OECD says one in five Irish university students are functionally illiterate

A know-nothing tyranny drags Ireland to the bottom of the literacy table

oecd skills ireland

I would have went to the meeting only I was sick, the young teacher explained to me  some years ago, apologising for missing the  annual excruciating encounter in which I found myself patronised by a person twenty years younger and with half my life experience.

You would have went? I thought, but I didn’t say anything. You’re a teacher. Don’t you mean you would have gone? Do you not know what the past participle is?

But of course, I knew it was futile to even think such things, let alone express them. I knew that the young teacher was part of a generation that had  never been taught grammar in school, not to mention punctuation or spelling. What’s more, I suspected that the young teacher came from a home that did not value such things, but depressingly, I also knew that this ignorant young person was nominally in charge of my small child’s education.

I know you would have gone if you could, I reassured her.

I would, she agreed. I would have went.

No meeting of minds there. Let’s move on.

The OECD has reported that Irish university students are among the most illiterate in the world and furthermore that their arithmetic is atrocious, but that surely comes as no surprise. Ask any third-level lecturer what sort of people are coming into their first-year courses and they’ll all tell you the same thing.

Engineering and science lecturers are having to teach their first-years basic Leaving Cert mathematics.

Humanities lecturers, or at least the ones who care, are trying to teach undergraduates the principles of English that they themselves understood in primary school. They have to start these people right at the beginning and teach them the sort of basic skills that one would expect an  average ten-year-old to know.

Of course, one would be wrong to expect that, since the average ten-year-old no longer knows the sort of things they used to.  The average ten-year-old today is being taught by somebody who was the average ten-year-old ten years previously, long after our education system had abandoned any commitment to grammar, punctuation or spelling. Long after our teachers were expected to understand addition and multiplication, never mind mathematics.

What’s more, anyone who tries to oppose the disastrous collapse in literacy and numeracy is dismissed as a Grammar Nazi by people who wouldn’t know what grammar is if you smashed them over the head with a concrete-filled completed pluperfect. And so finally we realise that an adherence to standards of reading, of grammar and of numeracy isn’t a form of pedantry, but a measure of how well we’re doing in the world.

The Finns understand this and so do the Japanese. The Dutch know it and the Koreans know it as well they might since they topped the table. These people teach their children well, and they do it at home as well as doing it in school, just as we used to do here in Ireland, or at least, just as some people used to do.

It’s true that some families never cared a jot for their children’s education in this country. It’s true that some parents never bothered to encourage reading among their children, probably because they never cared for reading themselves, but it’s also true that many  parents, of every social class, considered literacy to be vitally important and brought their children twice a week to the free public library to borrow and return books.

Does that happen any more?

Of course it does, in families that care, but for the rest I don’t know. According to the OECD  report, one in five Irish university students are just about able to understand the instructions on a bottle of pills. Read that again. University students, not five-year-olds.  There was a time when a person with such poor reading skills would not be accepted for a job as a street sweeper and yet now, somehow, they manage to get into university, even if they don’t last very long.

We need to draw lessons from this.

We need to recognise that we have moved too far from our former commitment to excellence. We need to embrace  the idea that excellence in language is a good thing. We need to rejoice in the notion that numeracy is a liberating concept.

We need to make our children feel good about being well-read.

We need to walk away from the know-nothing tyranny that has dragged us down to this level and we need to show  a bit of pride in ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll continue to bump along the bottom, with only the UK being more ignorant.

Is that where we want to be?


30 thoughts on “OECD says one in five Irish university students are functionally illiterate

  1. It’s a sad thing to be unable to use even one language properly. Universities are now training people rather than educating them.

