No matter where you work, the ability to communicate clearly and coherently in English is essential. Obviously, speaking and understanding are the basic required skills, but reading and writing are also considered necessary by employers.
You simply cannot get by without at least rudimentary ability in English reading and writing, which includes, of course, a sound knowledge of grammar and spelling.
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It is not unusual to assume that native speakers of English would be experts in their first language — with perfect grammar, sentence structure and the ability to write flawlessly. Yet, while the Australian educational system has now reintroduced an emphasis on learning grammar and the in-depth teaching of writing, students who are non-native speakers often have a better grasp of the finer points of our language, including written English. This is due, in part, to the fact that while learning to speak, they are also learning how to read and write English correctly.
Students who are learning English as a second language also tend to have a strong grounding in 'learning how to learn' — they are keen to work on improving their writing skills, are motivated in their learning, ask questions, and practise speaking, listening and reading to further improve their fluency. They want to be seen as equal and will work hard to achieve it.
Unfortunately, the increasingly crowded curriculum means that the importance of meaningful, quality writing is still overlooked, and has less educational value and focus than subjects such as STEM. It is true that the level of spelling in Australia has fallen dramatically and that resources are being taken away from programs, like Reading Recovery, which were aimed at helping students, who fell at the lower end of the competency scale, improve their basic reading and writing skills.
In high school, the study of English is compulsory through to the end of Year 11, and if students wish to enrol in a university degree, English is often one of the only prerequisite subjects. Despite this, however, the focus is on content rather than finer language points such as grammar and spelling and, somewhere along the way, our students lost the drive to take pride in their written work.
There is much weight on the shoulders of the English teaching profession, who feel solely responsible to get the language skills of their students up to speed — even though English is a part of every subject area. It is always the language skills that get put aside for lack of time, meaning that students have no option but to engage a private tutor or simply struggle until the end of school, and beyond.
What seems to be lacking in the current curriculum is a focus on communication in English. Essentially, this entails a Life Skills program where students could be learning how to become a better writer in the practical sense — filling in forms (online and on paper), writing official documents, such as a CV, and communicating with potential employers — verbally, non-verbally and in writing.
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A big part of business, whether you're a sole trader or a larger business, is marketing. This involves advertising, sales and online communications, and includes writing content material for social media, advertising copy and websites — as well as quoting, invoicing and customer liaison.
Customers will judge your professionalism on your command of written and spoken English — incorrect grammar, spelling and punctuation are minor errors with potentially huge impact.
Getting a Gig as an Author
These days, it feels like everyone is becoming an author with a book to their name. TV personalities, actors, sportspeople, politicians, business owners — they're all writing memoir, business ideas and tips, and some have even published children's stories. Do they all have a flair as writers or any writing ability though?
Well, obviously they have the ideas but not all of them have the skills. To be a successful writer of fiction or non fiction, you don't need the best spelling, grammar or sentence structure because that's the job of an editor — to turn those great ideas into even greater writing that makes readers want to keep reading.
Writing well is not a natural skill. Improving your writing skills takes work but it isn't rocket science. Simply — the best way to learn how to write better stories or essays or reports is to practise, ask for feedback and apply it.
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Hobby Writing — Just for Fun
Perhaps you want to learn how to become a better writer because you love writing and sharing your ideas or tips. Perhaps you've set yourself a goal to improve your skills in literacy.
Whatever your reason for wanting to improve your written communication, your best bet is to either access great teaching material and resources produced by qualified teachers or authors or enrol in a course where you can learn directly from an expert in the field or genre you prefer.
How to Become a Better Writer
As with learning or teaching any skill, one of the best tips to ensure success when learning or teaching the art of writing well is to start with the basics and work your way through to increasingly complex skills.
A good English teacher or tutor will help you identify the skills you already possess and then focus on the ones you need to improve. For some students, this might mean starting with the basic rules of punctuation or simple grammar structures. For others, it may involve delving into more complex sentence structures or learning how to use a different form, style or vocabulary for impact.
