Hurray 4 Sugar Meter

I’m often of a single mind with Sugata Mitra, but when he said last week that spelling and grammar should no longer be taught as individual subjects, I had a sinking feeling that I was suddenly parting ways with a pedagogic ally.

Now, Mitra ‘revised and extended his remarks,’ as they say, on Facebook later, noting that he never said that these subjects shouldn’t be learned; only that they shouldn’t be taught. I’d like to think that his argument is that both should be taught in-line with writing, a concept I can’t say I disagree with. I’ve seen plenty of instances in which separating out a subject creates what I call Performing Seal syndrome, in which a kid can spell wonderfully so long as s/he’s only being asked to spell. Put that same kid in the context of writing a paragraph, however, and suddenly a significant percentage of that spelling skill goes out the window. The same thing can be true of grammar, where a kid might have no problems circling predicate nominatives, but can’t use them correctly in his or her own writing. My personal opinion is that we learn something best by doing it in the context of execution, not abstraction.

I do, however, take issue with the idea of not introducing words, in their fullest possible interpretation, to kids, and Mitra still seems guilty of not wanting to teach words at all. Call that didactic function whatever you want – vocabulary, spelling, etymology, et cetera – but Mitra’s contention that ‘my phone will correct my spelling’ is analogous to saying that ‘McDonald’s always has something for me to eat.’ Sure it does, I suppose, but if you never branched out and tried anything else, you’d still be on an all-McNugget diet. Your phone can, indeed, correct your spelling, but I’d call that something of a dubious victory for accurate spelling. If you can’t spell the common words typically used in text conversations, I don’t hold out much hope that you can spell anything richer or more varied. And, toward that end, your phone (and your word processor) will also – as some Mitra critics have pointed out – only correct the spelling of the word you intended to use, not the word that would work better in place of it. I’m still more than a bit disappointed that Word 2013 doesn’t pop a window open and say, ‘somber seems a bit over the top for the lighthearted subject matter you’re discussing. Have you considered maudlin?’

And yes,by way of full disclosure, I’m a word guy. I’m a proud owner of The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate and The Superior Person’s Book of Words and a host of other unbelievable snobby-sounding books, but beyond the ivory-tower titles, the truth is that I just love rich, interesting words. I distinctly remember learning the word gloaming; for a solid week, everything I wrote took place at sunset, just because it was such a fantastic word. Fulminant, effervescent, dalliance, cabotage, jentacular, piquant. Had I never been introduced to them, I’d never know when and how to use them, let alone spell them. Diminishing the function of introducing language to children diminishes their ultimate capacity to write effectively and elegantly.

There’s more than just an evolved lexicon lost in that decision, too; there’s the eventual loss of the fascinating story of how we came to speak this bizarre language. The richness of English is the story of its higgledy-piggledy assemblage, rivers of syntax flowing together into a broad, deep, burbling body of water. We don’t have words for shellfish, for example, without the Second Latinate Borrowing, since early Britons apparently wanted nothing to do with musles, oysters, or lopysters (the names of which all came into English from Continental Europe.) Similarly, our amazing wealth of synonyms was a direct result of the Viking Invasions, which mixed Norse and Anglo-Saxon together and provided us options like rear/raise, carve/cut, craft/skill, and hide/skin. To go the other way, and to crush out that wealth of linguistic history, is an act of destruction.

I’m not saying, to Mitra’s point, that SMS-speak isn’t useful, or that it’s not appropriate to ‘dialectize’ English on a smartphone for the sake of expediency. My SMS grammar is ghastly, all split infinitives and dangling participles, and my Oxford comma gets very lazy when texting. That’s more appropriate than you might think; English began its life as a battle language, after all, and I’m fairly sure that good grammar was not a vital part of battlefield communication. So while yes, I concur that afaik is a great SMS response when I don’t want to type out as far as I know, but I’m not going to say afaik (‘ah-fay-ik’?) in conversation or use it in formal writing. There’s a difference between SMS English, spoken (casual) English, spoken (formal) English, written (casual) English, and written (formal) English, and I put those two ‘dialects’ at opposite ends for a reason. My SMS vocabulary is as abbreviated and terse as anyone else’s, but that’s because the one is a subset of the other. I’d much rather know what I know about formal writing and cut it down for SMS purposes than to try and go the other way, a sorry state of affairs I hope Mitra isn’t espousing.

In the end, I suppose I’m still of a mind with Mitra in suggesting that spelling and grammar be learned rather than taught, although I think his SMS argument is a clumsy way to get there. And maybe, just maybe, he got his just desserts in the form of a Facebook commenter who posted ‘Hurray 4 Sugar Meter‘ in response to Mitra’s comments – perhaps as an honest (and errant) comment, his phone attempting to correct his spelling along the way, or perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek poke at Mitra’s comments. (It’s not clear which was intended). Either way, I found it an ironic – and insightful – closure to the conversation.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Glenn on August 12, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Always great to see someone looking to move the world forward, but lets be honest, the ability of people to write effectively and elegantly is pretty scarce these days. It can’t get much worse. I (35yo) write for a living but struggle to spell a lot of words. My spelling is deteriorating at a decent rate. My father couldn’t spell to save his life but managed to be employed for the usually 40-odd years. The Head of IT in my organisation is a terrible scribe, primarily because she moved from China to Australia in the last 20 years, but nevertheless, she is on a good six figure salary and can’t string a decent sentence together.

    If school was the place to learn how to write effectively and elegantly than it has been an utter failure for decades. We live in a world where people can get by very successfully without knowing what a participle is.

    Despite it being 2013, kids are still asked to write assignments when, instead, they could be creating a website, with hyperlinks, and other such fancy things, to answer the same question (that seems much more relevant in this day and age). Why isn’t a nights homework just sent via SMS to a teacher? Why don’t classes have a Facebook page and all homework responses are uploaded via Facebook? How long can we go on primarily focused on methods of the past when we live in the future? Kids should be leaving primary school being able to fluently use all forms of communication. SMS through to formal English. Reading and writing. Sugar Meter is wrong. It is all equally relevant.

    Reply

    • I think the key factor here is that some people can get by very successfully without knowing what a participle is, but not all people – just like some people can get by without calculus, and some people can get by without knowing how to field-strip an M4, and some people can get by unable to repair commercial HVAC equipment. We all have different jobs and different job requirements (mine happens to extremely writing-heavy). Failing to prepare kids for a job that involves writing subtracts those jobs from their possible career choices – and given that we need to be moving toward becoming a more creative society, as opposed to a labor force undifferentiated in the global economy, I’d argue that writing should be among our top priorities.

      Reply

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