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Proper Grammar Is Not a Prerequisite for AP English

Dear Extra Credit:

I have no children in county schools at this point, but I read Extra Credit fairly faithfully and remember debates about Advanced Placement courses and which students could be in them, should be in them or perhaps could not or should not be in them.
An article in The Washington Post ["Tackling Toni Morrison," Jan. 21] concerning the reading of the Nobel laureate novelist quoted two AP English students on the admittedly difficult works. One gave the opinion, "Well, she shouldn't have wrote it." Another AP student said "what she's writing about don't relate to me."
A grasp of standard English usage is surely needed for an Advanced Placement course in English. Or isn't it?
Pen West, McLean

I suspect many readers reacted to my colleague Ian Shapira's fine reportage in that way, but think about it. Does that mean that I can't take an advanced tennis class until I have perfected my second serve, or that my attempt to learn to play Bach is useless because I can't bridge a full octave? We all learn at different rates and in different ways. I might be able to analyze Shakespeare brilliantly but mispronounce many of the words in his plays. The AP students quoted are learning in that class. The more they read and discuss Morrison, with their well-spoken teacher as their guide, the more they are likely to adopt standard English, at least in the classroom. That is what teaching is all about. I worry more about us worrying so much about preparation that we sort students into classes in which they are not asked to learn very much.

Dear Extra Credit:

I was wondering whether you have taken on the issue of foreign language requirements recently. In this shrinking world, in which new generations increasingly converse in English on the Internet, is it the best use of our students' time to require two or three years of a foreign language for college admission?
If our students were first in the world in science and technology -- real needs that will benefit the United States -- I guess a case could be made for offering foreign language as an elective. But in light of the fact the country faces technology challenges, wouldn't more time spent on math and science be wiser, rather than requiring a foreign language that will not be useful to the next generation?
Foreign language requirements were iffy even in the past. What is learned in a high school language class is rarely used and if not used, is lost. In today's world, it behooves us to rethink the curriculum, equip our students for challenges they will face, and eliminate antiquated requirements that unnecessarily absorb our students' time and our schools' financial resources.
Cassandra Rosado, Burke

Based on my experience, I would defend foreign language requirements on three grounds: They shed light on foreign cultures, help us better understand our own language and give students a chance to see whether they might want to make languages a specialty. But my arguments aren't that strong. You have a point. I would love to hear from readers who agree or disagree. Many students look back on such courses as a waste of time.

Dear Extra Credit:

I am having an issue with Fairfax County schools, involving the admission of my 5-year-old to kindergarten. I am in the military and recently moved to the area. My youngest daughter missed the cutoff for kindergarten by eight days but has been in a private Montessori school for the past year and a half.
Before moving to Fairfax, I researched Virginia's admission policy and found that exceptions based on ability can be made. So I brought recommendations, a kindergarten readiness form and samples of my daughter's work and met with the local principal (Mantua Elementary). She was supportive and concurred that my daughter was indeed doing work that their kindergartners strive to do by the end of the year. However, she could not make the decision. So began an endless number of phone calls and e-mails to county officials, the state Department of Education in Virginia and, finally, a formal letter to a School Board member. I was told that an exception can't be made for one child because that "opens the floodgates for everyone," told that she could not be admitted this year but could test into first grade next year and, finally, that the county does not have to adhere to state regulations.
We are in the fourth week of missed school for her. She is a bright child who loves going to school and really misses it.
John A. Stewart, Fairfax County

If I were you, I would be happy to leave her in the Montessori school and try to test into first grade next year. But Fairfax schools spokesman Paul Regnier had a more detailed and better-informed reaction:

"We are concerned about the challenges our military families face in keeping their families together during military transitions. One challenge these families face is navigating information sources. This can result in confusion. The decision whether to grant waivers for early entry into kindergarten is left to local school boards. Ours has elected not to grant waivers and restricts kindergarten entrance to students who have reached their fifth birthdays on or before September 30. The two major reasons are that school systems receive no state funding for students who are under school age, and making individual determinations of school readiness for students who might request enrollment would require staff resources that are not currently available.

