Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?

Is Germany Raising a Generation of Illiterates? 431

StartsWithABang (3485481) writes "Over at Starts With A Bang, the weekly question comes in from Germany, where we're informed: 'In Germany, many teachers have adopted a new way of teaching children to write properly. The way is called "Writing by Reading" and essentially says: Write as you wish, you're not bound by any rules. Recently, this way of teaching has been heavily criticized [link in German], but not before it has been "tested" on several years of school children.' The reading wars have been going on in the US, too, but will this wind up having a negative outcome? Or, as this piece argues, is it likely to be a wash?"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Is Germany Raising a Generation of Illiterates?

Comments Filter:
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:21PM (#46741613) Journal
    I realize that Slashdot Summaries are one of the important, protected, habitats of a mixture of questionable proofreading and overt editorializing; but isn't something important being left out here?

    The scheme in question is known as 'write by reading'. This apparently boils down to 'write however you want', according to a blog post that barely touches on the matter aside from a link to a German newspaper. Is it possible that this 'write by reading' theory involves some 'reading' somewhere? Maybe the notion that children will pick up grammar by exposure to it, which would make spending the time previously allocated to Learning Your Grammar Rules Children on reading things that are both examples of good writing and also useful, interesting, or otherwise better than distilled essence of grammar a plausible alternative?

    Now, I'd be the first to agree that the standards of pedagogical research are... notably tepid... and education is much ruled by fads, many with little or no basis in evidence beyond anecdotes; but can we really have a useful discussion if we are going to start from a position of such inspiring intellectual honesty?

    The question: "Do children pick up grammar from exposure to well written, but not otherwise grammar focused, texts sufficiently efficiently that we are better off skipping the lessons in pure grammar in favor of receiving the grammar as a side effect of reading that will also have other uses?" is a perfectly reasonable one, and it isn't immediately obvious which side the facts would come down on, so some research would be nice; but I'm pretty sure that 'Writing by Reading' is not actually a polite expression for 'Thare iz no ruls in Sckool.'
  • by GenieGenieGenie ( 942725 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:22PM (#46741619)
    People who are encouraged as kids to be sloppy about their writing tend to emerge from adolescence sloppy about their thinking too. This is a cliche but it is, unfortunately, quite an accurate one. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but where I live there is a generation of people who can't spell or read efficiently and this is reflected in how shallow their thoughts are.
  • Language rules are critical to communication. Eventually if too many linguistic rules and word meanings are discarded, communication becomes essentially impossible as statements don't have the same meaning to both parties in the discussion. There are some rules that don't make a lot of sense, but they are what they are and mostly need to be adhered to in order to ensure that communication can happen.
  • Re:PISA Results (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:29PM (#46741687)

    I want to know how this article summary made it on Slashdot at all? I thought only U.S. bashing was allowed around here. Europe is generally regarded as some sort of Utopian society by both editors and commentors here.

  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:30PM (#46741695)

    That statistical argument ignores the details in those statistics.

    If you ignore all the demographic information that actually tells you what is going on in the population and only focus on ONE variable then you find a high level of illiteracy.

    However, if you filter the list you'll find that much of the illiteracy is in communities that have been historically prone to that status for... literally... ever. Nearly all of it is in America's urban squalor. And even then you don't find Asian Americans with high levels of illiteracy despite the fact that many of them either still live or recently came from those urban blight zones.

    We have certain demographic groups in the US that are having a very hard time. The reasons for this are debatable but to pretend that our problem is universal and broadly distributed throughout our society is merely to admit ignorance of the facts.

    Certain groups are having a problem and they need help. Their failures however do not speak to the general ignorance of our population as a whole.

    The US remains one of the better educated populations on the planet. What drags us down is that we have a diverse population where as Japan for example has a very homogenous population. There isn't much immigration from mexico for example or a large discontented african american population that has sadly enshrined ignorance as a badge of honor. Those are facts of the American population at this point. And it isn't reasonable to expect any society to be able to raise everyone up to the same level especially when factions are currently being encouraged to resist integration.

    The mantra of the day is "be different, honor your distinctions, etc" and that's fine if your differences are either neutral or admirable. However, if they're a general detriment to yourself and society maybe adopting a more successful attitude might be in everyone's interest.

