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Does teaching have a literacy problem?

Too many teachers are making common spelling, punctuation and grammar errors, finds Mark Roberts, who says that they need to brush up on the basics

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Too many teachers are making common spelling, punctuation and grammar errors, finds Mark Roberts, who says that they need to brush up on the basics

There’s a school improvement topic that remains taboo. The elephant in the staffroom is being ignored for fear of a stampede should it be acknowledged. Aside from a few mutters and the odd raised eyebrow, it is rarely discussed in the open.

The unspoken problem? Teachers’ literacy.

Schools spend a lot of time fretting over the literacy levels of their pupils. An industry of interventions and computer programs has emerged to tackle poor reading and writing standards. Their aim is to help schools equip their students with the ability to communicate effectively in the world of grown-ups. But what happens if some adults – the ones referred to as Sir and Miss – struggle with literacy themselves?

I love teachers for their outspokenness: about the government; about the senior leadership team; about some pupils. But why don’t we talk more honestly about teachers’ literacy?

One reason is the term itself. Geoff Barton gets to the point in the title of his book Don’t Call it Literacy! The problem is that “literacy” means:

a) able to read and write;

b) educated.

So, saying that a teacher is illiterate is calling them uneducated. Which isn’t very nice.

Neither is it remotely true. The vast majority of teachers have degrees and you don’t get one of those without being able to read and write pretty well, and being, erm… educated.


Perhaps it would be more accurate to say teaching has a spelling, punctuation and grammar (Spag) problem.

How did this happen? Three words: initial teacher training. A generation of pupils who were taught to value creativity over grammar have become, to some extent, a generation of young(ish) teachers who, through little fault of their own, feel out of their depth with Spag.

It's getting worse

I trained as an English teacher and recall only one PGCE session on grammar. Trainees from all subjects spent a lot of time talking about Vygotsky and Kagan rather than revisiting verbs and comma splices.

What’s the scale of this neglect? It’s difficult to tell. A 2011 parliamentary question revealed that 1,300 trainee teachers in England took the literacy test three times or more. A 2015 Australian report showed one-in-10 trainees failed a literacy assessment. But these people hadn’t yet entered the profession and were perhaps “weeded out”.

The 2016 TES Teacher Recruitment Index showed that 72 per cent of secondary heads had seen a “deterioration” in the quality of applicants for vacant posts since the previous year. Having sat on shortlisting panels for all levels of teaching posts, I can anecdotally confirm that literacy errors are very common.

An acquaintance, who regularly interviews for headteacher vacancies, informs me that she is shocked by the poor grammar of some of the applicants. I’ve worked under heads who place great emphasis on accuracy and clarity of expression; badly written application forms go in the bin. Yet how many schools are now forced, under recruitment and retention pressure, to overlook the odd typo?

How many schools are forced, under recruitment pressures, to overlook the odd typo?

A more pressing question is: what can school leaders, and teachers themselves, do about this Spag issue?

Hoping that the issue will go away is hardly an option. Teaching is a job lived in the spotlight. Our emails and letters, homework resources and presentations, websites and prospectuses, are subject to judgement. As educators, we are, quite rightly, expected to display consistently high standards of communication.

So, leaders need a plan to address areas of staff Spag weakness.

Tools to learn the rules

It goes without saying that this must be done supportively and sympathetically. A head I know gave teachers Spag booklets. It was well-intentioned but, given teachers’ schedules, they remained largely untouched.

As a school, we’re currently developing an accessible literacy toolkit, which will enable unconfident colleagues to explain to their pupils the difference between “affect” and “effect” or how to use a colon. By regularly using these helpful and unintimidating resources, they should develop their own knowledge of key rules.

Given the nature of teaching, we know certain errors crop up frequently. Here are five common teacher Spag sins:

1. Possessive apostrophes

This troublesome splotch causes more problems than any other punctuation mark.

Kingsley Amis said that those who hadn’t mastered the rules by 14 were “always liable to error”.

The problem?

Teachers who forget the rules (singular = Jack’s pen; plural words that end in S = the boys’ phones; plural words that don’t end in S = the men’s room) are panicked into erroneously inserting apostrophes into any plural word: rugby player’s score try’s and pupil’s study for their GCSE’s with help from TA’s.

The solution?

If in doubt, leave it out. Missing a possessive apostrophe doesn’t look great but it’s a lesser sin than using apostrophe’s for plural’s.

2. Practice/practise

The first is a noun, the second’s a verb (unless you’re American).

The problem?

There’s no hiding place for teachers. Try writing a set of class reports without using both versions of the word.

The solution?

Think of “advice” (noun – the thing you give or receive) and “advise” (verb – you are doing this). Practice (the thing pupils do) and practise (them doing it) works the same. Therefore, “Chantelle happily practises her trigonometry in class but needs more practice on her equations at home.” Oh, and practice papers, not practise papers.

3. Caps for subject names

Biology, technology and geography aren’t proper nouns, so they don’t require a capital letter. English, French and other languages are the exception.

The problem?

Teachers, understandably, get confused because courses – such as “Unit 1: Markets and Market Failure” – are capitalised.

The solution?

Teach Spanish – a language more reserved in its use of capital letters than our own.

4. 'Definately'

Or any similar misspellings of the word.

The problem?

‘Definitely’ is a popular adverb, often used when you’re trying to persuade someone to punish a truculent student. Embarrassingly, autocorrect on spellcheck often produces “she should defiantly be punished for her defiance”.

The solution?

As with many common misspellings (see separately: sep-a-rat-ely), look for words within words. Or if you’re really cool, tell your teachers to say definitely’s “got ‘in it’ in it, innit?”

5. Homophonia

A word I’ve just invented to describe the fear caused by homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings), such as “there”, “their” and “they’re”.

The problem?

There are so many of them. For example, “too” (an excess of something), “two” (the number) and “to” (everything else), which unfortunately means you can see written “pupils don’t find work to hard”. Remember that grammar is “the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit”, as a greeting card recently informed me.

The solution?

You’re going to have to learn these by heart, I’m afraid. Only by re-reading important documents that you’ve written and asking yourself questions such as “do I mean short for ‘they are’ or does it belong to them?” will you overcome this particular affliction.

Oh, and please don’t ever write could of, would of or should of. This is always, always, always wrong (I could have wasted 100 words explaining why).

Ultimately, the only alternative to learning these five critical Spag saves is to get somebody else to proofread everything – and we all know that would defiantly add to teacher workload.

Mark Roberts is assistant principal at a secondary comprehensive school in the South West

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