Site logo: John Lister

Ink Pellet - the arts magazine for teachers

Scan of article

We once read a document from a local education authority that said, 'High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.' It turned out the intended meaning was that 'children need good schools if they are to learn properly.

Plain English Campaign is an independent pressure group promoting clear and straightforward writing. We are probably best known for our annual awards including the lighthearted 'Foot in Mouth' and 'Golden Bull' booby prizes. But for the rest of the year, we take up the cases of people whose lives are made needlessly miserable by baffling documents. We also provide editing and training services (which are the only sources of funding for our campaigning).

We find there are three main `crimes against clarity': jargon - technical terms that are fine as a form of shorthand between experts, but shouldn't be inflicted on the innocent public; waffle - needlessly verbose writing that aims to show off the writer's vocabulary rather than communicate a message; and gobbledygook - overly-complicated writing that either misleads or simply confounds the reader.

We doubt teachers will need much convincing of the problems with unclear writing. Documents dealing with education feature regularly in the `Golden Bulls'. Even the new head of the Learning and Skills Council, Mark Haysom, recently remarked, "I am somewhat taken aback by the language of this world of education that I have joined. I am surprised by the assumption of knowledge, the jargon, the acronyms and the lack of clarity. What strikes me most of all is that the language of education appears to have been taken away from [teaching staff] and hijacked by the new speak of the bureaucrats."

We often hear critics blaming teachers for the lack of clarity in many people's writing. But we think that's unfair. After all, until the age of 18 children are learning to express themselves clearly, and `A' level arts subjects usually emphasise coherent focused arguments. But university students are encouraged to write to impress with their knowledge and learn the art of padding to reach minimum word limits on essays. Lecturers are arguably far more responsible for gobbledygook than schoolteachers and, as it happens, professors and other academics tend to be the group most likely to take serious offence when they earn a Golden Bull. Of course, times change and teachers face new challenges to promoting communication skills.

We thought the problem of text messaging affecting children's writing was exaggerated until we read of a young girl who wrote an essay beginning "My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we usd 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kds FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc." (Or. in everyday language, "Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York, it's a great place.")

Our message to teachers is plain enough. By encouraging clarity in pupils' writing, you are giving them a valuable gift - the ability to express themselves clearly. By all means help children develop as wide a vocabulary as possible, but remind them how important it is to choose the right word to convey their meaning to the intended reader. And if you need to reassure pupils that everyone has moments when their communication skills fail them, the following true story may help. A former lecturer received a letter from Prime Minister Tony Blair's `Direct Communications Unit'. The letter, which referred to the Department for Education and Skills, contained three misspelt words. They were 'deparment', 'eduaction' and 'skils'.