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Sunday, May 13, 2012


i am never going to win a spelling bee. i am never going to be a grammarian. i am never going to be a teacher (i had thought about it, the realisation that i don’t like children put pay to that plan). another reason why i am never going to be a teacher is that i am pretty sure i could not cope with the stress and strain that goes with the responsibility of the job. it shouldn’t come as a surprise that i have a lot of respect for teachers. there are occasions when they confuse me. one of these happened a few days back when on 5live there was a little piece (pretty much all the stories on 5live are little pieces) about how some schools have been instructing teachers not to mark english essays too harshly. some schools and teachers will only give three corrections per piece of work, while others will only correct the first page of work. why? the show host asked. it is done so that little johnny doesn’t have their feelings hurt, isn’t discouraged and doesn’t lose self-esteem. at one point one of the experts on to defend this position cited the variable spelling of shakespeare (a lesser variant of godwin’s law), to which the host replied perhaps you can get away with it if you are as talented as shakespeare. undeterred the expert continued – that back then there were no dictionaries and language hadn’t yet been codified. it seemed a silly argument because we have dictionaries now and the language has been codified. other things that are different now is that the vast majority of people can read and write, the vast majority of people have gone to school to learn to read and write (as well as many other interesting subjects) oh and children are not sent out to work as soon as it is possible – perhaps we can bring that back as well as sloppy english? no one asked that of the expert. another of the show’s hosts pointed out that this wasn’t about expressive writing and helping children to become creative powerhouses – it was about preparing them for filling out application forms and writing covering letters, something that requires a level of standard english. another expert said that by the time they leave school they should have achieved a good standard of english. quite how was never answered. what do i mean about how? well if you are only correcting part of a child’s, sorry, young person’s work then how do they know where they are going wrong. even worse if they have had their spelling of ‘occassion’ corrected once, but not the second or third time what are they supposed to think? that the teacher made a mistake? or that if you persist in something that is wrong eventually people will just agree with you? when i was doing my deputy stepdad thing one of first things i learnt was that kids want consistency. if ‘occassion’ is wrong the first time then it has to be wrong the second, third and however many times it is used. (now i would argue that such a laissez faire approach to marking may help the student with their self-esteem, it also runs the risk of undermining the teacher. recently i was doing a course. on the first day we were given a bunch of questions to answer, it was a test to see what we knew. one of the questions i got wrong was asked again in a slightly different fashion; this time i gave the ‘correct’ answer – the one that was right to the question i got wrong. only this time it was wrong again. confusion. i am still not sure how to answer the question for the exam (though i know what i would do in reality – sadly timed multiple choice questions are not known for their subtlety) and i am left wondering if the tutor knows quite what they were teaching us. teaching correct english is important, though i suspect it is not as easy as it was when i was not paying attention in class. why? why was i not paying attention in class? no! why is it important? language serves as a glue that helps us stay together. in a world of diversity and text speak the last thing we really want to be doing is encouraging self-expression through the use of individual english. i want to be able to communicate with people and i want to know that our understanding is based on a common use of english, rather than having to struggle through translating what might be poorly written and spelt english, or just some variant based on age or location of the user. understanding of basic, common, english also means that people have easy access to knowledge. commonality aids understanding and it brings us together. that alone makes it worthwhile marking the whole essay and helping little johnny get it right the next time rather than letting him keep getting it wrong in the vague hope that one day he will get it right.

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