THE BLOG
06/28/2014 10:06 am ET | Updated Aug 28, 2014

Why Grammar Is Important

In high school or college, students of Asian heritage have the reputation of making the highest grades in the class, and the average American student worries about having several Asian Students in his or her class for fear that they will raise the curve and make it harder to get a good grade. Is that fear justified?

Let's look at some revealing facts.

The past eight winners of the National Spelling Bee, and the last thirteen of seventeen winners, have been of Indian descent.

Let's keep going. According to a recent study (2012) comparing the academic performance of high school age young people in fifty-seven countries, students from the United States are performing well below those from most other developed nations. But Arne Duncan, U. S. Secretary of Education, points out that's not the big problem. A more pressing concern, he claims, is the fact that American students are standing still while those of other nations are advancing. Hence, that gap will continue to widen.

The report, conducted by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), shows that students in the United States performed near the middle of the pack. Averaging academic scores from all the countries, sixteen other industrialized countries scored above the United States in science, and twenty-three scored above the U.S. in math. Educational authorities noted that math scores in the United States remained about the same as they were when the last international academic scores were recorded, but scores in many other nations improved. There was a glitch in recording some reading scores, so reliable comparisons of reading scores are not currently available. However, Agence France-Presse (AFP), the oldest and largest news agency in the world with headquarters in Paris, reports that the United States ranks fourteenth in reading skills.

Some of the top academic-performing countries, in alphabetical order, are: Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Poland and Taiwan, all of which, on average, scored better than the United States.

Perhaps even more alarming are the results announced in 2013 from a survey conducted for the purpose of measuring adult skills and competences. The survey, PIAAC (Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies), was conducted in thirty-three countries. Approximately five thousand adults ages sixteen to sixty-five were surveyed in most of the countries, with the results analyzed and compared.

The primary focus of the project was to measure four core-competencies: literacy, reading, numeracy (basic mathematical and computation skills) and problem solving, using a point scale of 0 to 500, with 0 being the lowest competency level and 500 the greatest. The scores were assigned one of five competency levels, from lowest to highest: Below Level l, Level l, Level 2, Level 3 and Level 4/5.

Comparing the scores from participating countries, U.S. performance is weak in literacy, very poor in numeracy, but only slightly below average in problem solving. In literacy the United States was eighth from the bottom; in numeracy third from the bottom; and in problem solving sixth from the bottom. The United States is not scored on reading skills because reading is evaluated only in very backward countries where the reading skills are so poor that it is impossible to measure problem solving competencies. Averaging the scores of all four core-competencies, Australia, Canada, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands and Germany tended to score consistently higher in all categories than most of the other countries. Several countries, grouped together toward the lower levels, displayed skills about equal to the United States.

What does this have to do with grammar? Literacy is defined in the study as "the ability to understand and respond appropriately to written texts." In this category, the United States scored on average 270 points out of 500, corresponding only to a "Level 2" competency. Grammar is the very foundation of literacy and is very important for performing the other core-competencies. Without being at the very top of the ability to understand and respond to written texts, the United States will fall even further behind other countries.

This study applies to people in the workforce. If the workforce of the United States is to begin to work its way out of the hole it has dug for itself, it must be more proficient in literacy, and that is why grammar is so important.

Every college English teacher I speak with tells me that the majority of students coming out of today's high schools are not up to doing English on the college level. This means that future generations of our workforce are doomed to even lower world rankings.

So many times I hear people say, "What difference does it make if we do not use proper grammar, just as long as we understand what we are saying to one another?" Perhaps the results of these studies will help answer that question.

If the United States is to continue to be considered one of the world's superpowers, then our schools across the country must insist that our English teachers are extremely well qualified in knowledge and teaching ability. We must insist on the very best, and our school boards must see to it that we have the best.

I often refer to the "dumbing down of America." Just how far are we going to "dumb down" our country until we realize we have to do something about it? I get tired of hearing so much negativity about the United States these days, but, unfortunately, the news from these studies is what it is--negative! But it doesn't have to be in the future. It is up to us to decide what we want for future generations--and then to do something about it!

(The statistics are taken directly from copies of the survey results and from the official Web sites of PISA, PIAAC and OECD. Both the PISA and PIAAC surveys were commissioned and supervised by the highly-regarded fifty-year-old international "Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development," commonly referred to as OECD.)