Metaphors? They're a mountain to climb

16th January 2015 at 00:00
Bombarding adult learners with technical terms saps their confidence. Let's jettison the jargon and focus on plain English

I've lost a student. It happens in adult education. They start the courses eager to learn but then jobs, childcare and everyday responsibilities get in the way. Suddenly the once-a-week English GCSE lesson with its copious homework becomes too much to manage and they leave.

This person was different, though. What put her off wasn't fitting Romeo and Juliet around the school run, it was the amount of English terminology she had to learn. She was drowning in a sea of metaphors - not to mention similes, alliteration, oxymorons, hyperbole, rhetorical questions and all the other technical language used so liberally in English lessons.

I met her at the drop-in GCSE workshop I run in the evenings. It's there to support students and help them catch up with work, especially if they're missing lessons as adult learners are prone to do. She threw open the door, dropped her bag to the floor and said: "I can't do this. I don't know what a metaphor is."

It was near the start of the academic year. My student had missed a couple of lessons early on. By the time she joined the course, she felt that everyone was speaking a different language. Her written English was faultless and I tried to explain that there was more to GCSE than terminology, but she was insistent that she'd never catch up and I never saw her again.

I can empathise. A couple of years ago, almost two decades after completing a degree in English and 16 years since I started work, I embarked on a PGCE. For my placement I had to teach English GCSE, AS- and A-level, and as soon as I walked into the classroom I realised I had only a vague recollection of the figurative language I'd learned so many years ago. Even though I'd made my living from writing, I really didn't know my assonance from my sibilance.

This gap in my knowledge was one of the (many) things that kept me awake at night. I'd pore over lists photocopied from textbooks and then confuse myself further because different levels used different terms. So "the rule of three" in GCSE classes was referred to as "triplets" in AS-level and "triadic structure" for A2. I was lost, lost, lost.

Of course, you do need to know some of these terms for English GCSE and it's wonderful when they're used correctly, rather than as a "feature spotting" exercise to fill essays with long words. Yet I can't help feeling we focus on them too much, and by doing so deter some students - especially older or less confident people - from continuing with the course.

In further and adult education, the two-year English GCSE is completed in one year instead of the usual two. Some students are returning to learning after a five-, 10-, 20- or even a 40-year break. Many lack confidence, feel uncomfortable in the classroom and wonder how they are going to fit their work around a full-time job and family life.

When you have eight months to complete five controlled assessments and prepare for an exam, you hurtle through and there's little time to catch up. Miss a lesson or two and you fall behind. Miss the crucial lessons introducing you to English terminology and you feel you have a mountain to climb - metaphorically speaking, of course.

There's something quite odd about returning to the role of pupil when you're an adult. It can be unsettling to put yourself back in the position of learner, especially if memories of school aren't pleasant. Homework and exams don't get more appealing as you grow older and nor do they become easier.

I've seen competent, intelligent adults look utterly defeated by whether to describe a sentence as compound or complex. I don't really care if they use the correct term for these sentences; I just want to see a variety of them in their written work.

Talking loud and clear

I'm a big fan of plain English. A well-structured essay full of standard English that makes points clearly and logically is, in my opinion, much better than a lot of long words that say nothing. I know that at GCSE level students need to demonstrate evidence of a wide vocabulary and a certain sophistication in their language, but I do think we get bogged down in a desire to namecheck lots of terminology. This can be a barrier for some students, especially older people who can so easily be put off from studying.

This is one of the reasons why I believe the government's decision (now thankfully under review) to make all post-16 students who failed to achieve grade C at GCSE English retake it is wrong. If you're studying a vocational subject such as building or beauty, hospitality or hairdressing, do you really need to study Shakespeare and poetry?

In many cases, English functional skills is a better fit. The course prepares learners for the real world as it focuses on writing job applications, CVs and complaint emails. And unlike GCSE, it caters for a very wide range of abilities, offering qualifications from pre-entry to the GCSE equivalent of level 2.

How many young adults intent on pursuing an apprenticeship will abandon the course if they spend more time on onomatopoeia than they do on learning their trade?

Older students face various barriers to learning. Lack of confidence, triggered by a bad experience at school and possibly a lifetime of feeling inadequate, is a major stumbling block. Many students tell me they're "thick" or "unteachable". They can walk out of the course at any time and some of them do.

As an English teacher in adult education, I want to make the experience as pleasant as possible. If that means not bombarding my class with lots of jargon, then so be it. I don't want to lose any more students so I propose that we focus less on the buzzwords and more on how to give our writing a buzz.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches English to adults in East London and is also a journalist

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