E for effort: the painful process of teaching British university students

AS there’s plenty of chat about university places at the moment, I thought I’d dig out a column from earlier in the year featuring some of my beloved former students:

FOR the past few weeks I’ve been marking exam papers. And it’s made me realise how much of a under-used skill spelling seems to have become.

I appreciate the fact I’m a journalist, writing in the ‘Chronical'[SIC]. Being fussy about spelling errors.

But there’s a difference between the occasional typing error or misplaced comma, and the apparent lack of effort by people who are supposed to be in the top percentage of learners – university students.

I know, I know, it means you’re getting old when you start moaning about how badly young people are educated ‘these days.’

However, I know as a parent of primary age children that they still have weekly spelling tests and are expected to learn them.

So what happens after that? Do secondary schools mark down homework and coursework for incorrect spelling? Why do seemingly intelligent teenagers with reasonable A Level grades arrive at higher education with such a poor grasp of grammar? And then expect to get degrees in ‘writing’ subjects like English and journalism?

It’s not all of them, of course. Across the classes there are many whose use of English is perfect. More often than not, the ones who spell correctly are from overseas.

Mature students, and those with dyslexia, also tend to produce work that has been corrected.

Those who don’t bother tend to be late teens, early 20s, and British. It’s not just their work, their entire communication is full of errors.

I don’t agree that it’s texting which has perpetuated this laziness with English. After all, most use predictive text which spells words for you. Today’s students spend their entire lives talking to each other via instant messaging, texts, email and tweets.

Mostly I blame ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ syndrome. It’s just a quick post on Twitter, so it dunt matta. I’m just replying to someone on Facebook, so it’s informal. Teens will always stick two fingers up to the oldies by vandalising language.

And that’s fine, in their own time. But not when you want me to mark your impossible-to-decipher essay.

So how to fix it? This wasn’t just a handful of teens who didn’t know the difference between their, there, and they’re. This was the majority.

Most common offences seem to be the disregard of all capital letters, at the beginning of sentences or for proper names. Then there are words that sound similar but they can’t decide which to use and can’t be bothered to check. And apostrophes? Stuck in anywhere! (Mostly for plurals, or should I say, plural’s)

One of the first things I insisted on was that any emails sent to me had to be spell-checked, with capital letters in the right places and correct use of apostrophes, or I wouldn’t read them. Then they had to proof-read each other’s work in class, which bored them rigid and made them at least hit the spell-check button more regularly. And it has improved. One girl admitted she simply hadn’t noticed how badly she communicated. Another was delighted when he finally understood when to put an apostrophe in “it’s.”

I find it disrespectful to receive communication where people can’t even be bothered to put a capital letter on their OWN name, let alone mine. Is it really so hard to type the word you’re unsure of into an online dictionary? Or, heaven forbid, use a REAL dictionary?

So when I’ve been marking work which is littered with errors, it shows they haven’t bothered, so they lose marks. Assignments and exams should be a reflection of your best work, showing off your abilities.

Basic grammar and correct spelling are like table manners. It puts me off if you don’t use them.

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