    Here is where someone calls me a racist or a bigot. I am neither. My comments were not anti race but anti subculture. And only against subcultures that have failed. The US is full of subcultures and most of them are successful. If it works, then keep doing it. You'll hear no complaint from me. But if what you're doing isn't working and you're draining national resources to keep your subculture on life support... maybe that should stop.

    These communities get enourmous amounts of money from the federal, state, and city governments. Society at large wants to help. We want them to be successful. But it will NEVER happen until these subcultures either adapt to be independent or are supplanted with a more rational framework.

    And that is the problem with education, crime, etc in the US almost entirely.

    I'm sorry if that sounds politically incorrect but there is reality and there is delusion. Pick one.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:43PM (#46741791)

    Using the internet for a judgement on grammar is like using the paralympics for a judgement on top performance.

  • by InsultsByThePound ( 3603437 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:48PM (#46741833)

    I may enjoy writing following proper grammar rules, but that's just my personal preference and just because I like it, doesn't mean everybody should do so.

    If we're going to be limp-wristed faggots about this, why not be a limp-wristed faggot on all subjects?

    Oh, I may enjoy math following proper math rules, but that's just my personal preference and just because I like it, doesn't mean everybody should do so. No, I don't mind being shortchanged by a cashier, she probably wasn't being greedy, she was just following her own wonderfully unique set of math rules.

    Why even bother sending the kids to school? They can learn their own unique way at home.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:04PM (#46741939)

    Language, no matter whether spoken or written, is a means of preserving and transporting information. That's its primary function. Of course, a calligraphy enthusiast might disagree, but form is of secondary importance. But only to the point where form influences its primary function.

    In my experience, grammar rules exist for a very simple reason: Error correction. You can actually observe changes in language towards simpler grammar and fewer rules. Personally, I think this is mostly due to more standardization in other areas and hence less need for error correction. When everyone is writing in the same font, if everyone is following the same rules for writing letters and words, moreover if everyone has the same understanding of the words used, you need fewer features that ensure that these letters and words are used properly.

    You notice this mostly in some jokes in those languages, jokes that rely on the simplicity of grammar that cannot work for that very reason in other languages. Classic: "My dog has no nose. How does he smell? Aweful." That joke relies on "smell" working as a verb and a adjective, something that does work in English and a few other languages with simple grammar, but not in many others because of how verbs are being conjugated in many languages. It also becomes obvious that due to the simplicity of the language structure, word order and context become very important. English has a rigid word order exactly because words are not flexed to mark them as subject and object, something that is done in more complex grammar structures, and you will notice that word order is not such a premium in such languages (like German and Russian, for example).

    We're pretty much at the point where languages are as simple as they get. The big push for "more beautiful" writing is over. Overblown word processions that should show off just how eloquent someone can write and just how big his word stock is are a thing of the past. Actually, using such language is seen as a mark of someone taking himself as too important and generally being an elitist prick. Simple is the new sexy. But I don't think we can simplify our languages any more without actually losing our ability to express clearly what we want to convey. And that can be quite dangerous. Contracts today are already way more wordy than they should need to be, simply because our language IS already at the point where it is no longer absolutely unambiguous.

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:09PM (#46741977)

    Can you name some of these subcultures?

    To be blunt: black people, and to a lesser extent, first generation Hispanics. The difference is that Hispanics tend to approach the mean for their socioeconomic status by the second generation. Blacks have made progress, but just enough to keep the gap from widening even more.

    you seem to be implying that there is nothing wrong with the education system in the US.

    There is nothing specifically wrong with America's education system. When you correct for demography, America does about as well as anywhere else. Norwegian kids in Norway do great. Americans of Norwegian descent do just as well. Blacks do poorly in America. They also do poorly everywhere else. There is no obvious "quick fix" that is supported by actual evidence, and pointing to something that works well in Singapore or Stockholm, and saying it is the solution to the problems in Detroit is just stupid.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:17PM (#46742021) Journal
    There are some ongoing differences, aside from cost: With written material, you don't get the use of tone, gesture, expression, and the various other spoken-language tricks of expression that don't directly make it to paper. It is hardly impossible to write such that the reader will (mostly) correctly infer some of them; but that's exactly the sort of thing that you have to work at, or have sufficient practice to do nearly effortlessly, that you'd get for free when speaking.

    There's also the difference that most spoken communication takes place in more or less real time, which allows the other person to interject, or you to elaborate on a point if the audience appears baffled, speed through a point if they appear bored, and otherwise tailor your speech to the demands of the occasion. It will lack formality; but customization counts for a lot.

