English Instruction: Where? When? Who Says?

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I recently came across some notes that I had taken during English class my senior year at Ypsilanti High School. People often ask how I became so so knowledgeable; so capable; so well-educated…in contrast to so many teachers in today’s schools. Well, long ago, when I was a student in public schools, traditional teachers actually taught traditional subjects, issues, topics, and skills! They also taught almost everyone to read and to turn to books for information and enjoyment. The teachers I had taught lessons like the following:

Miss Wagstaff’s English class, September 13, 1965 — History of English lesson

English — Indo-European Family; single words same in all languages
Second family — Hellenic –> Classical Greek and Italic (Romance Languages)–Latin, Spanish, Portuguese
Third family — Celtic (Welch, Scotch, Irish)
Cattle-raising nomads — reason Indo-European family [of languages] spread; possibly family first lived in Czechoslovakia, but could have been anywhere in the general area

Theories of Origin of language:

"Bow Wow Theory" — imitation of sounds of nature
"Ding Dong Theory" — mystical correlation bet/sound & meaning
"Pooh Pooh Theory" — words came from expressions of emotion, fear, anger, pain, pleasure, surprise, etc.
"Ta-Ta Theory" — idea — words imitation of bodily movement

Formal vs. Informal English

Formal English — complicated sentence structure; extensive vocab, no slang
Informal English — more personal; more acceptable in personal writing; use of contractions; simple vocab
Non-Standard English -

Substandard — "I knowed."
Double negatives — "I don’t want no more."
Pronoun "I" used inappropriately
Adjective "good" used for adverb "well"
Overuse of slang — "lousy, swell" (Now add “Ya know”)
Dese and dem for these and them
"Athletics" mispronounced as "ath-e-le-tics"
"Genuine" mispronounced as "gen-u-ine" (rhyming with wine)
Ex: Formal:- apparel; informal — clothes; substandard — duds

Should readers want to hear additional examples of substandard English, just watch television and listen carefully to the speakers. Viewers’ ears are awash with errors, slang, dialect (“my bad”), even during news programs. News people surely grow frustrated with the emails I sent to them: 1) Subject: "Grammar. Mr. There’s-Several. Subject-verb agreement. “There are several." 2) Subject: "Grammar. Miss I’ve-Got. Never use the word ‘got’ unless you have no other choice. Remember that got = have, and have = have, so when you say, ‘I’ve got news for you,’ you are actually saying, ‘I have have news for you.’"

It is well (yet maybe too bad) that I remember the days when radio and television reporters, MCs, actors and actresses, and more were trained to speak clear, precise, error-free English. Why would America want its children to hear and learn grammatical errors? Actually, parents, teachers, citizens did not want children to hear such inexcusable trashing of the English language — then. Unfortunately, in today’s world, few people even notice, let alone seem bothered by, these errors. Why do parents now tolerate it? They tolerate it because real English instruction went missing-in-action before the parents’ generations were taught to hear the differences. Standard English is being lost while SubStandard English is blending into a messy, unspellable patois.

When I asked one of my university students how he could possibly have earned A’s in high school English — with his stunted vocabulary; his extreme dialect; his appalling sentence structures; his atrocious spelling, and his missing skills, he told me, "Mz. Taylor, so few students ever did their homework that if we turned in anything at all we received an ‘A’. Just for doing it. We had no criteria to meet." That was the same semester that my department head informed me that the university’s policy was to not teach grammar. The students not only miss English lessons in K-12, but they miss them at the university level, too.

When college graduates fail to develop the skills needed for clear and accurate communication, they embarrass themselves. Several years ago, I needed my son’s orthodontist to write a letter for my insurance company. A few days after I made my request, a letter arrived. It was poorly constructed; badly written. I immediately called the office and explained that I needed a letter written by the doctor, not by some clerk. The lady paused then said, "Doctor DID write the letter." His communication skills were weak, to say the least. He had graduated from the University of Michigan. I cringed.

Miss Wagstaff’s English lesson on November 9, 1965 — Communication:

Words with precise or tangible meanings/references are concrete
Words with less precise, and less tangible references are abstract
1) It is your own experience which determines what an abstract word means to you.
2) If you are to clearly communicate, you must make your meaning clear.
3) The wider your experience, the better your ability to understand what others mean when they use abstractions.
4) Men who are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies have naturally an instinct and spur which prompts them into virtuous actions and withdraws them from vice. (quote of forgotten origin)

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Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] is a retired special education teacher; a reading specialist; former homeschooling parent; and outspoken constitutionalist. She is slowly writing her first book on remediating reading skills.

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