Why Do We Care About High School English?

Although Grade 12 English (or something equivalent) is one of our admission requirements, we sometimes get applicants who question what it’s good for, and why should it hurt their chances of admission if they got low marks in that subject.  After all, engineering is just about physics, calculus, problem-solving, writing code, designing bridges and other hardware, …, isn’t it?

The stereotypical illiterate engineer is just that, a stereotype (and one with limited career potential too).  From time to time I ask practising engineers whether they ever have to write anything, and invariably I get a laugh and incredulous look.  There are monthly, quarterly, and annual reports.  Project interim and final reports.  Performance reviews of their staff.  Client communications.  Project proposals for upper management.  Responses to RFPs (requests for proposals).  Test reports.  Literature surveys.  Magazine or journal articles.  Submissions to government and regulatory agencies.  Project summaries for the public.  And a host of other things, large and small.

Some of our high school applicants may be shocked to discover that engineers are expected to have very good communication skills, both verbal and written.  In fact, industry surveys always list this among the top desirable attributes and expectations of new graduates.  A lack of ability to write coherently, fluently, and succinctly, with a minimum of grammatical and spelling errors, will definitely have a career impact for graduates.  Clients and companies are not impressed with reports that mix up homophones such as “there, their, they’re”, or use “effect” and “affect” incorrectly.  Some companies employ professional writers for the most important documents, but if all of your written work needs editing to make it minimally acceptable, then you are a drain on the company’s bottom line.

One can argue that Grade 12 English is not a good indicator for these communication abilities, and that is probably true.  For admissions purposes, that’s about all we have to work with though.  That’s why we have our own English Language Proficiency Exam (ELPE) in first year, which attempts to identify those who have difficulty with writing before they get into too much trouble with advanced courses.  All Waterloo students must write it, whether English is their first language or not.  Passing it, or doing remedial courses, is required to advance in our engineering program.

Within our program we have various opportunities for learning and improving your technical writing, including the professional development (PD) courses, work term reports, lab reports, possibly some essays or reviews in various courses, and definitely some design reports.  During work terms, students might be expected to write reports for their companies.  From the work that I’ve seen, most student finish our program with pretty good writing skills, although there is still a range of abilities.

15 thoughts on “Why Do We Care About High School English?

  1. Very, Very Good Article!

    I think some students are so focused on the specific Engineering position they want to have after they graduate, that they forget their interests may change over time as their career progresses. Their ability to move into management positions will probably depend on their communication skills as much as their technical knowledge. In addition, there are a lot of Engineering jobs where you constantly need to explain concepts, problems and solutions to non-technical team members.

  2. hi sir, i found this article really interesting and agree fully with u. english is significant and and obligatory requirement to any program. what i do question is what does gr 12 english evaluate us on. to be frank, my experience or what ive learned in gr 12 english reflects nothing on my communication skills and my ability to write fact based research etc. To be honest, I find subjects like physics and chemistry which include lab reports a much better evaluation of an engineers ability to communicate than any gr 12 english credit would have to say. in gr 12 english, we are evaluated on our ideas, communication flow, and lot’s of other things, but most of all the content. my scoring a 95% on a key passage analysis paper on feminism or heroism, how does that reflect my ability to communicate through writing of facts and information?

    • tbh if english is really important to admissions, we should be forced to take an english course on communication specifically for engineers

      • Some universities have an engineering communications course in first year. Waterloo has been contemplating it. There is some pedagogical debate over whether it is better to have a separate but isolated course, or distribute the communications learning over a variety of courses so that it is more integrated and has better context. It’s a complex problem.

    • Yes, Grade 12 English is not a good predictor of written communication skills. Unfortunately it’s all we have to work with, and so every engineering program in Canada requires it (as far as I know). Our School of Architecture uses a writing test as part of their admissions process, but this is too difficult to implement on the scale that the rest of our engineering programs would need.

      • I think english courses are honestly one of the best metrics to evaluate the raw intellectual capability and ability to understand concepts on an intuitive level, similar to what you mentioned as deep learning [ability] in another comment. I believe that most other courses, especially those in the STEM areas, reflects more of a person’s work habit. I believe a student with a 100% in math understands the material almost just as well as a student with a 90%; the only difference is that the 100% student did more practice questions and gained experience in the type of common, silly, mistakes he or she can make. Most students with 95%+ averages, ironically, are the ones who often have a tutor, at least in my personal observations. They are often given lots of practice material, which allows them to learn mistakes they might make on a real test. In english, there is no black and white answers. Almost everything you do, from writing your own papers to analyzing literature, is based on how well you understood these perhaps abstract concepts. And that, barring the few exceptions of classes with teachers who mark less rigorously, I think, is why 92%+ in a english course is extremely rare.

      • Interesting observations. I would agree that developing good arguments in an English essay requires more abstract and logical thinking than many STEM courses at the the high school level. In university, STEM courses start to require more abstract thinking and synthesis of information, which is probably why some high achieving high school students suddenly start to struggle when rote learning is no longer sufficient.

    • Knowledge of punctuation usage is covered in high school and is very important in communication. One of the best examples of why this clear communication is important is actually a Canadian one and shows the power of that tiny little “comma” that many people now seem to feel is just a fashion accessory for writers.

      +++++
      “…I think the people at Rogers Communications, Inc., Canada, probably wish it were true. They recently lost $2.13 million in a court ruling that hinged on the placement of a comma in a contract. Yup, Grammar Girl was in heaven. Headline comma news!

      The offending sentence reads like this: “The agreement shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

      Rogers Communications thought that meant they had the deal locked up for the first five years and the other party could terminate any time after that with one year’s notice, but the court ruled that grammar rules allowed the other party to terminate the contract at any time by giving one year notice, not just after the first five years. The reasoning was that “the comma placed before the phrase “unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party” meant that the phrase qualified both the phrase “[the deal] shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made” and the phrase “and thereafter for successive five year terms.” In essence, they said the underlined part in the sentence (ie. “and thereafter for successive five year terms”) was a parenthetical element. Somewhere in Canada, there were some very unhappy executives screaming at their lawyers about commas.“
      (from Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty)
      +++++

      While lawyers will usually be involved while writing the contract between an Engineer’s company and its potential customer, the Engineer will be often be required to describe the company’s technical commitments in a unambiguous way to ensure that no legal issues occur from a misunderstanding of what work is to be done.

      The “Grammer Girl” books and the notes the author has put together covering subjects like (ie. “Affect Versus Effect”, “Where Do I Use Commas?”, “Do You Capitalize “Google”?”) are an excellent way to improve your communication skills and are highly recommended to anyone interested in improving their written communication skills.
      http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl

      She also has a series of excellent podcasts that cover subjects like these in an entertaining way:
      https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/grammar-girl-quick-dirty-tips/id173429229

      • Good example and comments. I’ve had to write technical work descriptions for contracts a number of times. We definitely want those to be clear and unambiguous so everyone knows what they are getting.

  3. I have heard that you need to take an English course in university if you are applying to Waterloo after being in university 3 years. Is that true or will the Grade 12 English be enough for you even if someone applies to your program after 3 years of university? Basically, does the Gr 12 English credit expire?

  4. Hi. I’ve heard that some time in the not too distant future UW Engineering will be getting rid of the ELPE and instead have an ELP course mandatory, similar to how it is for math students. I’ve also heard that at least for a few disciplines the Linear Algebra course in first term is going to be removed (I don’t know if it will be removed entirely or put somewhere else in the curriculum) and I heard that it may be as early as next year. I’m assuming these two are at least somewhat connected, and I was wondering if you knew if this change could possibly happen by next fall?

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