Journalism students need grammar training

The most essential skills are lacking.

Maxine Ruvinsky turns to face her journalism class at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) and asks if they understand the term “parts of speech.”

Silence.
She tells them it’s perfectly fine if they don’t, but she can’t help them without knowing where they are in their grammar education. She asks again. One hand goes up, belonging to a 60-year-old man taking the class for pleasure.

This episode inspired Ruvinsky’s 2006 book Practical Grammar: A Canadian Writer’s Guide. It began as a little Xerox handbook for her undergraduate journalism students – until her editors at Oxford University Press asked to see it and “the rest is history.” 

Grammar and language skills are essential tools for anyone, but crucial for journalists. Canadian journalism instructors are observing more students who are entering their programs with little to no grammar training. Accuracy and precision are indispensable in journalism. These instructors say grammatical and writing errors negatively affect journalists’ credibility in readers’ eyes, and lost credibility is a hard blow to any publication.

Thompson Rivers’ main campus in Kamloops, B.C., looks out over the North Thompson and South Thompson Rivers, the university’s namesakes.

Ruvinsky began teaching at TRU in 1999, after more than 20 years as a journalist and copy editor at several Canadian publications. Over her teaching years she has observed a significant decline in students’ writing and grammar capabilities.

Without exemplary grammar and language skills, she says, communication is impossible. “You see how ironic it is, just at the moment in history when we can communicate with millions of people halfway around the world? Just when technology allows transmission at the click of a mouse. Just at this point we’re losing language. We have nothing to say.

“I can see it every year in my students. It’s actually quite scary.”

Even worse, says Ruvinsky, hardly anyone seems to care except language teachers.

Journalism instructors believe that grammar training should begin in elementary or high school, and they shouldn’t need to teach students the basics at the post-secondary levels.

Rick MacLean, a journalism instructor at Holland College in P.E.I., where approximately 70 students are admitted annually into the program, says he’s shocked how many people leave high school without knowing how to spell.

“Journalism schools may be reluctant to have to serve as the grammar police, but it’s not going to happen somewhere else. I don’t think that we have any choice. We cannot send people out the door who don’t know the basics of grammar.”

There’s even trouble at the graduate level, says Paul Benedetti, co-ordinator of the masters program at the University of Western Ontario. Students are still having writing issues.

“I’ve asked for a show of hands for anyone who has studied grammar. I would say, at most, a quarter of students put their hands up.”

Back on the West Coast, Ruvinsky says journalism teachers are at a loss. She believes the cause of the language and grammar problem is that teachers aren’t being assigned to work in their areas of expertise. Those teaching English don’t necessarily have a good grasp of grammar themselves.

Jill Coffin is a teacher-librarian and English department head at Bluefield High School in Hampshire, P.E.I. She has taught English for most of her 16-year career,and says high schools are taking steps to ensure teachers teach within their specialties.

In Coffin’s tiny office in Bluefield’s library there is barely room for two chairs to fit comfortably. There’s a clock on the wall fittingly shaped like an apple, and on her window are taped photos of past graduates. Photos of her six-year-old daughter line the area around the circulation desk.

Jill Coffin is the teacher-librarian at Bluefield High School.
Jill Coffin is a teacher-librarian in Hampshire, P.E.I.     (Photo: Erin McCabe)

Coffin says a grammar deficiency occurs before students reach high school. She says if students don’t know the basics by the third grade, they’ll perpetually fall further behind. “That’s the crucial time, and you could almost look at that student at the end of Grade 3 and know what their scholastic career’s going to look like. And that’s a scary thing,” she says.

Coffin says that high schools in P.E.I. are doing what they can to improve students’ writing skills. Coffin says Bluefield tested all its Grade 10 students two years ago, using Ontario’s standard testing system, and lower-level students were put into a literacy group to help them develop their skills.

“It was helpful,” says Coffin. The students were tested again at the end of the year, she says, with positive results.

Of eight J-schools contacted, three have a mandatory grammar proficiency test for students: Concordia, Ryerson, and my school, the University of King’s College.

