November 9, 2006
Getting it Write
News that text language is going to be acceptable in this year’s NCEA exams already has the language experts, teachers
and students arguing about whether or not it is a good thing to be doing.
Gillian O’Neill, language and learning consultant at Waikato University’s Management School says technology is
undoubtedly going to bring, and has already brought, a seismic shift in the ways people use written communication, but
she says if text messaging is to become the norm for English spelling it’d be a good idea for it to be taught in a
standardised form so that there is at least some agreement about what these abbreviated forms mean.
“We had an international student brought to our attention because her teachers simply couldn’t understand what she meant
when she wrote her own abbreviations. For example, she constantly wrote ‘diff’ but her teachers didn’t know whether she
meant difference, or different or difficult.”
Text language is not acceptable in university essays – yet. At Waikato University’s Management School the push is to
improve standard English writing. Students are now required to pass a writing competency module. This year, all students
studying for bachelor degrees and graduate diplomas have had to study aspects of grammar, language, sentence structure
and spelling if they want to complete their qualification. “We have people coming to university who don’t know what a
verb is, are not sure where a full stop is needed, and yet they are coming to study sophisticated ideas and subjects,”
O’Neill is quick to point out that not all students have faulty English, but there are many who aren’t competent about
structuring language appropriately for university essays. The writing competency module is offered entirely online with
students doing a series of quick tests to uncover what they know, and more importantly, what they don’t know. There’s an
accompanying text book and online materials that students can use as they make their way through proficiency tests, and
they complete the module by sitting, and hopefully passing, a mastery test. In its first year, nearly 700 students sat
and passed the module. Nearly 1000 made some sort of use of the online resource.
“Feedback’s been great,” says Gillian O’Neill. “Ninety-three per cent of students who’ve completed the module say it
highlighted their weaknesses and the majority said they’d do extra work in order to correct their deficiencies.
“Employers in New Zealand and overseas often moan about the poor writing skills of many graduates and we’ve made
positive and constructive moves to do something about it. The vocabulary in the module often centres on management
topics but it could easily be adapted for other faculty,” says O’Neill.