Aspects of Writing - We need to talk about spelling

Aspects of Writing - We need to talk about spelling

Alex Quigley, English teacher, author of 'The Confident Teacher', and Director of Huntington Research School, York pulls out some key takeaways for teachers from the latest phase of our unique study #AspectsOfWriting.

Cambridge Assessment released the latest phase of the 'Aspects of Writing' study on Wednesday to much interest. The full title of the research is the less tabloid-friendly 'Variations in aspects of writing in 16+ English Examinations between 1980 to 2014', but the headlines came thick and fast. The Daily Mail gave us: 'Sign off the times: GCSE pupils make more spelling mistakes than their parents' generation and often cannot spell 'too', 'of' and 'said'. Whereas The Times furnished us with: 'Oh my word: GCSE pupils can’t spell 'off’'. Answers to the problem quickly raced to blaming the government for failed initiatives in "drilling punctuation", to blaming Facebook and other forms of social media. The truth behind the research is – typically – much more subtle than the grand-standing headlines, but no less interesting.

First, it is important to apply the caution that Cambridge Assessment assigns to their study: it is a "finger in the wind indication of 16 year olds' writing." The grand decline in spelling and writing standards is not so marked. Yes, errors are more frequent in the most recent writing sample (it is important to note it was the Cambridge IGCSE examination – a high-stakes assessment under pressured timed conditions) from 2014, when compared to 1980, but many of the changes are not as marked as suggested in the headlines. The crucial findings about the suggested decline in spelling, as reported by the media, was that spelling errors increased only among students with grades below a D grade – and not all students. It is unsurprising to me, as a long-standing English teacher, that E grade and F grade students are making few inroads into spelling during exam conditions.

Other interesting writing patterns emerge from the research:

• Sentence length, measured by the number of words, showed the highest attaining students wrote shorter sentences on average (A* - 16.8 words, compared to C - 17.7 words, D - 23.4 words and F - 28.3 words).

• Capital letters slid somewhat, with low attaining students making a greater number of capital letters errors at the start of sentences than in previous years.

• There were fewer comma splices, suggesting an improvement in the use of commas.

• There was an increase in the use of 'other' punctuation (other than full stops, commas or apostrophes) by high attaining students, but the opposite is true for low attaining students.

• Paragraphing: the number of paragraphs used by students has increased with attainment in 2004, 2007 and 2014.

• There was an increase in the use of simple sentences, with a lower incidence of multiple sentences, along with less subordination, showing a trend toward fewer complex sentence structures being used by all students.

• The high attaining students improved their proportion of 'sophisticated vocabulary' compared to 2007 (but not as high as 2004).

So what can we take away from this evidence? First, I would say that the dizzying merry-go-round of government writing initiatives, charted by the researchers, really does little to change the fundamental writing patterns of our teens. Policy makers should consider more sustainable curriculum change in schools, with concurrent training for teachers, to improve upon the subtle nuances of writing that emerge from such studies. Also, we should reflect on changes in technology etc., but avoid quick blame for the 'Facebook effect' on all of our writing ills, as the evidence is slim in this regard. Despite the shoddy standard of writing on Facebook and more, there isn't much evidence to show that 'text-speak' was rife, nor that students were unable to understand how to shift the formality and style of their writing across different contexts.

What can teachers take away from the study? Here are some prompts:

• How strong is our understanding, as teachers, of developing students to become accurate writers – particularly those lowest attaining students?

• How consistent are we in teaching spelling, punctuation and grammar across English departments and also across the whole school?

• How do we support our lower attaining students to craft their sentences more, use more paragraphs and deploy a wider range of punctuation (those crucial aspects of writing from high attaining students)?

Alex Quigley
English teacher, author of 'The Confident Teacher', and Director of Huntington Research School, York

Missed the live launch of #AspectsOfWriting? Watch again, access the full report and read more audience reactions here.

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