Low-attaining teenagers 'make more spelling mistakes than 30 years ago'

Students of all abilities are now using less complex sentence structures than in 1980, new research shows

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Lower-attaining GCSE pupils are making more spelling errors and using fewer semi-colons than similar students more than 30 years ago, a new study shows.

And teachers focusing on pupils on the C/D borderline and above at the age of 16 may have led to the weakest writers not getting the support they need, an academic has suggested.  

Research by exam group Cambridge Assessment, which looks at how writing in exams has changed since 1980, found that correct spelling and the use of semicolons had declined among low-attaining GCSE English students by 2014.

The report concludes: "The advent of electronic media for much everyday writing, with its concomitant reliance on automatic checking and correction against conventions of writing, makes the world of the 16-year old in 2014 very different from their counterparts in 1980."

Today's study also shows that:

•            Students of all abilities are using less complex sentence structures;

•            There is a marked increase in the use of simple sentences among higher-attaining students;

•            Students at most levels of attainment are using more paragraphs than their predecessors.

Weakest writers 'may need more support'

Professor Debra Myhill, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, who reviewed the study, said: “The patterns of change or absence of change over time can indicate issues for curriculum development, or evaluate the success of policy interventions.

“For example, what this report may be highlighting is a changing pattern in terms of what happens to children below the D grade borderline.

"It suggests that possibly teachers are focusing their attention on the C/D borderline and children above that, whereas children who are lower are not getting quite so much attention."

She added: “That would be an important implication both for policy and for practice, and certainly deserves further investigation.

“All children deserve to have the best possible teaching of writing, no matter what their eventual outcome, and what this suggests is that possibly our weakest writers may not be getting the support that they need.”

Sylvia Green, director of Cambridge Assessment’s research division, said: “It is important to note that we report the findings with little theorising or evaluation of the education context or the reasons for data. Instead, we hope it will provide a stimulus for discussion and extended research.”

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