JANUARY 10, 1962
NEW YORK—It was interesting to find in Monday morning's newspapers an article stating that the Federal Office of Education had planned and begun to implement a program to improve the teaching of English in our schools.
I have become more and more conscious of the inferiority of English instruction both in public and private schools. I remember, of course, for years past that some youngsters would find learning to read a difficulty and would be slower than others. But my recollection is that any child who lagged behind in this ability was pushed with special teaching until it was felt that child had acquired the ability to read that was commensurate with its age. Nowadays we have special reading clinics, and it is not only the young child but very often children who have progressed through a number of grades who are discovered to be having difficulties because of their inability to read easily and quickly.
There are many other things that add up to poor knowledge of English today. For instance, it is not unusual to get a letter from a college person which has a number of misspelled words and the handwriting will indicate very little care in that direction.
I notice in the article, too, that efforts will be made to improve composition on the high-school level. Quite frequently one will receive from students, also at the college level, letters in which not just the whole composition but the construction of sentences is lacking in meaning and grammatical knowledge.
Since the use and understanding of one's own language is perhaps the best basis for the understanding of all other languages that are later learned, this is a fundamental subject. I am glad that the Department of Education seems to realize that we need to do research in the best methods of teaching—in reading, composition, spelling and handwriting, and that it is evidently emphasizing the need to train better teachers in English.
With the limited amount of research that has been done so far, one report has come from the National Council of Teachers of English that 70 percent of the colleges and universities have had to provide remedial work in English and that 150,000 students failed college entrance tests in English in 1960. It also was found in a study of the elementary schools that nearly 4,000,000 pupils had reading disabilities. Certainly, something must be wrong in our methods of teaching young people how to read.
I have a feeling also that one of the difficulties is that there are so many other things that take up children's time today that they have less practice in reading than the child had 50 years ago. There were fewer books written for children at that time and I remember with what excitement a really beautifully illustrated book was received. Nowadays the numbers of books in series of every kind that are available make it difficult to choose what areas one really wants to open up for a child's imagination. And perhaps it is even more difficult today to find the time when a child should not be studying or is not attracted to the television or radio to really sit down and read as a matter of habit.
I still believe that the incentive to learning how to read quickly lies in the longing of a child to know what happened in that book he had to lay aside in order to perform the necessary chores at home or learn the necessary lessons.
Since there is no rhyme or reason to the way we spell and it just has to become an instinct, I am not at all sure that the old spelling bee was not the best method—when the children stood in line and were moved up and down according to their skill or where they just had columns and columns of words dictated and learned their mistakes by having to write them over and over again until they recognized without question the way a word should be spelled.
Composition is, of course, a more difficult field, but every young person by the time he reaches the end of high school should be able to write with clarity and without making grammatical errors. These are the things that will be required of them most often whether they go to college or not.
I am delighted that we are doing more research into the methods of teaching our own language and that the Federal government is providing assistance to improve the ability of our teachers of English. If, as a finishing touch, we could also develop some uniformity in handwriting it would certainly be a help. But with the constant use of the typewriter today this becomes less and less necessary.