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The newly illiterate

By Tim O'Dwyer - posted Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Publisher and columnist Max Harris's mission, in a hostile cultural climate, was to share his enthusiasm for words and their worth. He would have been in sad agreement, if he were still alive, with education expert Professor Geoff Masters who has just recommended in a report to the Queensland government that new teaching graduates sit literacy exams before being allowed into the State’s classrooms.

Language pundit Frank Devine once wrote of his mission to protect "real English" from the "legal English" propagated by lawyers. I too once had a mission, despite being a lawyer, to alert a secondary school principal to the violation of "real English" by his own English Department.

Unlike Max Harris, I worked not so much in a hostile cultural climate, but more in an indifferent educational one. It all began when I glanced at the Year 10 English "Overview" which one of my children brought home. On a closer reading, I was appalled at English expression which was careless, clumsy, ungrammatical, unintelligible and unworthy of any Year 10 student, let alone whoever wrote it.


The very opening words were flawed: "Welcome to the Year 10 English!" The rest of the paragraph, headed with "The child is father of the Man", consisted of this abominable sentence: "As the lines by William Wordsworth suggest to you, we are basing our studies, this semester, on the novels, plays, poems; on language excerpts; which illustrate that the dilemmas and code of behaviour learnt at the beginning of life create the structure and form of society in which the adult lives." I was not convinced the quoted line (not lines) of poetry suggested anything so grotesque. But I read on.

The rest of this introduction left me (and no doubt its 15-year-old student readers) totally bewildered: "We hope therefore that in the study of ourselves, we are also studying our society, evaluating it against the belief and patterns of other societies; projecting for ourselves, patterns for the future; diagnosing problems and finding solutions."

Never mind the dysfunctional punctuation. How could an English teacher write like this?

A little later in the material came this meaningless mess: "In a role of interviewers and researchers, student devised questions, analysed purpose of their role, become information seekers and assessors."

So I wrote to the principal, not as a nit-picking lawyer-parent, but as a lover of the English language, concerned what hopelessly muddled messages such an afflicted overview might give to students. Making no comment on how English was taught in his school, I wanted him to know that, frankly, at least one of his teachers of English couldn't write it!

I received this bland response: "The examples of English usage which form the substance of much of your letter have been referred to the English teaching staff for consideration and attention where appropriate ... Thank you for drawing to my attention your concerns about these aspects of our English program."


The English teaching staff clearly gave very little "consideration and attention" to the issue, because the following year home came a Year 11 English "Work Program".

This had a "preamble" which opened well with a short, punchy topic sentence: "Year 11 is a turning point!" Unfortunately, what followed surely left its 16-year-old readers punch-drunk: "You have chosen the subjects which will be a formative part of your career pattern and you are beginning to have much stronger ideas about what you would like to do and where you would like to direct your energies."

Then followed this stunning conclusion to the "preamble": "The first part of your English course would like to draw upon this quality of reflection when you think about past experiences and predict patterns for the future." The actual point eluded me. But I read on. And resolved to write again to the principal about another confused and confusing document intended for students.

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About the Author

Tim O’Dwyer is a Queensland Solicitor. See Tim’s real estate writings at:

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