What's the point of it all?

28th January 2000 at 00:00
Helen Beaton argues that the new core skill requirements in communication do not make for good reading

I HAVE taught communication in further education for 12 years. When I first started (coming from a background in technical editing and freelance writing), I had to learn a great deal about what "communication" meant in college terms.

The outcomes in writing and talking seemed - if not easy - at

least logical and relevant to the vocational world. Reading and listening, however, always presented problems - even when specifications were revised. It wasn't easy to train students to pass the assessments and their actual readinglistening didn't noticeably improve.

Recently I started work on commercial, disk-based teaching materials to support the new core skill units - and the truth suddenly dawned. There is something wrong with the performance criteria for the reading outcome. We are asking the wrong questions in the wrong order. We are asking why instead of what; who instead of how.

Educationists are famously conservative, their purpose to enshrine, their audience other educationists. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find that the new core skill units (replacing the old communication 2, 3 and 4) still feature "purpose" and "audience" first in all outcomes. And in the reading outcome, just as before, we are to train students to pick out main ideas, to identify a point of view, and finally to evaluate success in relation to the all-important matter of purpose.

There is only one snag. We have been given to understand (indirectly but very clearly) that the previous levels of difficulty in communication 2, 3 and 4 had in some cases become a little sloppy, a little too easy to achieve.

Behind closed doors, the words "new rigour" are being whispered. Well - we have to rewrite the materials anyway. Just a little lambing-up of the old mutton.

Only today there are pressures that simply weren't around 12 years ago. These pressures have nothing to do with the teaching of communication, but they have a significant effect. They are familiarly known as "performance indicators". We need to recruit and retain more students. We need more students to pass the units for which we have entered them. Our necks - to use the language of crisis - are on the block.

Back to the double agents "purpose" and "audience". These were not absolutely foreign concepts - they had just never been so prominent before.

When did you last pick up the manual for your video recorder thinking: "What is the purpose of this?" Catering students faced with a page from a kitchen hygiene textbook do not instinctively wonder why it has been written. So when a communication tutor asks them to consider this - and write the answer - they naturally assume the tutor is either stupid or quite mad.

But we must none the less write materials to suit the 1999 core skill requirements and time is at a premium. The new rules stipulate only two chances of passing a summative assessment. Given the difficulties some students have - even after three attempts - we must improve our effectiveness. The Higher Still English documentation tells us there are three broad language purposes (to convey, to express and to create) and these can presumably be made to correspond to those in reading - right?

Wrong. The whole idea of "purpose" is fraught with difficulties. School pupils are rightly encouraged to "read with purpose". However, the reader's purpose in reading is not the same as the writer's purpose in writing. In fact, the reader's purpose in reading may be: to pick out the writer's purpose in writing. That is if the writer had a clear purpose (we must assume they did).

Here's a real-life scenario: you are a communication student who is presented with a short newspaper article. You are given questions to test your reading ability. The tutor talks through your responses with you.

Tutor: What is the purpose of this newspaper article?

You: To help sell the paper?

Tutor: Try again. Why do you think the writer wrote the article?

You: To shock?

Tutor: Well - those statistics are certainly shocking, but that may not be the main aim of the writer. What is the main aim?

You (perplexed): To - er - tell you about road traffic problems?

Tutor: Well - getting there. Could you be more precise?

You: To report on road traffic problems?

Tutor (full-fist salute): Yesss!

Unfortunately, despite this scenario (played out every day in a college near you) the student's first response was actually the correct one. The main aim of any newspaper article is to help sell the paper. Nothing is reported in print that does not contribute to this purpose, with the possible exception of some advertising. Journalists, to support their main purpose, must catch the reader's interest. So must all other serious writers of any kind of text.

Every type of writing can be evaluated in relation to this single purpose - in fact, it is what language study, in the traditional teaching of English, is all about. Down what dark alley, then, has communication strayed?

Reading questions in communication just don't pose the right questions. What is the article about? How does the writer explore the subject? How does the writer try to catch and keep reader interest? All questions that perceptive readers really do ask and earnest writers ask themselves in reverse.

Ironically, the reading approaches required in communication are in some respects more difficult than the language study required in English, yet it has enjoyed much lower esteem.

A Higher communication student is required to select and justify the main purposes of a complex piece of writing before making a "full evaluation" of the writer's success relative to purpose. This is an extremely difficult task if it is to be done to the letter - and managed successfully by the second attempt.

Still, the bottom line is: we need as many students as possible to achieve (OK - to pass). We need to make it as painless as possible. We need to explain the hoop we wish readers to jump through very simply - so simply that the idiocy of the whole approach does not occur to them.

I think I have come up with a solution. I have narrowed down the possible purposes to five. I think any text can be encouraged to ally itself with one of these, especially if the Scottish Qualifications Authority will approve summative pieces to fit this world view. I think the number five will appeal: it sounds precise and fair - like the mysterious three purposes in writing. I wish I could have narrowed it to three in fact, but something stopped me. An instinct for asymmetry, perhaps.

A user-friendly CD-Rom supporting this approach and encouraging text specific (rather than generic) approaches to the performance criteria will be available for sale by next spring. If we can just get the students to understand the reading assessment, then maybe we can help them with some communication skills.

Helen Beaton teaches Higher English and communication at Glenrothes College.

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