At first, getting your sentence structure correct is recommended. From there, build on the simple sentence by moving on to compound and then complex sentences with a range of punctuation marks such as commas, semi-colons or colons. Make sure you learn how to use exclamation marks properly too.
An understanding of the functions of different parts of speech — nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions etc. — and how they interact with each other to make meaning in a sentence is important.
Don't be put off by exercises that seem repetitive — practising structures and experimenting with style over and over is how you learn and improve. Gradually, you can start adding more figurative or descriptive language and devices aimed at maintaining the attention of your readers.
Even an activity as simple as describing the appearance of a fellow student, a setting or an interesting object can open the floodgates, letting your ideas flow and allowing you to practise new grammar structures and manipulate the words on your page.
If you are learning how to write better creative fiction, you can move from writing interesting sentences to increasingly longer paragraphs and pages. You can experiment with different points of view, and rewrite the same ideas using a different style or adding in new material.
Improve Your Writing Through Reading
If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you.
~ Natalie Goldberg ~
Reading and writing are closely entwined — research has shown you cannot have one without the other.
And, without readers, there would be no need for writers. The message is simple — practise reading, and read widely, to gain an understanding of what makes words really hum for you. Then try to replicate it.
Practise with a different style or genre each week. Some will help improve your writing skills, others won't, and at the end of the day, you'll have discovered your own unique voice.
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Getting Better at Spelling
Let's be honest — you can either spell, or you can't. However, there's no doubt that incorrect spelling can not only look unprofessional, it can be embarrassing when it's changed your intended meaning. For example, as seen on a computer software program: Are you sure you want to exist? (Ahem ... I'd like to exist, but I also want to exit the program. Thanks.)
While a lot of these mistakes may seem funny to the everyday reader, they can also present the image that you don't care, or don't pay attention to detail. In the long run, for a business, this can cost you money because poor spelling and grammar can see you lose credibility as a professional.
Even if you're just posting something casually on social media — writing errors or ambiguity because of poor grammar or spelling can see you become the target of every language pedant on the internet, and a laughing stock amongst your friends at least.
There are a number of tips on how to improve your spelling but at the end of the day, it comes down to reading: read often, read widely.
And practice — the more you read, the more you write and the more you'll discover words you want to learn to spell.
Enrol in a Class
Finding a tutor, or enrolling in a small class or short course, can also be useful — especially if you find it harder to learn independently, or need a confidence boost. English is full of tricky spellings, with words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings, like to, too and two, and all sorts of rules, like when to use an apostrophe — should it be it's or its?
A good English teacher can help you understand the differences and the rules, and give you solid examples in a context that is relevant to you and your style or purpose for writing.
Dictionaries and Other Resources
Checking a dictionary for the meaning of a word as you read, or the spelling of words as you write is the best way to learn in the moment. With the living nature of language, and the almost day to day changes in word usage, hard-copy dictionaries can become dated quickly, but a good dictionary is still a useful resource to have by your computer or desk.
Of course, you can easily find an online dictionary or thesaurus (actually, there are hundreds of them). Some are subscription, like the Australian Macquarie, but many others are free.
And, there's also predictive text. Slightly annoying, yes — and you need to be sure you choose the correct word — but this feature can be handy for finding the correct spelling. (Just make sure you make a note of it, or you won't actually learn.)
Writing the Perfect Essay
Most students know what to include in an essay structure — introduction, paragraphs organised into key points, conclusion. But not every student knows how to elevate their essay, to make the writing powerful or how to make their essay stand out among the others the tutor will have to read.
If you want to truly succeed with your studies, learning how to write better essays is a relatively simple, small thing to do to get you on your way. Of course, you should remember that a perfectly structured essay, with a killer introduction and strong conclusion, is nothing if the spelling, grammar, vocabulary use and punctuation are not up to scratch.