    Some text communication, IM and the like, is largely the same and admits of the same sort of near-real-time course corrections; but even at the level of message board posts you really start to see the effects of delay. If I fuck this up, I can post a (hopefully) clarifying reply; but I could easily end up being misunderstood by numerous people before one of them posts something that informs me and I refresh the page and see that, and get my correction in.

    The 'purists' who spend their time harping on The True Rules, or replying purely to note that somebody has used 'there' instead of 'their' or the reverse, are an utter waste of time. Spending more time thinking about communication that will be stripped of spoken and nonverbal cues and sent out into the world with a nontrivial turnaround time, though, is something that I suspect we won't escape.

    I agree that logistical issues for most text have declined over time (and some things that used to be text, like 'letter writing' as an actual social institution are now largely dominated by spoken word replacements); but I would argue that they aren't gone, and that additional issues that the writer needs to consider start to crop up with surprisingly small delays.
  • by BoRegardless ( 721219 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:25PM (#46742083)

    Observation from Orange County, California: Kids who do well have parents who literally taught their kids to read and write BEFORE they entered a classroom.

    I have seen all races in this group, though some more than others.

    It is strictly a parental issue in believing in education and starting it at home, where it must start by example.

  • by stenvar ( 2789879 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:31PM (#46742107)

    According to the Human Development Report, Germany's functional illiteracy is 14.4%, the UK's 21.8%, and the US's 20%. Given the large number of immigrants we have, I'd say we're doing pretty well. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F... [wikipedia.org] And if you look at scientific literacy, university graduation rates, etc. the US beats most of Europe hands down.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:38PM (#46742135)

    You've never tried talking to a person under 20, have you?

    Germany used to have a pretty good education system. But like the rest of Europe it's on the sharp decline. The goal is now instead of a well rounded education to give you the bare minimum of what's necessary so you can do your job. Schools have been turned from a place of education to something where you can lock up kids at least part of the day so they don't cause too much trouble, because a sensible education simply is not possible if you have 40+ kids in a class and 3/4th of them doesn't speak the language.

    But rest assured, it ain't just Germany that's suffering from this.

  • by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:41PM (#46742159)
    Well, of COURSE! In any report about any country having a problem, a comment about the USA being worse will pop up within the first 20 comments.
  • by MakubeX ( 1708572 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:42PM (#46742161) Homepage
    I'm torn between the issue. I discovered old letters in my house from the 1800's and was able to glimpse in the past of how life was like back then. The letters had their words written phonetically, and while I did "notice" what I perceived to be errors at the time, I did understand the letter and remembered that eduction wasn't necessarily standardized back then and not everyone had access or could afford to attend school.

    Fast forward to today and a part of me believes that if an educator is actually teaching words and meanings to students that their should be actually definitive meanings for terms when given the chance. We know that written language is derived from verbal communication which is why we used phonetics in the first place. So, for example, if a teacher was teaching the world "there" without a definitive meaning, then students would always have to rely on context clues to figure out if the communicator is saying the equivalent to "there, their, or they're". Which can become even more confusing if there are other words that are also homophones in the same sentence.

    Granted we already did with this when we speak, but if you are reading words, then there is the chance to be explicit and avoid the confusion from the beginning as you can specify intent with words.

    Again, I'm not the grammar police (English was always my worst subject), but I'm torn between if grammar is overbearing or necessary. Instructions are clearer when a standard exists, but then again someone being pedantic about bad grammar (commas) when the meaning clearly gets across merely seems to belittle someone to feel superior about something irrelevant to the topic. Case and point, when I write a paragraph to defeat someone's argument and they point out that I didn't capitalize a nationality, inferring my argument is thus invalid.

    -my 2 cents
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:52PM (#46742211)

    There's a common cause that you're ignoring. Environments where "proper" spelling and grammar aren't encourage tend to be environments where other intellectual exercise is discouraged as well. Grammar and spelling are about efficiency, if you don't have to decode the word phonetically to know what it means, you'll read much more efficiently and thoroughly.

    Chinese is a completely unphonetic language to read, but once you know the characters its extremely efficient to read.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:59PM (#46742267)

    If you don't follow the official rules for math, then there's not guarantee that you'll get a result that can be verified. The rules of math are come about via formal logic and study. It's not a matter of communicating something to somebody else, it's about coming about a result that applies across any situation it applies to.