  2. I have known for a few decades that the RTCs/Institutes of Technology were organising every September crash courses for new students. These courses covered sentence structure, basic punctuation, and paragraph writing. Students were also given practical advice on how to take notes at lectures. The sad thing about all this is that skills such as grammar, punctuation, summarising, skim-reading and presentation of points in writing assignments has for many decades been on Junior Cert and Leaving Cert English syllabus/syllabi. Somehow or other thousands of young people are going through primary and secondary schooling without their literacy and numeracy problems being detected and acted upon. It is also amazing that despite their handicaps the same students are passing the Leaving Certificate and earning ample points for being admitted to key courses in the arts and sciences at third level institutions of learning.

  3. What about “I was sat there” (watching TV or in a traffic jam) instead of “I was sitting there” that we hear so much now, even on the BBC.

    Apart from this, and your example of “I would have went”- its amazing the number of grammar errors we hear everywhere now.

    I don’t think we should accept this as an evolution of language – its just wrong.

  4. Terry Wogan R.I.P. spoke cheerful, impromptu standard British English on BBC 2 and other media to the delight of millions of enthusiastic audiences.

  5. It would appear to me that RTE in particular and journalists in general have forgotten the word ‘fewer’. Everything is ‘less’.

    “…are less people signing on than…”


  6. According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary, “less” can mean “1 a smaller amount of, not as much” or “2 fewer in number”.

    In other words it can apply to both countable and uncountable nouns.

  7. The constructs that irritate me are “I am after…” for anything in the past tense, and “I am going…” for anything in the future. I detest recounted conversations in the format “and I was like…”, “and she was like…”, “and I was like…”, “and she went like…” “so I went like…”

    Staying closer to the point, I know someone who has a master’s degree in psychotherapy from UL, who doesn’t understand the difference between their and there, and who writes ‘alot’ quite a lot.

  8. To my knowledge (mind, English is not my first language)
    “I’m after (i. e. walking my dog)” is an Irish expression based on Irish sentence structure. Quaint, but locally perfectly correct.

    “I’m going to…” is equally correct though used rather informally: “We use ‘be going to’ to talk about future plans and intentions. Usually the decision about the future plans has already been made” (thats from some Cambridge Dictionary).

    Though the mix-up of their, there and they’re annoys me too, “definately alot”.
    The Alot: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.ie/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html

  9. The constructs that irritate me are…“I am going…” for anything in the future.

    Eh, I don’t know what else you would say. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

    Here you go –

    There is no one ‘future tense’ in English. There are 4 future forms. The one which is used most often in spoken English is ‘going to’, not ‘will’.

    We use ‘going to’ when we want to talk about a plan for the future.

    I’m going to see him later today.
    They’re going to launch it next month.
    We’re going to have lunch first.
    She’s going to see what she can do.
    I’m not going to talk for very long.

  10. One that annoys me a little is, ‘it’s got to do with’, instead of ‘it’s related to’ or ‘the reason for that is’.
    Or ‘she/he don’t’.
    Or ‘people what’, instead of ‘people who’.

    I blame Snoop doggy dog and Puff daddy what don’t learn us.

    Actually what I find more annoying is perfectly find English, that’s meaningless.

  11. @carry.

    I used to “teach” English in Italy. :/ Well, I tried.

    I remember one day I was with a class of intermediate to advanced students, and I said: “I’m after having my dinner” thinking it was ok.

    None of them could find it in the grammar book, and I had to back track and give them a quick lesson on Hiberno-English.

  12. I believe that construction is also found in the Isle of Man and in parts of Scotland. It’s a direct translation of the Irish, Tá mé tar éis.

    I’m always conscious of avoiding these quirks when speaking to non-Irish people. It’s important to keep it neutral.

  13. Why is it important to keep it neutral?
    And what is neutral in the English language with so many versions all over the world?

    I think non-Irish people visiting or living in Ireland should learn at least a little local lingo, in this case Hiberno-English, dotted with a few Irish words (“nice gùna”, slàn”, “lots of grà” – don’t know if the fada is right). It’s how people actually speak here.