"We regret the confusion experienced by Mr. Stewart and are working with his family to address his daughter's needs. To help transitioning families, we are also making changes to our website to ensure that the information there regarding our enrollment policies is clear."

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail

By Washington Post Editors  | March 12, 2009; 10:16 AM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  
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Next: Should Student Life Trump Academics?


I think your comparison to tennis lessons and music classes is apt, but not in the way you intended. There are indeed requirements for students prior to them progressing in either tennis or music lessons, even within the Fairfax County rec programs you will see what the student is expected to know/be able to do prior to taking the next set of classes or be in the next level.

Posted by: researcher2 | March 12, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

"In this shrinking world, in which new generations increasingly converse in English on the Internet, is it the best use of our students' time to require two or three years of a foreign language for college admission?"

Nations such as Japan, China/Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc that are held up as exemplars of math and science education typically have stringent foreign language requirements in high-school and university. Foreign language study does not seem to harm math ability.

At a very fundamental level, language learning requires symbolic manipulation, so I think there's a strong argument for general cognitive benefits from foreign language learning. Mathematics and formal logic (crucial for things such as artificial intelligence) are essentially highly constrained formal languages, whereas natural human languages have somewhat different properties; understanding what human beings mean requires understanding their cultural assumptions and psychology. Understanding human language acquisition is crucial to fields such as child development and artificial intelligence, so foreign language study has academic benefits far beyond just being able to talk to foreigners.

As far as practical benefits go, millions of foreign students seek degrees at universities in the "inner-circle" English speaking countries (i.e. North America and the British Commonwealth), and in doing so, gain cultural understanding. The result is that the multi-lingual graduates needed by multi-national companies are overwhelmingly not native English speakers, so American executives and engineers are unable to function independently when they're posted abroad, they have to rely on translators and interpreters, whereas Japanese and Chinese companies can draw on pools of executives able to work and negotiate comfortably in English speaking environments. Why would foreign customers want to buy American products if America as a nation has so little respect for other cultures that it sees no value in learning foreign languages?

Posted by: Trev1 | March 12, 2009 8:05 PM | Report abuse

We began homeschooling in part because our oldest just missed the cutoff to begin kindergarten. My mom and husband have November birthdays and started kindergarten when they were not quite 5. My dad has a March birthday and started 1st grade when he was 5 1/2 (his town did not offer kindergarten at that time). All 3 did fine in school, graduated at or near the top of their classes and went on to Ivy caliber universities. I have a January birthday and started kindergarten when I was 5 3/4. I was bored for much of the time in school.

While many kids with fall birthdays may not be ready to start school the year they turn 5, others do perfectly fine starting then. Schools need to be flexible and assess each child's individual readiness on a case-by-case basis.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 16, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

FROM: Bret Lovejoy
Executive Director
American Council on the
Teaching of Foreign Languages

On March 12, you posted a comment from a reader concerning foreign language requirements in our schools and you asked to hear from others who have opinions about these courses.

The reader’s opening comment about how people from other countries use English to communicate is simply not true. English is fading as the lingua franca of the world and the reason that younger people from other countries rely on English to speak with Americans is that they know, sadly, that so few of us have even minimal proficiency in other languages.

For America to equip our students with math and science skills without equivalent language capabilities is dangerous and myopic. Your reference to building cultural understanding cannot be minimized. Today, government, national defense and, increasingly, corporate organizations in the U.S. have a desperate need for employees with skills in other languages. But as much as they need the languages, they need the understanding of other cultures and social customs that comes from studying languages. Whether we are negotiating trade agreements, international treaties or multi-billion dollar partnerships, we cannot afford to sacrifice the depth of understanding that results from listening to the speaker, not an interpreter.

Language study is a basic part of preparing for a successful career. Almost every job opportunity in the 21st century and beyond is broadened and enhanced by adding this capability to one’s resume. If anything, graduation requirements should include even more language achievement, not less.

Posted by: admanva | March 18, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

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