Here’s the results most parents expect from a good English curriculum:
- being a competent speller
- being well read
- being familiar with the five-paragraph paper
- being conversant in the rules of grammar
But just forget all that. That English curriculum is cancelled.
We don’t need to teach spelling because we have autocorrect. I noticed all college applications advice specifically tells students they must use spellcheck. It’s expected. Which means good spelling without spellcheck is not necessary.
We don’t need kids to be well read because there is no agreement on what that means. The University of Chicago used to be the gatekeeper of the literary canon. To underline how irrelevant that canon is now, the University of Chicago has turned over their whole English department to studying Black literature. Which would mean, I guess, that most of us are no longer well read.
We don’t need to teach the five-paragraph paper because no one writes like that anymore. They are too long to be relevant online, they are inefficient stylistically when we have links to our sources. Moreover, I did not see one instance in the whole college testing and application process that required knowledge of a five-paragraph paper.
We don’t need to teach grammar because kids learn grammar from the books they read and the people they talk to. My mom would say people with whom they talk. But even as kids my brothers and I knew she sounded weird. Andrew Heisel says today’s fast-moving grammar is “a prescriptivist grammarian’s authority-free nightmare.”
If you want to teach your kids grammar, teach them to philosophize about grammar. For example, we’re in a Golden Age for the em dash. Which means you can throw it in everywhere like the ghost of Emily Dickinson. Or you can coddle the em dash like Noreen Malone: “Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?”
We’re at a turning point where the old uses of a single quotation are antiquated with the use of links as a way to show direct quotation. Heisel documents the demise of the quotation explaining that today singular quotes mark irony and emphasis rather than dialogue inside dialogue.
And, YouTubers, showing mastery of the spoken essay, use air quotes to undermine authenticity. So today quotations can convey both absolute authenticity and suspected inauthenticity, irony or doubt. Example: picture at the top is a friend’s daughter ‘walking her rabbit’.
The shift from handwriting to typing also influences what is acceptable punctuation. One Millennial told Heisel: “It’s also one key-press cheaper for me to type a single as opposed to double-quotes (shift + quote key). I can also amortize the cost of the two key-presses out over longer phrases, which seems to justify the effort.”
Don’t go off about handwriting now. There’s no evidence that all kids should spend time to learn handwriting. And handwriting is such a non-issue today that colleges don’t even know which kids use typewriters for college exams because the kids can’t write by hand.
Also, Anne Trubek wrote a great piece about why great writers love to type. Typing “allows us to go faster, not because we want everything faster in our hyped-up age, but for the opposite reason: we want more time to think.” That was a five-paragraph essay to me. In just one sentence. Try teaching your kids that.