Why can’t New York City kids master the English language?

By Kenneth Kowald

There has been more and more discussion recently about the sad state of English usage by American students. This apparently is not just a matter of elementary, middle or high schools. Students are entering college without the necessary tools to handle the language.

In general, remedial courses have become a large fixture in higher education. Clearly, too many students can’t read, write or speak their own language properly.

In my column, “I Sit and Look Out,” I have quoted successful business leaders, who want to hire people for jobs, who say that while many of the candidates may have the technical fit for the jobs, they are very deficient in the writing and speaking of English. In other words, they may not be able to communicate with customers, to say nothing of the other employees.

These business people were talking about Americans whose first and perhaps only language is English. These cases were not about English as a second language. That is an entirely different matter, as I have tried to point out many times.

What are the reasons for this decline? As a non-educator, I will leave the experts to comment on this from their point of view. I’m sure they can and may do so at great length. After all, that’s what they get paid for. Punditry and pontificating are the rules of the day.

But as a native-born New Yorker educated in the city public schools and its universities, I think telling about my experience may help.

One of the reasons for the decline in English, some experts tell us, is that not enough parents read to their children from the time the kids can make sense of what is happening.

In my family, there were no books, not even a Bible. My mother, an immigrant who could print her name but was otherwise illiterate, probably sang to me at bedtime (like my father, she had a good voice), but she couldn’t read to me. My father, whose father died when he was 6, had to leave school at 11 and go to work. He read The Daily News and The Daily Mirror every day, but he never read them to me. My sister, nine years my senior, was a great reader, but she never read me to sleep or at any other time.

But my parents made sure that Elizabeth and I did not miss school, did our homework and respected our teachers. They wanted us to get as much education as possible.

Another reason for the decline, some experts think, is that children are not getting into the educational system young enough.

When I started school, on Pitt Street, on the Lower East Side, I was 6 years old and I went into first grade. There was no kindergarten and certainly no pre-school.

We moved to Borough Park in my first year of school and I went to a school on 14th Avenue, which has been a girls’ yeshiva for decades now. That public school is where I learned to read and write. As far as I know, there was no kindergarten or pre-school in that school at the time. We got history books and readers that we could take home and I devoured them.

The first book that I remember being mine, although it was on loan from the local public library by my sister, was a story of Napoleon’s son. I remember how thrilled I was with all of these books, even though they would go back to school and to the library. By now, I was also reading my father’s tabloid newspapers every day.

Borough Park was a middle-class or perhaps lower-middle-class neighborhood, what we would call blue collar today. I cannot remember seeing books in other people’s homes, although I might have missed them, but somehow everyone I knew seemed able to read. I can’t remember that the words “pre-school” even existed.

Another reason for the decline, some experts think, is that schools are not air-conditioned.

The only places that had air conditioning in my youth were the motion picture theaters and on very hot days, we kids would stand in front of the open outside doors of the Loews Borough Park and get the breezes.

I don’t know of anyone at the time who had an electric fan, let alone an air conditioner. The schools I attended, including JHS 73 in Maspeth and Newtown High School, didn’t have them. Were there hot days in class? Of course, there were. But, luckily, the windows could be opened (for what that might have been worth). We did have central heating in the colder months. I have no idea about the age of the schools I attended, but they were there many years before I was.

Let me make some things clear:

I think it is wonderful for parents to read to their children. In turn, in the dotage of the parents, their children may read to them.

The idea of getting kids into school as early as possible is a worthwhile objective.

I think the idea of a good physical environment in school is important and air conditioning can be part of that. I am delighted that in our condo we can control our own central air conditioning and heating system.

But, after you have done these things, I think we have to consider other factors.

Has the professional level of teaching fallen in recent decades? If so, why? Has public respect for teachers fallen as well? If so, why?

Do we make our children understand that we need to have citizens who can comprehend and speak and write the language of our country, whether it is “official” or not? If not, why not?

As I have stated many times in the decade I have been writing for The TimesLedger Newspapers, I am one of millions of New Yorkers who profited from a system of education which helped so many to live a good life. That includes City College (which was still free when I went there), Columbia University and Fordham University School of Law.

At CCNY, where I was an evening session student, I was required to take four courses (one hour each) of public speaking, before graduation. One semester, my program was such that the public speaking course I needed was on a Wednesday evening and I got up to Hamilton Heights for that one course only. Each course was worth one credit.

As indicated, we have many experts giving us many excuses for what has made this nation less educated than it should be or has been in the past. Perhaps we need other experts, who can think outside the box.

The answers might not be pretty, but they may help us to understand why we are where we are and how to do much better.

What, truly, are the reasons for this decline?

After all, English is the lingua franca of the world. Shouldn’t everyone in this richest country in the world be able to use it and use it well?

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