An Old Lesson Not Yet Grasped

WordleIf you think American students’ language deficiency is a new problem, think again. It was first identified before World War I when Americans who traveled in Europe noticed how well Europeans, particularly the French, spoke and wrote their native languages. At that time even uneducated pushcart peddlers displayed a linguistic facility surpassing that of the average American college graduate. On hearing such reports from travelers, one inquisitive educator, Rollo Walter Brown, wondered what caused this shortcoming in American youth and decided to investigate. Taking a sabbatical from Wabash College in 1912, he traveled to France, and spent a year visiting French schools and observing everyday life in French cities and villages.

Brown began by examining the structure and curriculum of the French schools. The country had a total of sixteen education districts. The head of each district was also the president of a university and employed numerous inspectors who studied the lower schools and recommended which teachers would advance in their profession. Literature, grammar, and composition were considered as a single subject—the French language—and were treated as such in classroom lessons.

The central focus of instruction, Brown found, was composition and its purpose was not only to develop language skill but also to “cultivate observation, imagination, and reflection or judgment.” Reading was intended to open students’ minds to ideas. Composition provided exercise in choosing, grouping, and expressing those ideas and also gave teachers a means of understanding and meeting students’ individual needs with regard to thought and expression. As soon as students were able to “think consecutively,” they wrote virtually all the time. They kept a general notebook for all their classes and were graded on their entries. They also were required to write two brief compositions or one longer one each week, as well as occasional 600- to 1500-word essays. Teachers would discuss the subject of the theme in detail beforehand, thereby providing students with helpful reference points and stimulating students’ thinking.

The writing requirement applied not just to the language course but to every course, and the emphasis was not so much on the amount of writing as on its quality. Teachers offered critiques on the papers, both in writing and in class discussion, but they did not simply point out errors—they also showed how the composition could be made better. At the end of the discussion, they demonstrated how the good qualities of all the themes might be combined into one “ideal theme.”

Grammar and vocabulary lessons were part of the instruction, but without the artificiality common to American education. Grammar lessons were taken from the literature students were reading rather than from a grammar book, so students came to see grammatical correctness as an integral part of written (and spoken) expression rather than as an odious and irrelevant add-on. Similarly, vocabulary was not taught by offering lists of words to be memorized. Instead, individual words were explored and linked with synonyms with antonyms. Concrete words came first (sincere before sincerity, noble before nobility). A few carefully chosen words were presented each day and linked to life in France at the time—to various occupations, foods, plant life, and so on.

Teachers employed two additional approaches—reading aloud and taking dictation—to help students develop greater appreciation of and facility with their native language. The reading material was quality literature (not “children’s literature”) because French educators of the time believed that “the simplicity of structure and the artistic perfection that characterizes the best writing” aids comprehension and is pleasurable. Before each reading exercise, the teacher discussed the passage, clarified troublesome phrases, defined difficult words, and explained the grammatical structure. Students then took turns reading aloud.  Brown observed that they seemed to enjoy these exercises and to take pride in performing well.

The dictation exercises began early and were intended to develop skill with words even before students were capable of “profound or sustained thought.” Specific goals included affording practice in handling sentences and in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization; building vocabulary; providing worthy models for the use of language; linking spoken and written language; and helping students become familiar and comfortable with the process of writing so that they could approach their own composition exercises with eagerness and confidence.

Brown tested the dictation approach in English classes both while he was in France and when he returned to the United States. In France, the students were 11- and 12 year-olds and had studied English for only 2 years. Out of twenty-eight students, eleven wrote the dictated passage without error, five made one error each, and no one made more than ten errors. Later, in the United States, he used the same exercise first with students the same age as the students in France and then with older students—500 students in all in eighteen different schools.  Relatively few wrote the passage without error, many had twenty errors, and some had forty.

Among the most significant of Brown’s findings was that students who achieved excellence in language were “held in great honor” by the entire community, much as athletes are in modern America. As a result of the combined efforts by teachers, parents, and communities, French students wrote “with greater grammatical correctness, sharper accuracy of thought, surer and more intelligent freedom and greater regard for good form and finish” than their American counterparts.

Brown’s year-long study of French education persuaded him that American students’ lack of proficiency was due not to lack of talent on their part but to an inferior education system. He ended his book with an admonition and a plea: “We have a national habit of taking up a subject or idea, proving its absolute importance, and then immediately forgetting all about it . . . Truly, our task is not to discover the wholly new and untried, but to be patient in carrying reasonable and accepted methods into practice.”

When Brown published his findings in 1915, the education establishment responded by praising him, lauding his book for its insights, and then returning to business as usual. Fifty years later, the writing crisis was rediscovered, Brown’s valuable book was republished, praised, and once again ignored. Today, as the hundredth anniversary of Brown’s work approaches, both book and author are all but forgotten and the stage is being set for, in the words of the popular redundancy, “déjà vu all over again.”

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved