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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?"
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Is Germany Raising a Generation of Illiterates?

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  • by mwvdlee ( 775178 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:05PM (#46741517) Homepage

    I take value in writing correctly (my native tongue is Dutch, not English, in case anybody finds errors).
    But language is not something defined by laws; it is alive, changing and evolving all the time.
    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 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?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:25PM (#46741663)

    Grammar rules, such as the correct choice of tenses for verbs, can help distinguish between close but different meaning.

  • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:37PM (#46741741)
    Communication is the goal. If you write as you speak, it's considered poor, as writings should be "more formal" but that was a declaration from a previous age when whiting cost money. Now, I can write something and be seen by hundreds in a few minutes. Something that would cost $1000 (or so, inflation over 200+ years isn't exact) in revolutionary times. So when you are paying that much to have your words seen, you would consider them more. When I can post about something and have a large audience, and I can edit/delete/repost with ease, why should I think about what I'm saying?

    So the real problem with writing is that it's becoming more like spoken language, when before, they were almost separate dialects. That always annoys the purists.
  • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:43PM (#46741799)
    I tested it on my kids, and didn't even know there was a controversy. I never could sound out words. I was raised under the "sound out only" rules. When I finally, despite all their efforts to the contrary, started reading like an adult, I read faster and with fewer errors than anyone in the class. It just took me 2 years of being functionally illiterate in a room of literates to jump 5 grades in a day.

    Finland (arguably the best education in the world) does just that. Expose them to words and letters, but don't start reading until they are old enough to read words. I'd have been exactly on track in the Finland system. So maybe that's why they get better results for less money than the US. They use methods that are better suited to how children learn, rather than forcing children at an unnatural pace, based on what some senile old educators dictate should be covered on that year's standardized tests.
  • by maweki ( 999634 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:46PM (#46741819) Homepage
    I went to primary school in Germany from 1996 on and I was in one of those classes that learned "Reading by Writing" (I explained above that the referenced article gets the German original article the wrong way around).

    The way it basically works is, that you get a phonetics-alphabet and learn just the sounds and then you write them down in the way you think is right. My class was, in direct comparison to the class that learned traditionally, on average half a grade better in writing and reading by year 4. But my class had only eleven pupils and our teacher had the chance to explain errors and nuances. Usually, classes nowadays are more than double the size.
    I am sure that, without proper guidance, many mistakes can be made. The primary thing my parents loved was, that I was able to read stuff the first day I came home from school with my phonetics-alphabet. I could read my children-books from day one. We didn't start with the letter "e" or "o" and only short words. This gave me a real thirst for books and I read "Robinson Crusoe" in second grade.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2014 @03:56PM (#46741879)

    All foolishness aside, this does go to the fundamental purpose of language, both written and spoken. The purpose that the vast majority of society expects language to fulfill is to provide a medium for communication. Up to the early 20th century, words were spelled phonetically, and as long as you had a grasp of phonetics, you could both read and write any word that you knew, and many words had multiple spellings that yielded the same phonetic result. In came the spelling/grammar elites and decided that this egalitarian system had to go and only they should be able to decide how a word was spelled or how a sentence should be properly constructed. These educational elites disseminated their propaganda and, with the willing accomplice of state run schools, they brainwashed the masses into believing that "proper" spelling was a prime indicator of education and refinement, and that misspelling words was vulgar and indicative of low intelligence. These days, "proper" spelling gives small minds the chance to feel important and superior, when in fact they have very little to contribute.

  • by CRCulver ( 715279 ) <> on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:26PM (#46742087) Homepage

    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.

    You really need to read some Saussure, especially the principle of l'arbitraire du signe and the distinction between langue and parole. This science is a century old at this point, there's no excuse for an educated person not knowing it. Human language naturally contains some level of ambiguity, it is simply avoidable. However, this does not typically lead to multual intelligibility, and most of the human population handles diaglossia just fine.

    Furthermore, this is a discussion about a writing system, not a language. Writing systems too have a great deal of ambiguity, starting from the ambiguity in the speech they represent and then going from there. Just think about how many different lexemes are represented in speech and writing as <set>, or how two different tense forms with two different pronunciations are represented as the single grapheme <read>. And yet, readers handle that just fine.

    As an English speaker, your own language's history in writing should be enough to disabuse of the notion that divergent spellings are a threat to society. English spelling in the 18th century was not yet firmly established, and yet that era saw an explosion in popular literacy and scholarly publication.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2014 @04:57PM (#46742251)

    I do consider your post racist in that we have many people with darker skins that are substantial scholars even in urban ghettos. We can agree that there are subcultures within those groups who try to display a lack of education. But in no way can we see this as an us vs. them situation. It will take centuries to get a firm step away from the harm done by slavery. And it is also a fact that a majority race will tend to prosper more than a minority in a nation.
              However consider that most of the effort at applying change within poor, urban communities has not gone as well as it should have nor was enough effort applied. Politics as well as confrontations with reality are to blame. Usually a good step upward involves spending more money on education. But we have never really dealt with poverty in America and there are times when creating jobs or solving issues right at the moment mean that less funds are available not only for education but for everything else as well.
                Look at the history of what is going on. After WWII women in the work place became normal and that flooded the labor market consequently pay rates for workers fell. We had far too many babies probably due to the shock of war and that flooded the labor market. We had right wing politicians who only wanted privileged groups to do well. They allowed massive immigration which again flooded the labor market. Then we developed technology that is eliminating the labor market rather quickly. At some point people catch on and realize that education really will not help them in such a nation. We now have a situation in which the A students may never hold a job that pays enough to live on properly. So how do we tell kids to hold on and use their hours for education when they can see that their fate will not be good? Why should that 13 year old not go out and go full throttle with the opposite sex, dope and the whole slew of negative actions? Unless born with money even if that kid can cut it in academia he will have student debts that crush him for life and probably never get a real job anyway. Our sins are catching up with us rather quickly. Yet our nation is so entrenched in past beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that we keep making the same mistakes and big business loves it. It keeps wages low.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 13, 2014 @05:05PM (#46742293)

    Just read the book by Lynne Truss, "Eats, Shoots and Leaves", to see how important the punctuation marks, comma and apostrophe, are for conveying meaning. She gives quite clear examples of how they are misused to completely obscure the intended meaning. Although it is not a "peer-reviewed" scholarly publication, it is peer-reviewable (for anyone sufficiently English-literate) by observation of the writings all around us. She observes the reality of poor communication due to poor usage of the rules of (English) grammar.

    The book is a hilarious read (again, if the reader is sufficiently English-literate), but is very serious about the communications problems it "documents".

  • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @05:50PM (#46742515) Homepage Journal

    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.

    Did you ever meet a black person with a college degree?

    I did. When I went to elementary school and high school, lots of my teachers were black. One of my best teachers was the biology teacher who taught me how to grow bacteria and fruit flies. I think of her every day. My work today involves a lot of molecular biology and genetics.

    One of my college housemates was a black guy who graduated in chemical engineering. Did you ever study chemical engineering? Could you pass physical chem? (BTW I met a lot of black chemical engineers. It's one of those disciplines where you can get ahead just by being smart and working hard.)

    Did you ever meet a black lawyer? I have. Did you ever meet a black doctor? I have. They were at the top of their field. They didn't get there by affirmative action.

    The reason black people did so badly in the U.S. is 100 years of slavery followed by 100 years of Jim Crow under which black people couldn't vote or go to school in the former Confederate states. Did you ever meet anybody who later got killed for trying to organize black people to vote in the South? I did. Black people couldn't exercise their right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and even then the racists used all kinds of tricks to stop them from voting. They're still doing it today.

    After the Southern schools were required to pay for black education, the math and reading "gap" started to disappear. You can see the data at the NAEP web site.

  • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @06:07PM (#46742617) Journal
    While it grieves me so to contradict a popular opinion, a common misconception is that a language will remain a medium for communication without rules.

    Allowing too much variance in meaning, spelling, sentence structure, and so on will eventually lead to different languages entirely. None of us speak the King's English, or Spanish by-the-book in everyday speech already... our conversation is peppered with idioms, movie quotes, and slang.

    Without a master set of rules to reference and abide by, in no time, it's like I'm talking to my brother-in-law's kids in County Cork.

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @07:55PM (#46743217)

    Blacks do as whites in all over europe, or in africa.

    Nonsense. Britain has a significant Afro-Caribbean population. France has a large West African population. Sweden has many Somali immigrants. All of these groups have educational achievement gaps with their white countrymen comparable to the gap in America. South Africa is the only country in Africa with a large white population, and the achievement gap there is far wider than in America.

  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Monday April 14, 2014 @02:45AM (#46744721)

    You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.

    Education statistics from rural Montana for example are excellent.

    here are some stats:

    Alaska (2003) 13.3
    California (2003) 20.3
    Montana (2003) 5.9
    New York (2003) 22

    you can find the stats here: []

    As I said, to ignore the demographic information is to do no more then confess ignorance of the data.

    It is a tragedy of this era that so many read statistics without understanding how to read them.

    I say this without insult to you despite my bluntness. It is extremely common that people simply don't know how to read statistics. Major newspapers often fail to grasp very simple concepts like "causation" vs "correlation" which most people on slashdot get but only because enough members have harped on it to get people aware of the issue.

    that is not the end of rules that must be followed when you read statistics. Statistical information is really about logic. Its like a constructing a mathematical proof where you describe all relevant phenoma to such an extent that there is only one conclusion. Its about isolating facts and eliminating false conclusions and irrelevant variables.

    Too often people are lazy with statistics. They see it as a means to not have to think. They point at some numbers and say that's the answer not grasping that those numbers are data that must be processed scientifically. That requires intelligence, skepticism, curiosity, and patience. Statistics are very rarely handled with all four and so most statistical observations are utterly without worth.

    If the above sounds lecturing, pompous, or arrogant, know that that is not intentional. I know no other way to express the concepts and ideas that as I have above. I do so with humility and good will. I do not think I am better then you... if anything I've had different experiences in my life that have given me some advantages in some areas. Doubtless you've experienced some things that have given you advantages over me. A healthy society is one in which we share our strengths and compensate for each other's weaknesses.

    This is my attempt here... Best wishes from the internet.

The optimum committee has no members. -- Norman Augustine