The Crisis of Illiteracy

April 11, 2021 Updated: April 11, 2021

Commentary

Bill Bryson, in his iconic travelogue about the United Kingdom, “Notes from a Small Island,” observes that nearly all tourist leaflets are “depressingly illiterate, particularly with regard to punctuation.”

He sarcastically promises that “if I see one more tourist leaflet that says ‘Englands Best’ or ‘Britains Largest’ I will go and torch the place.”

Bryson’s book was published in 1995. Since then, anecdotal evidence as well as statistical surveys reveal that literacy problems have persisted, not just in the United Kingdom but also in Australia.

The existence of these problems may even be gleaned from the email culture that has developed since Bryson wrote his book. Indeed, when reviewing email messages sent by students to their classmates and to their teachers, the extent of the problem would easily be exposed.

Many email messages do not start with a proper salutation anymore—as if this courtesy is a discarded 19th century relic of the past when people were still writing proper letters.

Often, if email messages have a salutation at all, it will probably be “Hi.” They may not have a proper beginning and ending. The construction of sentences is often ungrammatical, and the incorrect use of punctuation, specifically the apostrophe—lamented by Bill Bryson—routinely defiles the English language.

The teaching of language skills, including grammar, punctuation, and spelling have always been a part of the curriculum in primary schools in Australia. But, as recently observed by Dr. Yaegan Doran and Dr. Sally Humphrey, “Once the curriculum moves to high school … much of the connection between language and meaningful writing disappears.”

The sad reality is that many Australians cannot properly spell, write, or read. This malaise is probably a consequence of the remarkably prominent position of Systemic Functional Grammar in the field of English-language education in Australia.

Systemic Functional Grammar, which is based on the work of Professor Michael Halliday of the University of Sydney, does not require mastery of the traditional rules of grammar.

Instead, it is assumed that the study of these rules inhibits students’ spontaneity. Students are encouraged to make linguistic choices from a range of options, which may be used when communicating in writing with other people.

As students fail to study traditional English grammar, they may not be able to distinguish between an adverb and an adjective or the present and the past tenses; they certainly would be challenged by a request to explain the uses of the conditional and the subjunctive moods of a verb.

There is no doubt that many Australian students—and teachers and the general population as well—are struggling with literacy. According to an OECD Survey of Adult Skills (pdf) conducted in Australia in 2012, 12.6 percent of Australian adults only attain Level 1 or below in literacy proficiency.

According to this Survey, at Level 1, a respondent would only be expected to read a short digital or print text to locate a piece of information. In an updated document, Skills Matter (pdf), published in 2016, the OECD found that 48.3 percent of adults operated at Level 1 (14.4 percent) or Level 2, which assumes a limited ability to paraphrase or to make low-level inferences (33.9 percent).

Low levels of literacy also persist in the university sector where very few students are exposed to the great books of Western civilisation but instead are required to read inferior works that meet the expectations of our progressive elites.

When I served as Dean of Law, I used to tell students slightly facetiously during my orientation and welcoming speech that “there is nothing wrong with reading books and that we encourage students to visit the library occasionally” rather than to rely exclusively on digital devices for their information and research work. During my exhortation, students would usually look at me with polite indifference.

Recently, I told a neighbour that I had written and published a novel and I asked whether he would be interested in reading the story. I was unpleasantly surprised when he proudly explained that he had not read novels, or any book for that matter, for more than thirty years. “I now watch television,” he said.

I am confident that my neighbour’s comment is not even an isolated occurrence because the same reply would surely be obtained from many people.

Sadly, reading and writing are, at least in part, the victims of a television and internet culture that has effectively encumbered the minds of people.

This is problematic because, without reading, it becomes difficult to think analytically and imaginatively about the world’s problems and issues, and it hampers the development of appropriate responses and solutions.

Lack of reading also often results in the uncritical acceptance of political slogans which, while they appear plausible, are ultimately devoid of merit.

Why are people even proud to admit or proclaim that they do not read books anymore? Some of the blame should surely be directed at the educational system that fails to inculcate the joy of reading, writing, and learning. In such a system, student disengagement and dissatisfaction with the education system is expected to be at an all-time low level.

It is important to encourage young people, indeed people of all ages, to become avid readers, reading the great classics and the captivating novels of our time.

For a start, the downgrading of the teaching of the rules of grammar, even if it is supported by many education policy makers, including some academics, should be reversed as a matter of priority.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at The University of Queensland. He has written extensively about educational issues in his book “Enduring Ideas: Contributions to Australian Debates.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.