Poetry that clogs up the plumbing

12th May 2006 at 01:00
A new version of GCSE English should be available for re-sit students who find Shakespeare an unnecessary prelude to a decent job, says Gill Sharp

Every summer, thousands of students re-sit GCSE English. They hope to obtain the magic C that will unlock the door to employment or the next level of college course.

Employers and admissions tutors are looking for students who can write clear, correct English and read with understanding. However, if we examine the present GCSE specifications, we find that these skills are not emphasised.

There are some marks available for spelling, punctuation and grammar, but all the specifications include large chunks of literature and there simply isn't time to do everything thoroughly in a one-year re-sit course, so lecturers have to prioritise.

Most lecturers have to spend a large proportion of time concentrating on the literature - especially Shakespeare and poetry - because the students find it so difficult.

All GCSE English lecturers will allocate some spaces in their scheme of work to improving reading and writing skills, but time is very limited.

Inevitably, a lesson on the correct use of the apostrophe will be reduced to a 10-minute starter activity, to be followed by the supposedly much more important task of analysing a scene from Romeo and Juliet.

Most students struggle with the 16th-century language and find it difficult to see the point, if their ultimate aim is access to an engineering BTEC or a plumbing apprenticeship.

English Literature is an important subject in its own right and many students enjoy it at both GCSE and A-level, but it is not necessary for re-sit students who are looking for a decent job or a place on a vocational course.

It seems to be the right time to launch an alternative GCSE English. It should be available to re-sit students in sixth forms and colleges and may also be more appropriate for 14 to 16-year-old pupils who are following an adapted, vocational curriculum.

This new GCSE English should develop the literacy skills that the students are going to need in their everyday lives. It could incorporate all the elements studied in Key Skills Communication Level 2, as well as more specialised topics such as the analysis of media texts or writing a short story.

Assessment should continue to focus on the areas of speaking, listening, reading and writing. The speaking and listening tasks would probably be fairly similar to the present GCSE:individual talk, drama-focused activity and group discussion. It is in the areas of reading and writing that the differences would be most apparent.

Reading should focus on a wide variety of mainly non-fiction material, although modern short stories could be included. An anthology of suitable extracts could be produced by the exam board as a set text.

The emphasis of the GCSE course should be on the development of different reading techniques, such as skimming or scanning, as well as improving comprehension skills.

An attempt should be made to increase reading stamina, and students should be encouraged to tackle technical and scientific material as well as newspaper articles and extracts from guidebooks.

Writing should concentrate on communicating clearly, using established formats such as letters, leaflets and reports. There should be a place for personal writing, but not traditional academic essays. Spelling, punctuation and grammar would form the core of this part of the course.

Summarising, which combines both reading and writing skills, should also be an important component of this new GCSE English qualification.

Assessment should continue to be a combination of coursework and examination. Coursework could still form 40 per cent of the course: 20 per cent speaking and listening with 20 per cent written coursework. The written coursework could consist of three pieces: personal writing, summary and report.

There could be two written examinations. The first paper should consist of a traditional comprehension plus a writing task. The second paper should focus on the analysis of media texts and contain a different type of writing task. If the exam board decides to produce an anthology, some of the extracts could be used as the basis for examination questions.

It should be remembered that this new GCSE English is not intended to replace the existing specifications. They are suitable for the majority of students in our schools who follow a two-year course. Instead, it is intended to complement what we already have, by providing an alternative for those students who are following a vocational route. If accepted, this new GCSE English could prove invaluable in helping to improve the literacy skills of many people.

However, none of this will happen without the co-operation of the exam boards. We need to urge them to implement these ideas, or something similar, as soon as possible.

Gill Sharp is a lecturer at the sixth- form academy at Thames Valley university

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