Updated: Oct 15
English Language GCSE is a test of your ability to communicate your ideas and your understanding of others when they communicate their own. How can we, as parents, support students with this fundamental life skill? Particularly if we don’t feel confident with it ourselves? You do not need to be familiar with all the most complex and obscure grammatical rules to help students improve; you simply need to embrace questioning and learning yourself. A few key things you can do:
1. Model reading. This means be seen to be reading, for pleasure and for knowledge. Try to do it with a physical book or magazine rather than on your phone (although an e-reader has the same immersive quality). Numerous studies suggest that students who are surrounded by parents who read are far more likely to read themselves. Why does this matter? Because if you are constantly exposed to good quality prose you are far more likely to absorb good literary habits. Equally, constant exposure to poor quality writing means you are far more likely to start making their mistakes. Think: annoying cliches that writers use in blogs and social media posts (IKR?); embedding commonly held misconceptions like the differences between imply and infer or affect and effect; vagueness resulting from using popular buzzwords rather than the particular word that is appropriate at that moment.
2. Question for clarity. Nagging children about their grammar is a
quick way to destroy any sort of relationship but gentle questioning when their statements are vague is an excellent way to demonstrate your interest while at the same time forcing them to consider their words. For example: “I don’t like history, it’s boring”. “OK: when you say it is boring, is it more or less boring than science?” “Can you explain what you do in the lessons that is different from other lessons?” “How does your ability in History compare with your feelings about the subject?” The trick here is to keep going back to the words that the student has used: this shows that you’re listening and also challenging whether the words are correct. “So when you said earlier that history is boring, is that really the right word? Perhaps it’s the teacher who is boring? Or perhaps the subject isn’t boring but you’re finding it difficult.”
3. Don’t allow trailing off. One of my bug-bears at the moment is the use of ellipsis or etc to end a sentence. In writing it suggests sloppiness (except in very specific instances of creative writing but even then it is generally a rather tired technique) and a failure to completely think through the implications of the list or sentence. For example:
There were lots of reasons why Hitler rose to power: his views on the Treaty of Versailles; his use of propaganda, etc. Any examiner reading this would be wondering if you had forgotten about the SA and his racist policies or if you had decided they weren’t worthy of comment. Either way suggests that you have not got a full grasp of the issues.
4. Talk about language. One of the most fascinating things about language is its evolution and development. Words change their meaning over time; some become unsayable, others change mode (nouns becoming verbs, for example), some fall out of fashion, new ones are suddenly created. I am generally unwilling to say “you can’t say that” but I do encourage students to think about all the different implications of a particular word. An excellent example is “queer”. If you found this word in a nineteenth century novel it would mean “odd” or “peculiar”. Sometimes it might mean to bend something in the wrong direction (to “queer” the line). Through the twentieth century it became a term of abuse thrown at gay men. Now some young people are adopting it to mean “not conventional”; a use that causes many gay men and lesbians great offense. Having these conversations helps instil a thoughtfulness about our language as well as a more precise approach.
5. Admit your mistakes.Nobody is perfect in the world of grammar (not even me). Pronunciation is a particular issue for people who read voraciously but never actually hear a word. We all pick up mistakes from others and fall into bad habits.There’s no shame in getting things wrong but modelling self-correction and double-checking is a vital part of teaching students to continue thinking critically even when they are sure they know what is correct.