The standard of written English among some of my new under-graduates is truly awful. Is there a simple way of tackling this?

October 15, 1999

Cordelia Bryan Director of the Speak Write project at Anglia Polytechnic

This is a problem we come across frequently right across higher education. That is not necessarily to say the problem is getting worse, but there are new problems with English that probably arise from different types of students entering.

Difficulties crop up more among humanities students simply because they do more writing, but they can be found in all disciplines. Identifying the problem is one thing, finding an easy solution is another.

What often happens is that teachers concentrate solely on trying to fix spelling and grammar, whereas the real difficulty lies in poor essay structuring. The ability to present a case is taken for granted but many students have probably received little or no guidance.

In the Speak Write project we have found that if you concentrate on the big picture, the nitty-gritty of spelling and grammar falls into place much more easily.

What is not so easy to determine is whose job it is to help students with their individual difficulties. In the past universities have opted for profiling courses or study skills programmes but these are now largely discredited.

The idea that there are generic skills that can be learned rather than embedded in the disciplines has been unsuccessful, and we now know through research than writing, and communication in general, fares better when taught within the subject context. I am afraid there is no magic formula that works for all disciplines, although there are very broad principles that can be adapted.

Some academics still claim that it is not their job to teach students how to communicate but this attitude is on the wane and should dwindle further with the establishment of the Institute for Learning and Teaching, which is supposed to shake up outdated thinking and practice.

The key is to make writing and communication skills relevant to the students and in particular to their courses. By all means use a generic guide, but rewrite the examples to make them pertinent.

Steer away from the idea of study skills, since that always has the ring of a remedial programme and many students find this insulting.

Our surveys of students indicate that they are only too willing to revisit skills last covered probably at primary school. While many will claim to know the difference between a noun and a verb, when you start talking about prepositions and so forth many need a quick reminder. We have never encountered any resistance to this from students.

It is a good idea to begin by teaching students how to be articulate and how to present a well-constructed argument. Once this skill has been mastered, the techniques can be applied very easily to writing. Once students know where they are going with an argument, the essay writing just seems to slot in to place. But lecturers do need to take students through this basic principle.

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