Course for FE Teachers to Teach English GCSE

These articles, one from late last year and the other a follow up from earlier this year are interesting. In fact before I carry on, I would recommend reading FE Week it is pretty useful if you are or want to be an FE teacher, it’s a good easy informative read with a broad spectrum of topics from legislative impacts on the sector to teaching methods, jobs and all manner of sector specific information. There is a fee to sign up but there is also lots of free content and downloads so you can at least try it and see if you feel a subscription is worth paying for or not.

This is something I really would love to look into if I was to find a permanent job in FE eventually… ever. I’m not sure supply teaching would allow me the opportunity to do it. I have a passion for improving literacy standards as part of my teaching and on placement I did all I could to improve vocabulary related to the business disciplines but also in general and also to raise the standards of literacy overall in terms of spelling, grammar, structure of writing and such.

It was commented on in a couple of my observations that I use a good method to teach vocabulary, identifying  when a word may not be familiar simply by observing the body language of the class, asking them if it is familiar to check, writing the word on the board, breaking it down to its component parts, identifying the root word and then asking students to define the root, which more often than not they can easily do, then building the word up adding the suffix or prefix or both and asking for input on what they mean, relating to other more familiar words if necessary then writing that down on the board alongside the root word definition. Finally asking for thoughts on what they felt the whole word meant now. Invariably using this method students will be able to tell you what a word means and they do demonstrate pride in their accomplishment when they figure it all out for themselves… teenagers know everything. The more you can let them tell you what something means rather than you telling them, the better, they love to educate the teacher (insert tongue in cheek emoticon).

I feel one of the key problems (and I’m aware of this because I fall foul of it myself) is that people are increasingly using the same mediums for formal and informal writing. Let me explain…

Rewind to when I learned to type in the 80’s, typing was a skill which required a focused effort and study time to accomplish any kind of proficiency. Typing was also used as a formal means of communication. You would not type a letter to your sweetheart or sit typing out your postcards on holidays or arrange your life through typed communications. Informal communications were more often done in handwriting or verbally in person or on the phone. We used different styles of language, more colloquialisms, more slang, more casual language, less thought was given to structure of sentences, grammatical correctness and even spelling in our informal communications.

More latterly we use what were previously formal means of communication to communicate informally, typing out messages to friends and family is the norm either on a computer or a tablet or phone, we speak to one another less and less and our tapped out language is replacing speech yet it is mimicking speech in terms of its construction.

For older people like myself it is easy to differentiate between formal communication and informal, I know through conditioning that I adopt a higher standard of grammar when I write formally, I don’t use slang and abbreviations and dashes and ellipses as I do in my informal communications regardless of the media I am using.

For younger people (and for those who were unused to formal communication in the shape of typed material) those formal and informal boundaries are more blurred, they’ve not got a historical reference to call on, they have always communicated formally and informally using the same mediums and knowing when to change from an informal to a formal style is not so easy for them as it is for older generations. So we get frustrated by the youth’s inability to write formally.

I think we need to differentiate between formal and informal writing with students at school and definitely in FE before we even think of encouraging them to formalise their use of language, both written and spoken.

I did a little informal experiment with some of my students  and I was amazed at how they had not realised that different styles should be applied and how they could be applied quite simply. I know often FE gets to put right the wrongs of 11 years of schooling or to fill the gaps that were never breached and some resent that but it has to be done somewhere or else we churn out young people who never understand the difference between these styles of communication which will be important in HE and which are important to employers.

I think as part of the induction process we should have a session at all stages of post 14 education where we explain the differences between formal and informal communication, look at samples, discuss the temptation when tapping out a letter to an employer or an academic piece of work to slip into the more colloquial informal language we use when tapping out a Facebook message or a text message. We then need to reiterate that on an ongoing basis.  I know myself how easy it is to start falling into informal language when writing formally for the same reasons young people do… those blurred lines that now exist between formal means of communicating and informal. They probably cover this in English, but it’s not something that should be restricted to the study of English, it should be something that impacts all subjects and so it should be properly embedded in all subjects.

I would love to go back to basics and for students at all stages of education to have a written (yes hand written) journal which they are given ten or twenty minutes a week to write into, in class to ensure it gets done. I’d like to see them writing a short reflection, perhaps at the end of the week, on the key things they’ve learned, the things which interested them and the things which they maybe would like to learn more about. Or they could comment on tasks and activities they had enjoyed (or not) or on things they were perhaps struggling with. Just a few simple things for them to jot down, in handwriting in an informal manner and then at maybe half termly intervals type up those informal notes into a formal reflection  for submission and feedback.

I think this would have a number of uses:

1. It would help to keep handwriting skills in use (have you seen the handwriting of some teens? Crikey! Not their fault they just don’t do it much)

2. It would help to differentiate between formal and informal and to learn how to translate one to the other

3. It would reiterate that old fashioned concept of informal being more private and for oneself and formal being open to scrutiny by others

4. It would serve as a short reflective journal which could inform a student’s ILP and also offer some feedback to the teacher

5. It could serve as a tool to strengthen teacher/student rapport which then has the knock on effect of assisting with differentiation and ultimately of managing classroom behaviour.

I know it sounds like yet another job to do which is outside of the curriculum of whatever subject is being taught but it would also do more than just tick boxes for embedding literacy and even if it was tested out to see if it was effective in a given class for a short period, to see if it helped to improve the quality of formal writing and remove some of the slang and spoken colloquialisms that are all too evident in submitted assignments it may be a worthwhile exercise.

It’s a simple, low cost, low resource activity which could in the long run save hours spent trying to decipher assignments and correcting grammatical errors rather than focusing on the content as should be the focus of marking and of course the best outcome would be young people moving through their education developing better and better literacy skills and leaving to go into employment or on to HE much better equipped as literate adults with an appreciation of the differences between formal and informal communications and how best to apply each to given situations.


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