‘SPaG’: helping FE staff and learners to cope with increased demands

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Mike Cooper introduces the newest practical materials in its ‘Other Resources’ service, offered by the Policy Consortium to help providers in their everyday activities.

Since May 2014, the Policy Consortium has posted a varied set of documents offered as free downloads under the ‘Other Resources’ section of this website, all aimed at day-to-day issues such as management, quality and teaching, learning and assessment. The latest of these consists of two linked sample Word documents, focused on the government’s recent moves to raise standards in English amongst learners across the FE and Skills sector.

The new requirement for all those in 16-19 Study Programmes to work towards a Grade C or better in GCSE English (if they haven’t already reached that level) places additional burdens on providers. These affect staff – both those who teach English, and other courses – as well as learners.

This change coincides with curriculum revisions in English, placing greater emphasis on basic writing skills such as ‘SPaG’: spelling, punctuation and grammar. There will be tougher expectations of learner performance over these matters, particularly in the controlled conditions of final examinations. More broadly, learners at all levels and at all ages are being challenged to raise their game in English.

For many learners, especially those arriving at an FE course with GCSE English at Grades D, E and F, or no grade at all, this is likely to be daunting. Staff will need to consider individuals’ abilities in SpaG – but also their mindset regarding them, and how he or she can improve them to Grade C level or better.

All this may mean that new approaches will be needed in teaching and learning about SPaG. One important aspect could lie in how written work is marked and corrected by staff, to encourage improvement.

Given that coursework assessment is being phased out in GCSE English, this process now becomes even more ‘formative’ – literally, much more a case of ‘assessment for learning’, now. More (indeed, most?) of the burden needs to sit with individual learners, for each piece and throughout the course. Marking such work needs to encourage that model; staff may actually need to do less than they have often have in the past, giving learners greater responsibility.

This technique, using agreed ‘short-hand’ symbols in margins and elsewhere to signal common SPaG issues in a more ‘engaging’ way than just crossings-out and/or insertions can also help reduce the marking burden on increasingly hard-pressed staff. This can allow them to focus more time and energy on other vital matters: not least managing learners’ own self-direction and progress.

This not a new idea, of course; nevertheless, these two models may be useful as either a starter or a comparison, where changes to marking are seen as necessary for the new situation.

Each model document is identical on pages 2 and 3: a table of simple symbols for SPaG matters, with a brief explanation and an example of the problem it addresses. In the first version, hot-linked here, however, the front page of the three explains the idea and how to apply it for teaching and training staff. The second version, here, is intended for their groups and individual learners, with that front sheet changed appropriately to explain how they can use the table and its approaches to improve the accuracy and control of their writing.

The system is designed to be used for staff and learners in any subject/vocational area at Level 2 or above — not just within dedicated English courses, at GCSE or otherwise.

The Policy Consortium welcomes comments and feedback on these sample documents, as well as suggestions for improving them.

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