Computer-based Teaching of Remedial English Skills Just Doesn’t Work

College administrators and pedagogues, confronted with the incontrovertible signs of intellectual miasma among their students and perhaps unconsciously aware that they have raised a generation of toffee-nosed misfits and incompetents, have responded by installing a plethora of writing and language courses, mainly of the digital variety. They believe that computer instruction in grammar and syntax will redress the balance by teaching students how to write and think.

The evidence shows otherwise. Nonetheless, many teachers continue to support the online language project as a boon to students who need to amend their so-called “writing skills.” These teachers, many of whom are former colleagues, claim that student reading practices and writing abilities actually improve thanks to three-hour classes in which postulants stare into computer screens, interminably scrolling away, nimbly surfing the Net and sending email messages to one another.

Photo credit: Eric E. Castro

The claim is disingenuous and needs to be put in context. Though some instructors deal with second-language students for whom Web-based drills are pro forma, native-born students have also been subjected to the same laboratory practices with little or nothing to show for them. Many write and speak as if they were indeed of foreign extraction -- this is no hyperbole -- and their academic work, in tandem with the expression of their ideas, is often, like, you know, embarrassing.

What in my institution was known as English 101, a compulsory remedial course for incoming high school students, relied to a large extent on computer software. Teachers tended to find the actual grading of writing assignments too frustrating and laborious to contemplate. The screen was an escape function. “Blended learning” -- technologically enhanced drills and face-to-face encounters -- really made little difference. Beneficial results from the rituals involved -- gawking, scribbling or gabbing -- were almost always indiscernible, though, as noted, the emphasis generally fell on the lab rather than the classroom.

By itself online instruction in language acquisition, a program increasingly popular in many colleges across the country, does not lead to anything like mastery, facility or naturalness. Without an intimate and leisurely familiarity with the scripts on which cultural life is predicated, from newspapers to canonical literary texts, these students will never be at ease in the language. Eyeballing digital print is a hasty and slipshod procedure. Following pre-programmed exercises that leave no room for spontaneous questions and actual dialogue is a barricaded route. The screen and the lab are merely feeble technological auxiliaries and are, if truth be told, almost entirely dispensable.

More to the point, the reading practices promoted by the screen and its various accessories tend not to support but to detract from the sensuous interiorization of the temporal and intuitive continuities on which comprehension in the strong sense depends. The same holds true no less emphatically for writing as well, especially imaginative writing, which Robert Allen in his novel, Napoleon’s Retreat, defines as the capacity for “turning white paper into an involved rebus of memory and desire” -- precisely what students reared on laboratory methods cannot credibly accomplish.

I wonder what the current crop of grammar teachers would make of the Strunkenwhite computer virus -- named from Strunk and White’s famous grammar handbook The Elements of Style -- which returns email messages marred by grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and plastic clichés. Strunkenwhite, I would suggest, is not a virus but a cordial. It is email that is often the virus.

My own students’ overall performance gave the lie outright to such exaggerated claims of computer-generated proficiency. After a semester spent in the grammar labs their language skills, such as they were, often tended to deteriorate, with the fortunate exception of those adiabatic few who neither lose nor gain in competence. Staring into a screen rather than poring over a book is a recipe for ineptness. I do not doubt that students’ skimming and scanning skills improve while roaming various web sites but alleging that their writing improves violates everything I have discovered in years of teaching and what seems like an eternity of grading and correcting.

Lab, screen and arbitrary or decontextualized writing assignments are a dead letter absent the conviction that reading, rational thought and good speech are desirable “outcomes.” Attitude is the starting point that leads to aptitude. And this is what is lacking in the contemporary student for whom the classical precedent that governed the educational curriculum -- the search for truth, the acquisition of knowledge, closely monitored reading and the struggle for intellectual maturity -- is no longer the ideal, having been jettisoned by the academy as a historical irrelevance. Instead, our bureaucrats and preceptors have fallen back on extraneous procedures, relying on technology rather than academic discipline to educate a student “clientele” they have in fact abandoned.

The language lab is a standing joke. It will do little if anything to rectify the alarming decline in student performance, which will require nothing less than a major shift in the educational paradigm. There is no substitute for traditional learning and teaching, for books, study and a revival of the ancestral curriculum if students are to learn how to write and think and prosper in the real world. On the whole, the introduction of artificial devices and digital fibre into the remedial process is a non-starter and a dead end. Between the code and the user falls the shadow of bad commands.

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