Literacy and Teachers

This is a thought evoking piece which I came across (directed to by that little gem Twitter) it has a bit of a dig at the PGCE course and its validity in terms of producing good teachers. In my placement a number of existing staff have been openly dismissive of the PGCE as “a waste of time”, “totally pointless” and as “teaching nothing about the real world of teaching”. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not but the same PGCE-less teachers struggle with classroom management and behaviour and so the little demon in my brain wonders if that might be because of a lack of understanding of the people they are teaching. Perhaps that could have been improved with a PGCE.

The piece above also deals with the subject of poor standards of literacy amongst teachers. It refers to  poor application letters for teaching vacancies published by the head of a south coast independent school. Just as a word of warning before judging anybody on the quality of  letters, a well written letter does not always have to have been written by the person signing his/her name at the bottom and sticking their contact details at the top and perhaps at least one can infer from a poorly constructed one that it was actually written by the applicant rather than a colleague or family member much more skilled in such tasks.

I’ll deal with my thoughts on the PGCE first as that will take less time and I’ll try to keep it brief. I think the PGCE is useful in that it opens your mind to the classroom environment beyond the obvious, it makes you think about various forces and influences which are at play which you may not otherwise be aware of. I’m a firm believer in understanding people before you can do anything with them, perhaps why I’m more interested in the psychology of management more than the processes. 

I think the PGCE places pieces of important and useful information into a framework of teaching and that it is only as ‘good’ or useful in so much as it is applied to teaching and in so much as the person studying it embraces and develops their learning. 

I agree that just to have a PGCE is not the be all and end all of teaching, but like any qualification it can only be considered valuable in terms of an insight to the holder if it is taken as a part of a whole and other things are considered; lots of other things in the case of appointing a teacher.



OK so onto standards of literacy and teachers the other or main point in the article above. This is something I am very old fashioned about I guess. I was brought up in an era when good grammar was something everyone should be able to master. The ability to spell correctly mattered, use of apostrophes, colons and ellipses was something we discussed around the dinner table and our parents drummed into us the need to use them appropriately. 

I took pride in good grammar, I even sat extra lessons (a long, long time ago) to improve mine further and then later when I studied languages I learned even more about the grammar of my own mother tongue than I had learned at school. I had labels and names to put to tenses, the past perfect, imperfect, subjunctive and dative. It was all good stuff. I don’t fool myself that it prevents me from making school girl errors now and then, we’re only human after all.

I feel it important that teachers of students of any age have a good grasp of grammar, I wonder how do they mark work that they don’t know to be wrong? If they miss errors, then the student will continue to make the error and pass on that bad practice to their own children or others. I want my children to be taught correctly. I would feel they had been let down if they were taught to bake a cake and the teacher neglected to tell them to add an egg or two, or didn’t bother to tell them to put it into the oven. I’d be annoyed if their geography teacher told them that Africa was a country (that’s happened actually) or their history teacher that Henry VIII had 8 wives (yes that one too has happened) so why shouldn’t I be annoyed when any of their teachers fails to spot that they have spelled something incorrectly or not used correct or appropriate grammar? It matters to me and it should matter to them. 

I don’t think the current standard of a level 2 English qualification for teachers suffices. I think we mistake English for literacy and the two should be distinct. We should have a literacy score which follows us through life, we should be assessed at key points and our score adjusted.  We should sit a test on entry and exit to education and on application to work and this should not be about Shakespeare or Hawk Roosting but purely and simply spelling and grammar. We should be graded 1-100 and for some professions the bench mark should be set very high, teaching being one of them, requiring a 99% score without exception.

Poor standards cause slippage, if they are allowed to slide then other things slide with them and before we know it we have an avalanche of standards.

Separate out literacy from English, there is no point knowing when a teacher turns up for a job if they have a good grasp of Shakespearean soliloquy or if they can recite Ted Hughes’ Hawk Roosting by heart, but there is value in knowing if they have a 100% literacy score. It gives people something to aim for if it can be adjusted throughout life, it keeps the workforce on its toes and who knows it might drive up standards in other areas too.