Ryerson University’s Anne McNeilly, a journalism professor and researcher in the field, says first-year students have three chances to pass a grammar test with at least 75 per cent before progressing in the program. More than half of the students in the Ryerson journalism program, says McNeilly, have failed the test. “The results are generally dismal.”

In 2012 Jan Wong, an associate professor at St. Thomas University and Halifax Chronicle Herald columnist, instituted what she calls “grammar boot camp”, mandatory for all students. The boot camp lasts for eight weeks. Most of the work is done online, so the students don’t miss class time.

“I put every student through it and it’s the basics – what is a noun, this is a verb, what’s a sentence – because they don’t always know. Many do not know,” she says.

Wong created the boot camp because she was “shocked” by the state of students’ grammar when she began teaching two years ago.

On a rainy afternoon, Erin Moore sits at a table in a small study room with glass doors. Moore is an instructor at the Nova Scotia Community College waterfront campus, overlooking Halifax Harbour. She’s been teaching for two years and works with CBC as a part-time freelance broadcast journalist. She is the sole journalism instructor for NSCC’s two-year program.

“I will kind of go over (assignments) on a case-by-case basis and if I see trends – poor punctuation, improper capitalization. Then I will set aside 10-15 minutes at the beginning of class just to draw it to their attention, kind of give them the basic rule, and move on.”

Approximately 32 students come into the two-year broadcast journalism program at NSCC annually, and everyone goes through a screening process, not a grammar exam, says Moore.

“Clumsy storytellers are going to get noticed…”

– Rick MacLean, Journalism professor

Prospective students are interviewed face-to-face, complete a current events quiz and write a short paper detailing why they want to be accepted. This provides a glimpse into their writing capabilities.

“In broadcast journalism (writing) is really an essential skill,” says Moore. “If we can see right off the bat that it’s going to be an issue, then it’s something that might determine whether or not they get into the program.”

Back at TRU, Ruvinsky says there is no grammar proficiency test there, either. She tried to implement one about 10 years ago without success. “It wasn’t to keep people out – well actually, you could’ve kept people out on that…”

Ruvinsky includes grammar in her curriculum instead.

Good writing skills enhance journalists’ credibility. The reverse is also true.

Ryerson professor McNeilly says grammar and writing mistakes in journalism not only cause the journalist to lose credibility, but the publication faces a “huge” loss as well. “When readers are distracted by punctuation and grammar issues, they can’t retain the content.”

If readers are too busy noticing grammar gaffes, the story’s content is often overlooked and readers begin to lose faith in the writer and, consequently, the publication.

Rick MacLean, from Holland College, agrees.

“Clumsy storytellers are going to get noticed by the people they have interviewed. If I get interviewed by someone and they write a story that’s just funny, odd and clunky – that has to leave me with a question as to, ‘OK, (they’re) kind of clunky in their writing skills. I wonder how they are in their reporting skills’?”

He says readers read well-written stories from beginning to end without knowing why they work. This comes down to credibility. Credibility comes with exceptional writing skills employed by both journalists and copy editors.

A copy editor serves as “a second eye”, checking whether the copy is clean and free of errors – not as a journalist’s equivalent of SpellCheck.

MacLean believes cutbacks on copy editors are causing problems in newsrooms across Canada.

“I’m fully aware there aren’t as many copy editors, and the ones that are there are doing a lot more – the old ‘have to do more with less’. The reality is you don’t do more with less. You do less with less.”

And that’s the root of the problem. With fewer copy editors and less grammar and writing education, the less accurate and so less trusted journalists become.

And the less students understand, says TRU’s Maxine Ruvinsky, the less likely they’ll make the effort to learn.

Ruvinsky still has hope for this generation of journalists. She continues the fight to improve writing skills with a new book, Practical Writing, to be published in 2014.

Of course, the best book still needs a dedicated reader. “The student has to believe that it’s worth doing.”

Edited/layout by Moh Hashem
Spring 2014