Promise of better skills

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Better Writing: Better Grades Basic Writing Skills UK pound;19.99

Here's one of those resources that tries to shock us into action. "School leavers lack basic skills. Too many cannot read, write or add up properly..." is the warning on the front of the CD-case, quoted from BBC News.

Who can resist the promise of "better writing, better grades"? If we're looking for a strapline to motivate pupils, it may be a reasonable one. But this software for PC and Mac (though it soon ground to a halt on my Apple Powerbook) is a simplistic and old-fashioned set of exercises.

Lesson 1 includes putting capital letters on the names of days, working out where to put the apostrophe in words like "weren't" and spotting whether a verb can be classified as describing a state or an action. The example "He ran in the Dublin City Marathon last year" gets us to identify that "ran"

is an action (whereas "was" would be a state).

If I get the multi-choice question right I am deemed "excellent". Later I find that I am able to put the correct verb form ("was") in the gap in this sentence: "His father... a Manchester United supporter."

And so it goes on, for screen after screen. As a self-motivated and aspirational pupil this may well build my self-confidence. But whether it has much relation to my skills as a writer, I'm not convinced.

Many of us recognise that GCSE fails to deliver a precise enough benchmark for clear, accurate writing. We await with interest the new courses in Functional English. But let's not be panicked into buying software like this. You'll find books that do this kind of thing just as effectively in your English stock cupboard.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Suffolk. He also writes English textbooks

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