Their complaints are undeniably true. But this isn’t just a modern problem. The truth is that most people struggle with grammar and punctuation and always have.
Take this exchange with Anna Akhmatova, one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century, recorded by Lydia Chukovskaya, her friend and amanuensis:
“She handed me the proofs from Leningrad. I read them and suggested some changes in the punctuation which would emphasise the rhythmic structure. She accepted them all. ‘What talent God bestows!’ said Anna, looking over my shoulder as I was making the corrections. ‘I would never be able to learn that.’ It was very amusing.”
So punctuation and grammar are a challenge for most. When I was at the University of Edinburgh in the early 80s my friends used to come to me to improve their essays before submission. I was appalled at what I found – that they were very poorly written. I hasten to add that my ability with prose did not spring from any virtue peculiar only to me. Rather, it had developed because of two things.
The first and most obvious was that, unlike the majority of my friends, I was a reader. There’s no escape here: if you want to write well, you have to read well. Both my parents were (are) avid, not to say obsessional, readers, and I duly rampaged my way through their enormous library.
Second, I grew up in house where debate was encouraged. My parents were always discussing events and ideas, and always dragging me into their discussions. No quarter was given – either I kept up and held my own with intelligence and eloquence, or I was put to the intellectual sword. In such an environment, it’s sink or swim - a great education.
At one level, one might argue that schools are responsible for poor writing skills. But as a true analysis of the problem this doesn’t go deep or wide enough. The problem begins in households where books are not prized, and where discussion does not take place as a matter of course. It is then compounded by an educational system that inflicts the tasks of learning to read and write upon children as young as 4.
I have written at length elsewhere in The Herald about the folly of this. It’s enough to say here that as a method of putting children off reading and writing, this could not be bettered, as Scotland’s 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results demonstrate.
In Finland’s educational system, universally acknowledged as the most successful in the world, pupils do not begin to learn to read and write in a formal sense until the age of seven.
If we want to nurture children and students who write compellingly, we must first teach them how to reason and express themselves verbally. Between the ages of 4 and 7 they should be exploring their developing thoughts about the world through language, storytelling and discussion so that they themselves become confident and eloquent in what they have to say, while knowing how to tell it to the greatest effect.
When they do finally come to the written word, they will see it as a servant and not a master, and be able to apply a level of sophistication in thought and expression which is the beginning of all good writing.
Marc Lambert is CEO of Scottish Book Trust, Scotland’s leading agency for the promotion of literature, reading and writing. If you would like more information about the benefits of sharing books with young children, visit www.scottishbooktrust.com/bookbug.