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Reading, Writing Still Key to Strong Education

October 10, 2011

June 3rd, 2011

By Cindy Fairfield | Muskegon Chronicle 

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Technology is great. Much of the time. It allows us to do many things at a much quicker pace. Mainly because we have apparatuses that do the work for us.

Smartphones allow us to type in a couple characters and choose from a variety of words that come up on the screen. Don’t know how to spell “beautiful?” No problem. Type in a few characters, even if they’re not in the right order, and the phone can figure it out for you.

This, of course, increases the speed of conveying our message, which makes us all more efficient, saving both in time and money — a key consideration in today’s sluggish economy.

Computers are so sophisticated these days that they tell us when a sentence is not grammatical. In fact, Microsoft Word “flagged” a few sentences of this column because they are clauses and not full sentences, framed separately on purpose for emphasis only.

Calculators are even more efficient, adding up scores of numbers in a matter of seconds.

But stray away from these computers, even if only for a short time, and we learn quickly how paralyzed many of us are.

A friend of mine who is taking a college course was practicing her speech the other day. Part of the exercise required her classmates to write a few sentences on a small piece of paper on whether they agreed or disagreed with her premise.

That’s where it got scary. As I sat at the table listening to her speech, I started sorting through the handwritten notes. Each of the 12 I read had a blatant misspelling. Not of difficult words, mind you. But of simple words most of us learned to spell by the seventh grade.

Which brings us to the topic of our Sunday story. It focuses on the 12th-graders of Michigan who are the first class graduating under the revamped state requirements. The requirements increase credit requirements in math, science and foreign language in an effort to prepare our students for the “new” economy — the one which experts tell us will require educated labor to fill the challenging fields in healthcare, advanced manufacturing and the like.

Graduating seniors will now need four credits of math and English; three of science and social studies; two of a foreign language and one each of physical education and visual or performing arts.

I have no problem with increasing the “technical” knowledge of our masses. What I do think is a major oversight is that language skills aren’t emphasized more.

The illiteracy rate in this state and our county is alarming. In Muskegon County alone, studies show that more than 20 percent of adults or between 22,000 and 36,000 are functionally illiterate — meaning they can’t read well enough to follow the directions on a prescription bottle or a box of pasta.

In the city of Muskegon and Muskegon Heights, those numbers rise to around 27 and 40 percent, respectively.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we can’t advance the learning processes in the other disciplines if our general population can’t read.

While many of our schools focus on reading in junior high, those courses too often fall by the wayside in high school. And we know that many students get “passed along” — hence the troubling numbers locally for adult illiteracy.

Technology can do a lot of things for us. But in the end, it’s our personal communication skills — our ability to speak and write clearly — that will determine our future.

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