Variations in aspects of writing in 16+ English examinations between 1980 and 2014.

by Urszula Clark

On 30th November 2016, Cambridge Assessment held a seminar to discuss the publication of its Report, Aspects of Writing 1980-2014.
This unique study is centred upon an analysis of sets of script samples undertake by students aged 16 years old as part of GCSE English, collected from 1980 onwards. This unique corpus offers an insight into variation and change in students’ creative, narrative writing practices, which this latest Report has charted over a 34 year period.

For me, three important aspects are highlighted by this study. Firstly, that students’ language use has become less complex in relation to sentence structure when writing in this genre. There has been a marked increase in the use of simple sentences and a lower incidence of multiple clause sentences with less subordination This should probably come as no surprise, given trends in prose fiction throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty first. Secondly, there is no evidence that students are using ‘text speak’ in their writing of creative narratives for examination purposes. Only one instance was found, ‘OMG’ from a grade E female candidate. Students also tended to use more paragraphs and proper nouns in 2014 than in previous years. Thirdly,examination standards have remained virtually static across the 34 year period, with a dip in the number of students obtaining grade D and below in 2014.

In relation to this third point, In her introduction to the seminar, Debra Myhill offers the possible explanation that teachers, given the emphasis upon students obtaining grades A-C, perhaps pay less attention to those who appear not to be capable of meeting the C grade threshold. Consequently, teachers may not pay them as much attention as those on the C-D borderline. It is also salutary to reflect that the 2014 cohort of students would have undertaken all of their schooling from infant, through junior to secondary years under the now defunct National Literacy Strategies (NLS). Whilst some aspects of spelling, punctuation and grammar appear to have improved over the time period, this improvement has not impacted very much upon the grades awarded. It would appear then, that the various NLS have had little effect upon improving the percentages of examination grades awarded overall.

I was invited to present a response to the Report at the seminar, and none of you will be surprised to hear that I extolled the virtue of teaching and learning grammar, not so much concerned with aspects of ‘correctness’, but with the expression of thought in a coherent and logical manner.

The Report is available on line, as is the seminar at:

http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/events/aspects-2016/

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