Over their

Nearly half of California State University students, who typically come in with a 3.2 (B) grade point average, must take remedial English; 37 percent require remedial math. How remedial? The Sacramento Bee looks at a class for college freshmen.

Two Sacramento State freshmen scrutinize the sentence projected on the classroom wall, hunting for mistakes: “There over their with they’re friends.”

The students are in a race to find the errors and rewrite the line correctly on a chalkboard. Each of them writes, erases, rewrites, erases and writes again. Their classmates watch and whisper answers.

After several minutes, one has it. He rearranges there, their and they’re and slams down his chalk.

He’s won the final round of Elaine McCollom’s grammar game designed to help these students — all of them native Spanish speakers — sharpen their English writing skills and grammar and prepare them for college-level work.

If distinguishing between there, they’re and their is a challenge, they’re a long way from college-level English. What’s worse is that most CSU students in remedial English are native English speakers who earned B’s in high school.

About Joanne


  1. Michelle Dulak Thomson says:

    The frightening things are the “several minutes” and the repeated corrections. Generally you know this sort of thing or you don’t; if you have to think that long and hard about it, you’re seriously screwed.

    I do have to applaud the teacher for focusing on the sort of error word processors are still not good at catching, though. An awful lot of kids still imagine that if spell-check doesn’t find anything wrong, everything must therefore be okay, which is almost infinitely untrue.

  2. That sucking sound you hear is the sound of college degrees becoming worthless.

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    On the other hand, when I entered Sac JC in 1952 I aced the dumbbell english exam but was advised to take English A anyway, since “everybody did.”

  4. Katherine C says:

    Did anyone read that entire article? I read it just before I visited this site, at the Sacramento Bee’s website. The kids in the article are native Spanish speakers. Every kid in their class is a native Spanish speaker. You’re not allowed in that specific class unless you are a native Spanish speaker as the class is English for Spanish speakers. That’s not to say I agree they should be at a university if they don’t already know English. I don’t. But I don’t think it’s fair that the summary here made it sound as if these kids were native English speakers. They weren’t.

  5. Katherine C says:

    Oops. I made a mistake. I didn’t read all of Joanne’s excerpt. I think I’m now going to get a cup of coffee and wait a while before I respond to anything else. Sorry.

  6. I tutor at a charter high school school that has the goal of graduating kids that will be the first in the family to attend college. The population is almost all native spanish speakers, and the school has been very sucessful in getting the kids accepted to a college. When I started, they told me that they were not doing a very good job when it came to teaching English grammar. This was more that a bit of an understatement. The grammar, at least for the students I have, is appalling. It is so bad, that it is very difficult even to parse their writing for content. After a few weeks of trying to get them to pay attention to this, I’ve pretty much given up. If the teacher doesn’t give them extra credit for complete sentences, the kids really don’t care. One of the girls (very bright) showed me a paper she had written that received a 96. She explained that she was quite proud of it. It was pretty bad. In all fairness, I have no idea where the kids were starting from, but unless something changes, they are guaranteed to end up in remedial English.

  7. This is grade inflation at its worst.

  8. I teach college courses in California. This problem is not just limited to English language learners. I had college students tell me this week tell me that they didn’t know what prepositions were. Of course, noun and verb phrases also caused confusion. I give D grades on otherwise perfect papers if there is confusion about its/it’s, there/their/they’re, and too/to/two. I would have thought that students would take the care to proofread after getting a poor grade the first time. Nope. I thought that marking down for then/than was just too (or is that to?) severe.

  9. Somebody call the Apostrophe Protection Society:


    I don’t need remedial math to tell me that

    “Nearly half” + “3.2 (B) grade point average” + “remedial English”

    equals “disaster.”

  10. superdestroyer says:


    How many of those kids go you really believe are fluent in Spanish. My guess is that none of them are truly Spanish speakers but are really “Spanglish” speakers. Thus, they cannot function in an English class because their knowledge of any language is so limited.

  11. Katherine C says:


    You probably have a point. If the student does know their first language well it seems to be easier for them to pick up another. I tutored an ESL student at my community college a few semesters ago. She was an adept writer in Spanish and even with an imperfect grasp of English was able to infuse her writing with a certain amount of fluidity so in some places it was almost like reading poetry. I was surprised. I also noticed that she didn’t show confusion over the idea of grammar that some people do. Her mistakes mostly stemmed from trying to write English the same way she did Spanish, i.e. using the same word order. I believe it was less than a year before that she’d come from Mexico. I’ve met students who fit the profile of the Spanglish speaker though. They’re rather common in California and like you said, it doesn’t seem as if they’d be able to speak or write fluidly in any one language.

  12. Many of my (college math) students are adults (over the age of 25) who took the adult education upgrading course before coming to me. This course purports to teach three years’ worth of math (grades 9-11), in a single year, to students who have been out of school for five years or more. Some have been out of school for as many as thirty years.

    Of these students, 80% get A’s in the remedial course. 10% get A-‘s. The remainder get B’s.

    Not a single student who comes to me from this course has attained a mark higher than a C+ in my class.

  13. Cardinal Fang says:

    It seems unlikely that the “Spanglish” students are fluent in no language. Humans exposed to their mother tongue will learn it; these kids most likely are fluent Spanish speakers.

    BUT they’re probably illiterate in two languages instead of one. It can be a problem when a six- or seven-year-old Spanish speaker comes to the US, having been too young to have learned to write Spanish in her home country. This first or second grader is then supposed to be learning to write in English, but she can’t even speak English. A lot of the time those kids fall through the cracks.

  14. Cardinal,
    Here in CA, the death (well deserved IMO) of bi-lingual education has demonstrated that Spanish speaking children “immersed” in English do better than they did in bi-lingual. It’s somewhat counter intuitive, but repeatedly demonstrated by empirical data.

  15. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Read Diane Ravitch’s article about why all high school students shouldn’t go to college….bring back comprehensive vocational ed. for those students who cannot handle an academic college curriculum, thus dispensing the need for remedial anything at the college level. The elitism and snobbery of academia has resulted in the erosion of academic rigor in college. There is nothing inherently nobler about undergraduate English or Physics, vs. becoming a plumber or auto mechanic. ‘Nuff said.