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AT A LOSS FOR WORDS

Listen to college writing instructors long enough and you're bound to hear terms like ESL (English as a second language) and TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) to describe those who have problems with our language.

Now, a new one has crept into the discussion: NFL. And it has nothing to do with football. NFL means students with no first language. American students, born and raised here, who barely speak English and who can barely read and write it. Kids whose own native language is foreign to them.

Keep it in mind as you read about the FCAT and why our kids can't read well. It's no surprise to me, at least; I've taught writing for nearly 15 years and I've seen a noticeable downward slide in skills over time.

So I'd like to offer a theory, first, and then a few suggestions.

It's a commonplace for those who teach English that most of us have three vocabularies. The first, and highest, level is our reading vocabulary, the one that contains the most, and the most complex, words; it's the words we recognize, and learn, when we see them.

The second level is our writing vocabulary. When we write, we use fewer words than the ones we recognize when we read. But that number is higher than the third level, our speaking vocabulary; that one's the words we use in speech, especially among our peers.

My theory is this: that our kids have learned their own native language by hearing it _ and they're hearing the lowest level. They don't read, unless forced, and they write as little as possible. They have learned English by hearing it, and if you've listened to very many people, or to television or movies, lately, you should be frightened.

So our kids can't read because they don't recognize many words; the words they do know are from our smallest vocabulary. And they can't write, because they haven't been reading; they don't see the ways in which words can be put together in what we call Standard American English. In their writing, we find so much that we can only label "awkward" because there's no other word for it: sentences that don't make sense, words that shouldn't be where they are, words used as if they're interchangeable when they aren't.

And they can't spell because they don't see the words often enough to remember how they're spelled. One constant in my experience has been that the students who learned to read early were the best spellers. If you don't believe it, find some kids who hate reading and see how they spell, then compare them to the ones who do read and, more important, started reading early. You'll see.

If you don't believe things are as serious as I'm painting them, talk to those who hire young people. Ask them about the communication skills of the current crop of job applicants. It's no coincidence that most job ads now specify communication skills _ because they're rare.

And try this: Look at writing produced by young people, say, a century or more ago. I did. I read diaries by young soldiers in the Civil War and was amazed to find that an 18-year-old writing then was so far beyond many of the same age writing now that it was almost as if I were looking at the words of a different species. Those young people wrote fluently, using a large and complex vocabulary, although their language seems dated to our ears. Still, they could write, and I have no doubt that they could read and speak equally well.

Then try this: Look at the old McGuffey readers, the series of books that became a commonplace in schools all over this country more than a century ago. (You can find excerpts on the Internet.) I did, and I found that what primary school pupils read back then, many of our high school students _ even many of our college students _ would find difficult today. Yes, the books are strange, to our modern eyes, and interlaced with religious instruction and morality tales, but they also included history and philosophy, literature and science, and they were much more challenging than the homogenized pap that we feed to our kids today.

So that's my theory: that our children and teenagers can't read (or write, spell, or speak) well because they haven't been reading, and the difference between students now and students years ago is real. Here, then, are my suggestions, and these are mostly for parents.

First, stop blaming the schools for your kids' lack of communication skills. Lord knows, our school system has its problems, but we're not the ones who get your kids from infancy and live with them for 18 years. We're not responsible for making them bright, inquisitive people who want to learn; you are. If you're one of those who carp about the system, ask yourself when your offspring last saw you reading a book. Children model what they see and hear, and don't model what they don't. If they don't hear you speaking intelligently about any number of subjects, using standard English and words of more than four letters, they won't do it, either.

Second, stop believing that technology will save us. A computer is simply a different kind of paper; the words remain the same. If your kids can't read what's on a page, they won't be able to read what's on a screen. If it were true that computers are a great educational tool, your kids would be much better readers and writers than kids a century or more ago. They're not.

Third, take radical theories about teaching kids to read and write with a grain of salt. If it were true that new and better theories make new and better readers, no one would ever have learned to read before these theories came along. Not true, by a long shot. Some students, in fact, even teach themselves to read without outside help at all.

Finally, standardized testing won't make better readers. What it will do is make students better at memorizing what they call vocab, but rote memorization won't help them make those words a part of them. The words they struggle to memorize for the FCAT are gone as soon as the test is over.

If we don't start trying to reverse this damage, we'll lose our language _ and, worse, we don't seem to care. We wring our hands over preserving literacy and then do everything in our power to kill it. Those who read history know that the simplest way to enslave people is to remove both their right to read what they want and their ability to read at all, but too many people today find reading a chore and not the element of a free society that it really is.

Early humans used pictures _ icons _ and painted them on cave walls. We call those people cavemen and watch them in movies and on television; we laugh at their lack of sophistication. Well, our pictures _ our icons _ may be more sophisticated, but they're still pictures.

I suppose we can always console ourselves with the thought that if our kids continue their slide into illiteracy, they'll still be able to get what they want out of life. It won't hurt them, not in the least.

All they'll have to do is learn to point and click. How cool is that?

Lynn Stratton has taught writing at the University of South Florida for 15 years.

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