Skip to main content

The students who need to put in a good word

Skills in English are fundamental to students' ability to communicate facts and ideas in their own subjects. As a reader in genetics at Imperial College, I find that failings in English often spoil the students' writings about biology, although they all have GCSE English passes at grades A to C.

Most students have obvious deficiencies in spelling, word-choice, grammar and punctuation, which affect meaning and clarity. For instance: "Only the top 4 per cent of bores (boars) are allowed to breed"; "Bad diet can effect (affect) a woman's pregnancy"; "As a pose to (as opposed to)". All examples are from non-dyslexic, UK-educated students.

In l992, to assess how general the problem was, I sent questionnaires to 336 senior tutors in 17 British universities, and got a 52 per cent response. The tutors reported that poor English was widespread in students in all subject areas and in all universities surveyed. Typically, one-fifth to one-third of students were recorded by their own staff as "poor" in spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, handwriting, written clarity and spoken clarity. More than seven out of 10 tutors wanted their undergraduates taught some of these things at university.

At Imperial College, I monitor biology students' English in scientific use, in practical books, essays and exams especially 35 chosen words used in their practical books for genetics. More than half the students misspell some ordinary words such as occurrence, its and inoculate. Error frequencies are 15 to 48 per cent for the names of different famous geneticists, 18 to 24 per cent for organisms' scientific names, and 6 to 11 per cent for chemicals. Some spellings are ambiguous (thyamine could be vitamin thiamine or DNA base thymine) or totally misleading (amylase, an enzyme, for amylose, the starch which amylase breaks down).

Wrong word-choices often change meanings. Nearly half the students (46 per cent) confuse affecteffect; 16 per cent confuse complimentarycomplementary such as in "complimentary genes", and 21 per cent confuse whetherweatherwether. A PhD thesis consistently had proscribed for prescribed, and leeched for leached. Many confuse werewhere and theretheir or do not understand words such as deleterious, verify or retard.

Good punctuation gives clear, easily read sentences, but many students have little knowledge of it. Capital letters are misused, and hyphens are often missing when required for the sense: "extra nuclear genes" (more nuclear genes), instead of "extra-nuclear genes" (genes outside the nucleus). Wrong or missing apostrophes are extremely frequent: "the flys body; it's legs; this manifest's itself".

The commonest grammatical errors are plural subjects with singular verbs and vice versa, incomplete sentences, wrong tenses, incorrect plurals and ignorance of inflections ("a bacteria is; the flys are; donkies; he marrys"). Ambiguity is frequent and often serious, coming from carelessness with pronouns ("The male fly has sex combs on its front legs. These are not present in the female") and other causes. Many errors give unintended or unclear meanings, impairing comprehension.

Last year, through the Queen's English Society of which I am a member and chairman of the London branch, I conducted a national survey of communication skills of young entrants to industry and commerce. Almost half (48 per cent) of the sample of 16 to 18-year-olds were assessed by their employers as poor at written English and one-third as poor at spoken English. More than one in three firms (38 per cent) said they had to spend money improving their recruits' literacy, and nine out of 10 respondents said that schools were not giving pupils sufficient command of English.

What can be done? We need pressure to improve English teaching in schools, with a closely specified National Curriculum stating that schools must explicitly teach and test spelling, grammar and punctuation, showing pupils how such knowledge makes their English clearer.

Having drafted the responses of the Queen's English Society to different reports and various versions of the National Curriculum English Order, I am pleased that successive drafts have become more specific on what should be taught, but the effectiveness of the Order depends very much on the way schools and individual teachers implement it.

Some parts are still too vague. For example,"They should use appropriately some of the features of standard English vocabulary and grammar"; "Pupils should be given opportunities to develop their understanding of grammar of complex sentencesI" In my view these items should be explicitly taught and learned.

All teachers should correct their pupils' English, with the types of error corrected depending on pupils' age and ability. Each pupil should be shown how his or her work could be improved: it enhances fact-transmission and creativity, making pupils' thoughts and writings coherent and comprehensible, instead of rambling and error-ridden.

Correction is needed for English as in mathematics and the sciences, or pupils will never know whether they are right or wrong. Teachers assure me that they do correct English, yet undergraduates often say that no one has ever corrected them before on werewhere, theirthere and other basic errors.

Remedial English should be available to all UK-educated undergraduates, as well as to foreign students. One approach is to give all students a self-marked diagnostic test in English, which highlights their weaknesses and directs her or him to the appropriate pages of a textbook.

Departments or individuals could issue relevant handouts: I wrote my students a nine-page guide to using different punctuation marks to improve clarity of meaning. Ideally, one should have subject-specific guides, such as How to Write about Biology (J A Pechenik and B C Lamb, 1994, Harper Collins, London), which includes a chapter on basic English, with biological examples for rules of spelling and punctuation.

Teachers can collect examples from students' work showing how particular types of error (eg, wrong word-choice or bad punctuation) affect meaning and clarity. Showing students the effects of errors in their own subject is much more effective than general exhortations.

In universities, we can and should take remedial action, but we would not need to, if all schools did their job properly.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you