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The proof is in the pudding…by Zoe James

Why proofreading should be a key area for improving students’ performance by Zoe James

We know that the value students place on their writing varies enormously. Only last week I experienced the scenario I know will be familiar to many teachers: I marked a piece of work from a student which was devoid of capital letters and full stops, yet according to the data she had left primary school with a Level 5 in spelling, punctuation and grammar. I challenged the student and was told: “It wasn’t an assessment, Miss.”  My written task, it seems, wasn’t classed as valuable enough.  Writing for accuracy and precision is regarded by students a bit like a pair of high heels; only for special occasions.


But here’s the problem:  just like high heels, writing for accuracy needs regular, consistent practice, as anyone who has found herself teetering indecorously with excruciatingly achy calves will tell you.


Illustration: Matt Golding.

And, let’s be honest, the careful and meticulous checking of work really hasn’t been the pedagogical vogue.  Precision and accuracy take time; they are laborious and probably a bit dull. In the pressure for teachers to show progress in 20 minutes in lessons with a dazzling ‘eureka moment’ it’s quite understandable that our focus on accuracy of communication may have slipped a little.  What’s more, I’ve begun to wonder whether, as English teachers, we became unwittingly complicit in not valuing accurate writing.  That’s not to say we’ve ever stopped enthusiastically teaching SPAG but we have, I think been guilty of giving mixed messages.  We have all gleefully told students: “don’t worry; spelling and punctuation are not marked in this assessment,” knowing that it is going to be a universally popular statement.   Undoubtedly this is a confusing message for students, especially when we know precise writing demands consistency.  And, if this is what occurs in English, it must certainly be the case in other subjects, where, until next year Quality of Written Communication is merely a handful of marks added on to some questions, and not others.

However, curriculum change means that we need to start raising the importance of producing independently planned, considered and accurate work.  The new National Curriculum focuses on depth of knowledge, secure understanding and on content that needs to be communicated accurately and precisely.  GCSE 9-1, with its 100% assessment in exam, means that we need to train our students to critically reflect on their own communication:  after all, they are only going to get one chance to convey their understanding, and in timed conditions. The new GCSE specifications for Science emphasise the need for precise and accurate communication and in Maths this is fully integrated into the assessment objectives.  A consistent approach to proof reading, so that it becomes second nature for students, seems to be a key way to prepare our students to meet this challenge.

Recent research supports this. We know that self-regulation is a key attribute of high achieving learners.  The Education Endowment Fund has just released its report on Self-Regulation Strategy Development which, adapted from a successful programme in the US, has had outstanding results for improving the writing skills of students below national average. One of the distinctive features of the programme is that students systematically learn how to check their work against a clear framework, focusing the quality of communication.   You may well argue, “This is nothing new: I’m always using self- assessment and peer-assessment in my lessons!” And you would be right. However, as we move into this new era in education, we should think about how to shift the focus:  our students must reflect on the quality of the communication, not just the content.

Together with RE, Maths and English, I’m developing a proofreading sheet to be used in all curriculum areas. If you are interested in being involved let me know.



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