Working on the written word
By Zoey Duncan
It’s not unusual for students to enter university with only a cursory knowledge of how to properly craft a sentence. That means when they’re faced with writing a well-researched essay, they’re in trouble before they’ve even typed up a search query.
It’s a problem that some Mount Royal professors are concerned with.
Deb Bridge has been teaching in the English department since 1985 and said she has seen a decline in writing skills that appears to be related to personal computer use.
“Everybody has been swept along in this technology revolution since about ’89 when people began buying computers for use at home,” said Bridge, who has been teaching composition courses for the past 15 years.
Bridge said that email, instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter all affect students’ regard for the written word.
“You don’t have to be able to spell using any of these media….that’s okay, I get that,” she said. “In some ways we really don’t have to think about what we’re writing.”
“My feeling is that students are not taught enough grammar in school [before arriving at Mount Royal],” Bridge said. In her composition classes, she spends hours going over basic grammar and sentence structure when she would rather teach students how to analyze texts and identify effective writing.
“I just wish that people in general would regard writing – clear writing and correct writing – as being more important than they do,” she said.
In an effort to establish standards for students in writing classes, the English department has a Minimum Standard of Correctness policy. The policy states that students cannot receive higher than a D+ on an essay or exam if they have more than one error per 100 words. Those errors include spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure mistakes.
“I don’t know that a minimum standard is the best description of how correctness should be assessed,” Bridge said. “I don’t think the standard that we have in English is perfect, but it’s something.”
The Bissett School of Business has a similar policy, which allows students two errors per page without penalty and then penalizes up to six per cent for any additional errors.
Having writing standards is good for students, according to Brenda Lang, an instructor in the Bissett School of Business.
“It may be the only method of ensuring that students pay attention to their writing and strive to improve it,” Lang said via email. “There is concern among faculty that students do not demonstrate effective writing skills, or that the skill level may be lower than what is acceptable. Having an acceptable level or a standard in place reinforces to students that developing strong writing skills is as important as developing any other competency level in their specific field.”
For students who want to improve their writing skills, the strategists at Writing and Learning Services (WLS) on campus could be a valuable resource.
The centre is due for an expansion, according to one staff member, as it is well-used by students. Writing and learning strategists are often booked over a week in advance for their coveted 30-minute learning sessions.
“We find the one-on-one appointments very important,” said Amy Yoshida, a strategist at WLS.
“We’re not an editing service,” Yoshida emphasized. In the case of essays, the strategists will look for trends in students’ writing— such as sentence fragments — and make sure they understand how to avoid the error in a later draft.
In addition to the personal appointments, WLS provides free workshops on basic grammar, citations, time-management, note-taking and other study skills.