Personally speaking: `But the douh in the hooven intill its backed'

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I'm sure most primary school teachers are adept not only at deciphering scrawled handwriting but also at understanding what is meant. But the above was written by a 16-year-old. During the summer, the writer will be deciding whether to remain at school, go to college, or get a job.

Whichever option they choose, they are severely handicapped: after 11 years of education, they are almost illiterate.

What is my role? Every year I mark GCSE Science papers: this year, I have 300 lower grade papers. The most the candidates could achieve on this paper is a grade D. I begin to wonder whether Science should be taught to the weakest pupils solely as a vehicle for literacy. Should I care if they can't spell potassium or absorb? It took a while to work out that "ezobes" meant absorbs. Surely what matters are the basic building blocks of language: simple words like come, make, when, higher, doesn't, there and their.

You may feel that I am quoting unfairly from one candidate's work but more than a quarter of the papers show a similar lack of basic English skills. "Backed", as in the sentence above, was a frequent misspelling but I also read "beaked" instead of baked on several occasions: "goot" is written for got; "puting" and "tak" for putting and take; rarely becomes "rairlly" and definite "deafnet".

We know that babies can distinguish voices and music before birth, yet most ante-natal classes fail to stress the importance of talking to the baby as part of the bonding process. Children learn speech by communicating, not by passively absorbing adult conversations. Parents need to know how vital their role is in encouraging clear speech so that we can avoid, for example, "open" being written for happen.

I would be surprised if many of today's unfortunate candidates were given a decent grounding in phonics in their infant years. Should a revision course in phonics and the oddities of English spelling be given to all pupils in year nine (before the two-year GCSE courses begin)? A modified version of Alpha to Omega which is used to help dyslexic pupils might be suitable. If all English courses and exams included compulsory reading aloud, spelling would improve.

I suggest also that the literacy skills of weaker pupils decline during secondary school. Most English departments do their best with the time and resources allotted them, but a whole-school strategy is needed: every subject teacher, be they biologist or historian, must play their part. All written work must be carefully corrected by the subject teacher. But in addition, extra remedial sessions should be timetabled so that these corrections in essays and notes can be explained, and the grammatical points and spellings can be sorted out. Very often, remedial classes provide a self-contained programme of work which does not tie in with the rest of the curriculum.

Many teachers fear that repetition of basic work will bore their students. But if a 12-year-old has not yet learnt the correct contexts for "to", "two" and "too", then more exercises need to be done, and repeated, until that pupil is using them confidently. Luckily, today computer technology allows these sort of rote exercises to be entertaining - a far cry from the grammar exercises of 40 years ago.

Over recent months, many schemes, such as the Reading Summer Schools, have been initiated. However, such developments must be part of a coherent policy. In the 1960s, teachers often bemoaned Enid Blyton. Her bland prose style would encourage declining standards, we were told. Personally, I loathe the Famous Five, but I dearly wish today's failures could write as she did: simple, accurate English - enough to write a decent job applicationn

*The candidate is telling us: Put the dough in the oven until it is baked.