    It’s much more important to watch spelling and grammar in written words. I might sound like an old fart, but I think that txt spk, twitter et al. destroyed a bit of the love for well composed or at least grammatically correct writing. And American English – which hurts me even in some literature with the increasing usage of acronyms and short forms and general ignorance of spelling.

    Typos are fine, happens to all of us (it’s just the fingers, not the mind).

  14. I would use “I’m after having…..” with English, Australian. I never had any issues, but yeah, it’s good to try and remain neutral if it makes it easier to be understood.
    I think the confusion arises when Irish slang, expressions or a heavy dialect kicks in.
    There are a few other examples of direct translation from Irish to English.

    “I have no need for it at all at all”
    Are you coming home soon? “I am”
    “I have the car fixed”
    “Ye don’t know what ye’re talking about!”
    “Is it just yourself coming?”

    (All on wiki) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiberno-English

    I don’t think you would have to cut these out of your daily speech talking to someone from London.

    I think you can tone down your accent in order to be neutral, as opposed to cutting out the Hiberno-English. We’re Irish after all!

    Common sense would also suggest using neutral words and phrases.

    I wouldn’t be asking a cockney where my tackies were! Or someone from Donegal!

  15. Ah feck it, sure why are you after going now an’ spoiling everything ‘ cause some English bastard went and wrote some grammar rules…….

    I find that I change the language and the use of it to suit the audience and as I frequently talk to a room full of non native speakers I have to both slow down and watch how I construct my sentences in order to ensure I’m understood. I also correct my kids but in a gentle way by repeating back to them a ‘correct’ version of what they say,

    And I like to use Latin and Greek plural constructs so will get really annoyed at ‘referendums’ being used rather than ‘referenda’ etc……but that’s just the obsessive compulsive disorder ‘kicking in’…..

  16. Really?

    Why would you use the plural of a neuter second declension noun for a gerund like referendum?

    Is it because it ends in UM?

  17. According to my Oxford Concise Dictionary the plural of “referendum” can be “referendums” or “referenda”.

  18. ‘There’s a lot of people in town tonight.’

    ‘NO. There ARE a lot of people in town tonight.’

    (Bazza -been out of Limerick a long time so tackies brought back memories – was it a word brought home from the Boer War?)

  19. Technically I think you’re correct Big Jim, but funnily enough, people say it like that as they are following grammatical rules. ‘A lot’ being singular. ‘Lots’ being plural.

    ‘There IS A lot of people in town tonight’ (‘there’s’)


    ‘There ARE lots of people in town tonight’

    By the way, what’s grammatically correct and what makes you sound like English isn’t your native language are two different things.

  20. I was thinking the same: “a lot” is singular, so there IS a lot of people should be correct.

    But then I’m never sure in a second language and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself by disregarding the quirks of English grammar. You never know and I’m prepared to learn something new.

    Though according to my English lessons at secondary school it’s logical.

    I remember one of my English teachers (a real German valkyrie with a grey bun and always a stick in her hand) who shouted at us the difference between desert and dessert.

    dEsert she cried and beat her stick on the desk: repeat!
    Now dessErt. Again the stick, but softer.

    I like deserts (the quietness) and I like even more desserts (preferably chocolaty or coconutty), but in both cases I still see that stick beating down on the desk when I utter those words.

    Same with her grammar lessons. The stick on the desk is always in my mind. But the local vernacular I’ve learned by actually talking to local people.

    But the stick, the stick …

  21. Funny, Carry..
    My German teacher in secondary school was a bit of a total geebag also.

    I recall being taught that ‘a lot’ is interchangeable with ‘many’, so, as you would say ‘there are many people in town’, you would say ‘there are a lot of people in town’, but again how people talk informally is one thing and what’s grammatical correct is another. (people being a countable noun also).. e.g. ‘There are a lot of people in town’ and ‘there is a lot of food in the fridge’ (food being an uncountable noun).
    Again, ‘there’s a lot’ is quite acceptable informally really.

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