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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Where have all the readers gone?

    Damion LeeNatalicolumnist
    Damion LeeNatali

    Ask any college professor how well his undergraduate students read and you’re bound to hear some horror stories. Michael Skube, a journalism professor at Elon University, even took to making a list of words that stumped his students.

    Want to know how you measure up? Here are just a few of Skube’s puzzlers: impetus, satire, brevity, ramshackle, pith, afflict and lucid.

    Sure, vocabulary isn’t the sole determinant of a student’s ability to be an effective reader, but a strong command of terms is necessary to navigate the language. And if you had any trouble, you’re certainly not alone.

    The U.S. Department of Education recently found that only one-third of college graduates were proficient readers, and some 750,000 weren’t even able to demonstrate “”below basic”” literacy.

    Not surprisingly, what happens in college doesn’t stay in college. A recent survey of 120 blue-chip corporations found that a full one-third of employees were poor writers. More troubling still, the National Commission on Writing estimated that American corporations spend $3.1 billion annually on remedial writing training for their employees.

    Put simply, American corporations are spending more than the gross domestic product of Rwanda so their college-educated employees can learn how to write a complete sentence.

    While there might be a number of conclusions to be drawn here, the problem centers on the fact that elementary and secondary schools are failing to ensure that their students have the basic skills necessary to read.

    Because of rampant grade inflation, an “”A”” just doesn’t mean what it used to. Students in high school and college are increasingly accustomed to winning high marks without having to read “”critically,”” a term Thomas Willard, a UA professor of English, emphasizes when talking about the reading habits of students.

    Willard, the warm, erudite president of the local chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, noted that if course syllabi are an indication, students are probably reading enough in sheer volume. “”But they need to learn how to read critically,”” he said, “”to consider word choices, stylistic decisions, persuasive techniques. That’s part of a college education.””

    But if the recent survey results are any indication, it seems that Willard’s emphasis on critical reading has fallen by the wayside, and the result is painfully predictable – students with stellar GPAs who enter college or the workforce without having the literary know-how to back them up.

    As always, a satisfactory solution is hard to come by, but a combination of so-called “”exit exams”” and individualized assessment are the best place to start. Exit exams, like Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test, require students to pass proficiency tests before they can graduate from high school.

    Nice as it sounds, it’s not always pretty. Hundreds of students in California who didn’t pass their state’s exit exam sued last year after they weren’t allowed to graduate, and Arizona endured a mini-crisis last spring as seniors clamored to pass the AIMS test and get their diplomas. What’s more, Willard and others raise the obligatory argument that exit exams will force teachers to “”teach to the test.””

    Maybe, but if an exit exam is truly aimed at testing basic skills, it’s not unreasonable to expect high school seniors to test proficiently. And if a teacher is faced with a class that doesn’t have those basic skills, it’s unlikely the instructor would be able to teach anything else anyway.

    Willard, for his part, is “”unconvinced that exit exams are the best way to assess students,”” and standardized testing most certainly doesn’t work for everyone. It’s important, then, to fuse large-scale testing with individualized assessment, preferably the kind that gauges a student’s progress throughout his or her high school career.

    The UA, in particular, has a program that provides individual assessments to local high school students. While difficult, such collaboration between higher education and local communities is paramount to solving our country’s literacy woes.

    Students shouldn’t be graduated wholesale from high school or college without being able to tell a verb from a noun. But until exit exams and some form of individualized assessment are commonplace, it’s probably time to start brushing up on those vocab words.

    Damion LeeNatali is a senior majoring in political science and history. He can be reached at

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