literacy, then the students who paid their good money to learn college-level topics are being cheated.

To anyone who disagrees with this, I have to ask: do you favor any admissions or grade standards in college?

If students can’t or won’t learn to read or write, can’t we agree that they should do something for a living that doesn’t require college?

I’ve been hearing this since I was in 2nd grade. It was true then, true now, will be true in the future. Those of us who are reasonably good in this department are in the minority.

They do this with math: if your math is too poor for basic freshman algebra, you can take a (paid, but non-credit) remedial math class to get up to speed. At my college it was called Math 098 (as opposed to Math 101 or 110). I wouldn’t be surprised if there were similar remedial writing classes, and I think it would be a great idea.

I don’t think it’s a college instructor’s responsibility to teach basic grammar to students who should already know it, especially an instructor in a field that doesn’t usually emphasize writing. The instructor can penalize them it, but it’s the student’s responsibility to bring their work up to scratch in this respect. There are resources available on most campuses to help them.

Last year, I was the copy editor at my university’s student newspaper. That experience led me to the conclusion that the vast majority of people have absolutely no facility with written language, even those who have taken classes specifically aimed towards developing that ability, i.e. journalism students. The weird crap from self-righteous people writing to the editor was even more bizarre from a grammatical/style standpoint.

I will say, though, that in my experience as an English major and copy editor, I’ve never seen anything as bad as what the OP is describing on a regular basis. The ickiness was generally more style and aesthetics than grammar abuse.

I also think that people who have a natural ability with written language usually take that for granted and have difficulty seeing how other people might find it challenging. I know I do, and sometimes I have to take a step back and realize that not everybody can look at a word once and be able to spell it forever, etc.