Modern masters of GCSE English

4th November 2005 at 00:00
A new study shows pupils are better at grammar than a decade ago but use more colloquialisms. Warwick Mansell reports.

GCSE pupils have a better mastery of written English than they did a decade ago, a major academic study revealed this week.

Today's pupils use a wider vocabulary, make fewer basic errors in punctuation and have a better grasp of grammar, according to research by Cambridge university's assessment division.

But they are also far more likely to lapse into non-standard, or colloquial, English.

The study by Cambridge Assessment, the parent body of the OCR exam board, compared sentences written by nearly 1,700 16-year-olds in creative writing sections of English exams across four years.

Work from a 2004 GCSE was compared with scripts from 1993 and 1994 and an O-level from 1980. In each case, individual sentences from 60 pupils' work at each grade were compared.

The research team published a report in 1996 comparing their findings for 1993 and 1994 with those of 1980. This revealed a sharp decline in standards of written accuracy over this period.

The latest findings suggest this fall has been reversed, at least partially. Pupils in 2004 used a wider vocabulary at all grade levels compared to the 1990s cohorts, though the use of vocabulary among lower-grade 2004 pupils was not as varied as their 1980 counterparts.

Last year's candidates at all grades were also more confident in their use of the full stop, being less likely simply to run one sentence into another, than pupils from the 1990s or 1980.

Findings on spelling were less positive: pupils in 2004 were in general more likely to make mistakes than counterparts from 1980 and 1993, though they tended to do better than the 1994 group.

Some errors among 2004 A-grade pupils included "of" for off, "comotion" for commotion and "inevitabely" for inevitably.

The research suggests there has been a dramatic increase in the use of colloquial English in exam papers in the past 25 years.

Pupils from 2004 were 10 times more likely to use non-standard English than counterparts from 1980, using one colloquialism in every eight sentences on average.

Most common errors included "may of", "there is two" and "a load of". There were hardly any uses of "text-speak". Researchers found only two instances among the 480 sentences analysed from the 2004 pupils.

Alf Massey, who led the research, suggested it provided a response to employers' and universities' complaints about low basic skills among school-leavers.

The report concluded it "should be greeted as evidence of the success and hard work of teachers and educational managers".

It would also be seen as evidence of the success of recent government initiatives focusing on literacy and numeracy, it added.

Annual examination reports on GCSE and A-level English exams by the AQA board this week said that otherwise able 16-year-olds often wrote at length without any full stops or commas. A-level students often misused words such as "it's" and "you're".

The board also highlighted pupils' "blatant copying" by downloading from the internet for GCSE English coursework and said some pupils were being too closely guided by their teachers.

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

Variations in aspects of writing in 16+ English examinations between 1980 and 2004: vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure non-standard English, by Alf Massey, Gill Elliott and Nat Johnson, is available at www.cambridgeassessment.org.ukresearchpublication.2005-10-28.8104087042pu blication_view

SAMPLES OF PUPILS' CREATIVE WRITING FROM THE PAST AND PRESENT

Examples from the work of A-grade pupils, including errors: 1980: He had always tried to join in with their schoolboy pranks, games of football and teenage parties, but they had never accepted him; instead they would make fun of him and humiliate him in front of other people.

1993: "You're not going out like that, young man!"

2004: Curious smells met my nose and I brushed past two elderly men, whose dull expressions matched the hue of the hospital floor.

Examples from C-grade pupils: 1980: Just before evening the school bells ring to dismiss the millions of schoolchildren allowing them to overflow the streets.

1993: To their dissapointment and annoyance already large dark and heavy rain-clouds had covered the sky when they got out of the car.

2004: People standing, sitting, but they all had one thing in common, sorrow.

Examples from E-grade pupils: 1980: In my opinion the greatest majority of vandalism occurs at football matches, where two rival teams of supporters get together and start firing slogans and abuse to one another.

1993: Its a mess as well rubish every where the local council have tried to clean it up.

2004: I don't know any body here and every one keeps staring at me.

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