    Language OTOH, is solely for communication and an apple could suddenly become a giraffe if the people involved agree to the change. But, a derivative will never be the inverse function for multiplication, it doesn't matter how much people might want it to be the case.

  • by RabidReindeer ( 2625839 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @05:11PM (#46742331)

    If the text written using this method can be read as easy and fast as text written according to the rules, what really is the problem?

    The problem is that a lot of people with the power to hire and fire may pretend that they cannot read the text "as easy and fast as text written according to the rules". HR may judge a prospective employee as "uneducated" for not following traditional prescriptive rules.

    Not just hiring and firing, but anywhere where you wish to be accepted seriously based on how you write.

    The problem is non-standard writing is that every deviation is "speed bump" to comprehension. Sure, my relatives in Kentucky may own "worshing machines", but it's one thing to hear them say it and another to see it in print. Bad enough dealing with tyres on the quay through the month of February on Wednesdays, but at least we are used to seeing this kind of slop and don't have to stop and double-check while speed-reading.

    Silly rules are silly, but no rules are confusion.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2014 @05:59PM (#46742567)

    I'm hungry. Lets eat grandma!

    I'm hungry. Lets eat, grandma!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2014 @10:38PM (#46743901)

    You troglodyte.

    There should be an apostrophe in there.

  • by tigersha ( 151319 ) on Monday April 14, 2014 @05:09AM (#46745263) Homepage

    Ok, I have to weigh in here. First, I am a white South African. I lived there for 25 years and the last 18 lived in Germany, in a mid-sized university town.

    My mother-in-law here lives in (and the wife grew up in) a small rural little town and I lived there for about 3 years too, because a) I got the house for free and b) I was stupid.

    I can ensure you, the educational level of Germans who grew up in a small agricultural town after WW2 is astoundingly, ridiculously low. It is very frustrating what a total, utter, complete lack of intelligence you get when grandma has her birthday and her old friends (who are now in the 60s) sit around the table and talk. I always tell my wife that dropping a thermonuclear warhead on her hometown would raise Germany's average IQ by 2 points. They are simple not capable of having ANY form of intelligent conversation whatsoever.

    To give an example, Germany has the best passenger train system in the world (with the possible exception of Switzerland). My mother-in-law has a small train line running RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE HOUSE. Until she was 60 years old she was simply not capable of riding the thing because she was too primitive/stupid/illiterate to figure out the time tables (you actually have to change trains once to get into the city, which is a 22 minute trip). This was in the year 2005 AD. The 21st century. And she is by no means an exception, she had some friends with her on her first trip and they could not quite figure out how to get home with the train.

    The problem goes further with her children. She never stimulated them. There were no books in the house, no encyclopedia, no anything. My wife did get out, she has advanced medical degree and but she has little knowledge of the world and not much common sense at times. Got it from mom, who got it from her mom, who got it from hers. SImply no interest in the outside world because it was never an issue at home.

    The comparison to my house (in South Africa) where my father had a degree, owned a business, did a lot of electronics at home (I first played with computers at 8 in 1978) and my mother had a high-school diploma and training as a bookkeeper is like the difference between night and day. I can actually have an intelligent conversation with my parents.

    I know quite a few blacks in SA who can outthink, out-talk and outgun anyone in the rural classes of one of the world's most advanced industrial states.

    The problem is not race. Blacks in SA and peasants in Germany (who live 15 km from a thriving city with an old university!) have the same problem. Complete lack of stimulation during childhood and no interest in education because it simply was not something that came to mind. Remember, in Germany free education to tertiary level was available many years ago, so it was not really for a lack of opportunity. The people simply are not educated enough, and do not get enough stimulation from their parents, to even think about the idea that an education is something worth having. It is like some kind of inter-generational momentum. Children often do what their parents do and what their parents did and a few top-achievers escape the place but living in a rural place, sweet and romantic as it may be, simply dooms you to semi-illiteracy.

    And there lies the rub with Africa. Most of the people have never lived in a modern culture and it will take years and years for this to percolate through the system. Apartheid was a bunch of people who were educated who were transplanted and realized that is will take a long time to spread basic education, and simply did not have the resources to realistically do so.
    I would like to add that the people from the old white industrial class in South Africa were not much better either, high-school or not.

    This has little to do with race, and all to do with culture, which in turns is very much influenced by the environment in which the people of that culture lives.

You're at Witt's End.