July 21, 2008, 01:54 PM ET
The Lunsfords on Student Writing
The current issue of College Composition and Communication has an article by Andrea and Karen Lunsford entitled “‘Mistakes Are a Fact of Life’: A National Comparative Study.” The article reports the findings of a study of first-year student prose that has a far-reaching aim, namely, to chart the nature and frequency of basic errors of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
One thing that Lunsford and Lunsford conclude is that when student writing from the mid-80s is compared to student writing today, “new error patterns” emerge. Of course, the big change in the composition classroom and in the writing lives of kids since then is the introduction of digital tools, and one might be disposed to attribute the changes to it. Not here, though. L & L mention the “hard-core worriers who see a precipitous decline in student writing ability and who often relate that decline to the creeping of IM and other digital lingo. . . . Our findings do not support such fears.”
We might ask why L & L cast arguments about the disadvantages of technology as “hard-core worries” and “fears.” More so, though, we might take a look at the new errors they come across and ask whether they do, indeed, relate to technology. Consider the following errors that surface, along with L & L’s comments:
• Faulty sentence structures, some of which “seem to arise when students cut and paste passages from one sentence to another” • Faulty capitalizations, some of which “appear to result from Word automatically capitalizing a word that follows a period” • Faulty sources and attributions, which, we may assume (though L & L do not) follow sometimes from the variety and complexity of Web sources • Wrong words, many of which “appear to be the result of spell-checker suggestions”
All of these problems are related to poor proofreading, which raises another question. Have the tools to support writing, such as spellcheck and grammar programs, made students too dependent upon technology? If a student tries to write “frantic” and the computer comes up with “fanatic” and the student accepts it (L & L’s example), doesn’t that suggest something about the potential disadvantages of digital tools? Don’t the problems with citation point to the potential disadvantages of over-fast downloading and cutting and pasting?
These are open questions, but I think we can say that instead of dispelling fears about the impact of technology on student writing, the Lunsford study raises them to a new level.
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