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College students stumble over words like ‘circumstances,’ struggle with basic literacy, professor says

Increasingly, academics complain about students’ poor math, reading skills

Even basic vocabulary words like “circumstances” are giving college students trouble in class, an Illinois humanities professor related this week.

Adam Kotsko, assistant professor of humanities and social sciences at North Central College in Illinois, said he has noticed a “sharp and sudden decline in reading skills among college students” in the past five years.

His concerns echo research, articles, and comments from other academics who also have expressed alarm about incoming college students’ poor foundational knowledge.

Writing at Slate, Kotsko said he believes a deemphasis on phonics in elementary school is one of the problems.

Students have “abruptly stopped attempting to sound out unfamiliar words and instead paused until they recognized the whole word as a unit,” Kotsko wrote, adding that in a recent class session, “a smart, capable student was caught short by the word circumstances when reading a text out loud.”

He said he used to assign about 30 pages of reading per class, but now his students cannot handle more than 10 pages.

“Even smart and motivated students struggle to do more with written texts than extract decontextualized take-aways,” he wrote. “Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.”

Their poor literacy also is related to the learning losses during the COVID-19 shutdowns, smartphones lowering attention spans, and “teaching to the test” in primary and secondary education, he wrote.

Kotsko said students are being deprived of the foundational life skills that education used to provide.

“What’s happening with the current generation is not that they are simply choosing TikTok over Jane Austen. They are being deprived of the ability to choose—for no real reason or benefit. We can and must stop perpetrating this crime on our young people,” he wrote.

Kotsko said his peers share similar concerns about learning deficiencies.

These include basic high school math skills. In September, professors at George Mason University and Temple University told the Associated Press that a significant number of first-year students cannot subtract a positive number from a negative number or add fractions.

Instead of giving lower grades, however, a few universities are choosing not to fail students at all. Western Oregon University recently announced plans to abolish D- and F grades due to “GPA fixation,” The College Fix reported.

Other reports indicate grade inflation is occurring at some of America’s top universities, including Yale and Harvard.

MORE: Harvard gave 79 percent ‘A’ grades in recent academic year

IMAGE: Benjamin_Clapp/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Micaiah Bilger is an assistant editor at The College Fix.