I sat my O’ Level English Language (it was separate in those days from Literature which incidentally only the kids who were in top band got to study while the others focused on language skills) a year early in 1982 and I attained a B grade, I resat in 1983 and attained an A. I then went on to study combined language and literature at A’ Level. But that was YEARS ago, my standard of literacy has perhaps changed since then, is that qualification even relevant today? Yet it stands when I apply for teaching jobs because I met an equivalent contemporary prescribed standard at some point in time.

Does having a high standard of literacy make you a better teacher? No, I don’t think it does. Does having a PGCE make you a better teacher? Yes I think it probably does in so much as the learning is applied. Does a PGCE or a low standard of literacy make you a worse teacher? Probably not (unless you’re teaching English or literacy). But then it depends on what we are aiming for in the education of our children, young adults and older adults. We could go on forever, does being an expert in a subject make you a better or worse teacher, does experience in a subject make you better or worse, does age make you better or worse… the list goes on. Teachers come under intense scrutiny and so they should but we need to consider them as a whole, as a sum of their parts and even then set that into a context before we judge someone worthy or unworthy. Does it matter? I guess that’s the question. Does it matter if a construction teacher has an A level grade B in English? Perhaps not as much as it would matter to a teacher of Professional Writing. Maybe it’s all in the context and it is grossly unfair to make blanket statements about the education of teaching professionals.

I’m pretty sure there will be grammatical errors in this piece, it’s just sod’s law so please point them out if you wish, we live and learn.


3 thoughts on “Literacy and Teachers

  1. Hi Andrea,

    It might surprise you to know that I (being an prospective English teacher) have not actually realised just how AWFUL my grammar and punctuation is until I have started marking written work from my students. The secondary school I went to had insufficient English teachers, and so classes that had no English teachers appointed would spend the lesson watching an Adam Sandler film. When we did have an English teacher, the behaviour management was so bad we would still spend our entire time watching an Adam Sandler film because they couldn’t control us any other way. When it came to Year 10 and beyond all our time was spent on trying to get us to an acceptable level, I was one of five students in my (top set) class that achieved higher than an E in our mocks. I don’t recall a single lesson when we revised basic grammar and punctuation skills and as a result many of my class-mates simply had no hope of achieving a grade C. I developed my punctuation and grammar almost unconsciously through reading. I have to triple check all my written work and I am still being told of mistakes that I make that I should have overcome years ago.

    I am a staunch advocate that reading skills (such as Shakespeare) are of equal importance to the ability to write to a certain standard for reasons that I won’t bore you with here. However I think you are right that literacy levels are so poor now that even English teachers don’t realise how little they aren’t aware of until it’s their responsibility to assess the work of others. Thankfully I know enough that I can see when something is wrong even if I can’t put my finger on why. I think it’s the responsibility of any good teacher to continually seek to improve themselves and question their own knowledge and skills.


    • Thanks for your thoughts, your perspective is very interesting. It’s sad to hear how you were let down by the system which is target driven and one would imagine as such should have brought you to a standard where you were comfortable teaching others. It’s in interesting debate for another time.

      I agree that we should make it our business to improve where we feel we lack and as our course teaches us we should be recognising where those short comings. The poo pooing of the PGCE in that respect was a little out of kilter in the original article.

      I’m quite privileged to have come from an era where proper use of language was valued and it’s a shame that it sometimes makes me feel ‘old fashioned’. Our use of good grammar shouldn’t make us fuddy duddies but it’s amazing how some people think it does.

      I am a literature fanatic and would hate to see literature disappear from the curriculum and appreciate that appreciation of good quality literature is important to linguistic development in all its forms. I just feel that if someone is struggling to write a sentence that they really should be getting that right as a priority. Of course seeing grammar used well and seeing words used to conjure up emotions and mental images by the masters is essential to developing literacy skills too. When I studied French and German post basic education, the exposure to literature in those languages by such as Moliere, Sartre and Brecht certainly helped us with the language skill.

      Perhaps we need to look back to the old system and concentrate on the basics of reading and writing in primary and better equip children to cope well with digesting Shakespeare et al in secondary.

      It’s an interesting one 🙂


  2. Pingback: Teach Your Child to Read! m + a + p makes the word map! | sebgwrites

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