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Getting strong in the key of life

This week: Key skills

In a new occasional series for FE Focus, experts offer advice on topics where lecturers have trouble

Q If students are going to do application of number, communication or IT they have to pass a test (unless they can claim a proxy) and put together a portfolio. How can you maximise success in key skills ?

1 It may sound obvious, but do make sure that the candidates are familiar with key skills specifications and the terms used. For example what a physics or English students understands by words such as 'justify', 'image'

or 'check' may be very different to definitions in the specifications .

2 Make sure you develop the skills needed in your students. These are shown in Part A of the specifications.

3 Teach the skills, give them time to practise and apply them in a variety of contexts before they enter for the tests or put together the portfolio.

4 Some able students fail because it was assumed that they had skills that they did not. Are you sure students are competent in spelling, grammar and punctuation? How about using apostrophes or commas?

5 Do they check, proof-read and correct their own work routinely?

6 Are they familiar with and can they set out accurately commonly-used documents such as business letters?

7 Use a range of strategies when preparing your students for tests. Give them practice tests.

8 Discuss the meaning of key words used in the tests. Look at mark schemes so they can see what marks are given for. Get them to test each other and mark each other's papers.

9 Make them familiar with the format of tests and what is expected of them e.g. in IT at levels 1 and 2 they will not be expected to actually work on a computer but will at level 3.

10 Look at chief examiner reports to help you focus on common weaknesses.

11 Plan the portfolio. If you do not you will find the work the candidates produce does not quite meet the requirements - maybe the report is only 800 words when it needs to be 1,000, maybe the data set used contains only 30 items when it needs to have 50.

12 Help students identify where they are likely to collect evidence for their portfolios by signposting the opportunities clearly when setting assignments or essays.

13 Make sure the work they are doing for key skills is relevant. Why ask them to write another report for key skills when they've just produced one as part of an AVCE assignment?

14 Make use of advice from your awarding body. Your moderator or external verifier reports will identify areas you need to work on with students.

15 Finally, but most importantly, be positive about key skills. You must show the value you place on skills of communication, applying number and using information technology to achieve motivated and successful students.

Lorraine Wilson is development adviser at Learning and Skills Development Agency, working on the DfES funded key skills support programme. She is also a chief examiner for key skills and chief editor for communication key skills tests

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