Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kids and writing well

When I was a young reporter, fresh out of college and just a year or so into being a working newspaper journalist, I knew all too well how much I had to learn about the real-world job. It wasn't easy, despite some good older mentors. But at the same time, at 25 or so, I knew one thing for sure: my writing ability wasn't the problem. This wasn't some kind of baseless hubris or inflated self-esteem. I knew cool, effective writing when I read it, and I could see I was at least somewhat better at it than many (certainly not all!) of the people currently writing in newspapers around the state.

Anyway, one day I was going through a fat file folder of essays and other writings I had saved from my high school years - stuff that in my memory had been pretty darn good. Eek! It was horrible! Yuck!

Actually, inept was the word. Pedestrian. Almost childish.

Around that time I was asked to help judge a contest for high school newspapers. Guess which adjectives came to mind with every story I read.

Which started me thinking about a question: Why do kids, who automatically learn to speak at an early age, who are exposed to good writing throughout their school years, and who pretty much have all the basics of compositional knowledge by their high school years, still usually (there are exceptions) write like, well, adolescents?

This afternoon, as I was watching a lecture about Noam Chompsky's theory of Universal Grammar and disputes about it in the field of linguistics, it occurred to me that maybe one of Chompsky's ideas might help explain the mystery.

There are many who contest Chompsky's idea that the fact that much of the language kids hear is disjointed and a mess means kids must have a mental blueprint to sort it all out. Opponents of Chomsky say it isn't clear that so much of what kids hear is garbled. But listen to a recording of an intelligent college kid: "Yeah. It doesn't help the tree but it protects, keeps the moisture in. Uh huh. Because then it just soaks up moisture. It works by the water molecules adhere to the carbon moleh, molecules that are the ashes. It holds it on. And the plant takes it away from there."

This is a bright college student talking about a scientific subject. And it isn't exactly good English. We don't like to think so, but we all talk like this a lot. (Once a young journalist interviewed me over the phone. He taped my comments, and printed them with all my "ers" and awkward language intact. I called him back to suggest that it is only common courtesy to clean up an interviewee's verbal missteps. I did it all the time.)

Maybe it just takes time, well beyond the onset of puberty, independently of any problems like dyslexia or a deprived childhood, for the adolescent mind to figure out how to effectively take written language to the next level. If so, don't blame the kids.

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