I remember pen-pals

Back in the not-so-old days, when I was much the age of the children I now teach, it was de-rigueur to have a pen pal; someone from far flung climes, or exotic sounding places and using foreign languages like… American. The intervening years between then and now, saw the popularity of correspondence and correspondents wane to a sad low. Sadly, because although I struggled with the discipline of being a writer, I never lost the pleasure that came with reading a well penned letter. I’m of the belief most of you reading this feel the same. Why is this significant? There is a massive, technology supported resurgence of pen pals.  More correctly, we might now say key-pals. They may not be superficially recognised as the pen pal of old, but the concept has remained. E-mail, sms, instant chat and other ephemeral versions of the letter abound. In fact often five or more at a time, each in little individual envelopes on the computer screen all beeping for instant attention. Without question, they have supplanted the printed and written word, but have regenerated the desire to connect in ‘writing’. What is the educational impact of this, if any? An opportunity to develop better writing skills. Good grammar and appropriate punctuation is the domain of the printed and written word. The transitory nature of digital correspondence conspires to reduce the value of the content and leads the writer to believe that a sloppy approach is acceptable. Even, that the reduction in effort is justified by the corresponding gain in speed and rapidity of response that the use of technology appears to demand. Our capacity to think equally fast so that we write what we mean, is a topic for another bulletin. This need for speed is made concrete by the fact that I cn wrt 2 U and dun hv to fink mch as long as im fast.  In the world of sms and instant chat, I concede that we must move with the times and I’ll take poor correspondence over no connection any day. The connection of a techno granny with her geographically disperse grandchildren is something to be celebrated even though the clash of writing cultures may produce confusion and astonishment on both sides of the connection. On second thoughts, that clash may well be an opportunity in itself. If we are encouraging our children’s use of technology within their study, at what point and at which level do we start to make allowances or tolerate a decline in standards?  Of course that’s a rhetorical question — at no point do we tolerate it. We just need to manage or delineate where and when the standards are applied or allowed to be by-passed. An sms on little phone screens makes CUL8R acceptable. An email using ROTFL is IMHO acceptable. School assignments for any faculty, projects or essays, just because they are produced with a word-processor, are not places for techno-tolerance. If anything, the use of technology should be producing an improvement in grammar and writing skills. Not for a microsecond am I thinking here of the in-built spelling and grammar checking that comes with modern applications. Auto checking is a blot on the landscape of good writing, if ever there was one, and without wishing to offend, there is no such thing as American English. That’s just a figment of Bill’s imagination. The crisp legible appearance of documents on screen is equal to hand writing 2 or 3 successive drafts. It more clearly shows up flaws and errors giving an opportunity to correct them before going public. Typing is also easier and faster than writing by hand. Successive edits don’t require the whole document to be begun from scratch. Supportive material resulting from your extensive research can be added in easily. And, please don’t forget, just as easily, properly acknowledged. Higher quality results can be achieved with a fraction of the physical effort required with pen a paper. This leaves you free for more mental effort and plenty of time in which to give it. When your kids ask why, in this day and age, it’s still important to write well, remind them, apart from getting good marks at school, that it is an outward sign of their approach to pretty much everything. Sloppiness is pervasive. As it says in a national newspaper’s style guide (quote pinched from Lynne Truss) “punctuation is a courtesy designed to help the reader to understand your writing without stumbling”. This connection with good manners and consideration of the reader (you can substitute ‘other people’ here) isn’t coincidental; there’s an implication of what type of person you are.  In addition, good writing skills are not subject specific; they are as valuable in Science, Maths, Art, and even PE as they are in English.  Remember too, they are learned skills. It might be nice if we could inherit them (and in some ways I believe we do) but improvement only comes with practice and guidance. Encourage the use of technology with your daughters, even lead by example, but remain vigilant in the delineation of where tolerance is and importantly is not going to be enacted.   Finally, for this article at least, and importantly, encourage, encourage, encourage.

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