How to Start
Sometimes, starting an essay can be the hardest part. The mistake most students make is to start writing with the introduction. Skilled essay writers will tell you not to attempt to write an essay in the order in which it will be read.
Here are a few tips to get you moving:
- Do all your research first — write the information and key points on cards, then rearrange them until you have them in the order you want them in your essay.
- Plan out what the essay will look like in a visual form like a diagram or flow chart.
- Identify the links between paragraphs — don't be afraid to shuffle them around, even at this stage. As you flesh out your ideas, you'll probably discover they work better in another position.
- Start writing — but write the body paragraphs first.
- Once the body paragraphs are finished, write your conclusion — this is essentially a summary of your paragraphs and where you restate your main argument or key points.
- Write your introduction last — this may seem odd, but you won't really know what belongs in your introduction until you have the rest of the text mapped out.
It's okay, as you're writing, to go off on a tangent when you get new ideas — but always make sure these new ideas fit your essay topic and criteria.
Nothing is ever perfect, but if you work on improving your technique and writing style, you'll be heading towards perfection when it comes to essays.
Spending a lot of time writing your essay does not guarantee it will be better (or worse) than someone who took half the time. Time spent writing is actually irrelevant. In fact, the more research and preparation you do, the less time it will take you to do the actual writing.
Make sure you avoid comparing yourself to your peers. Everyone has a different study style. Finding the one that works for you is your key to improvement.
Is Spelling Getting Worse in Australia?
If you look around on social media, it feels like the level of spelling ability in Australia is in rapid decline.
The thing is, compared to thirty, twenty or even ten years ago, the volume of writing we have instant access to each day, and the ease with which anyone can share their words with the world, is so much more. Whether it's a news article, an email, a text message, a Facebook post, Twitter, a blog, product marketing, TV ads, shops, on your phone ... words, messages, opinions, writing and so on is everywhere.
Could it just be a case that it 'looks like' Australia's basic spelling skills are falling, simply because we have more access to their writing?
When you think about it, prior to the Internet boom, if we read anything, it was written professionally — books, journals, newspaper articles — and probably with an editor on hand. We also would have perhaps had a penpal, or someone we handwrote letters to, as well — so would have been more practised in the art of writing.
Either way, back in the pre-Internet days, most people who wrote were writers — not necessarily professional writers, but writers in the sense they were writing regularly, so would have had more memory for correct spelling and grammar. Today, however, with the speed of the Internet and social media posting, anything written is seen as a quick way to voice your opinions — with minimal distinction between speaking and writing.
Is There Anything We Can Do?
Is it not enjoyable to learn and practise what you learn?
~ Confucius ~
Refocusing on the art of speaking well, and of skilful writing, is essential for our younger generations. It's the key to their future and the future of the English language.
Not everyone finds learning to read and write easy, however. Those who struggle to read and write well often feel self-conscious about writing anything, meaning their creativity is squashed and their ideas are not heard.
Focusing on the importance of communication, and, indeed, the need for pride in our language, will contribute in untold ways to the development of our society as a whole. The encouragement of expression and creativity can only benefit all.
Improving Your Writing Skills Through Daily Practice
Practice is the key to all learning and improvement. Writing on a daily basis, for different purposes and in different styles, is essential for improving your writing skills and gaining confidence. It's simple really — the more you write, the better your style and technique will be and the task will become easier.
If you're looking at a career in the writing industry, or if you're a student who is determined to become a better writer — daily practice and writing in a variety of genre and styles is a must.
Even when your skills are more polished, you should still aim to write on a daily basis, both privately and in the public domain. Being brave enough to publish your work and have strangers and friends alike read your writing can be valuable, especially if they take it upon themselves to critique it, or comment. Even potentially negative feedback is a learning opportunity.
And, if you're planning on writing for journals, magazines or even the traditional publishing market, getting used to having your work critiqued and edited is essential. Even multi-award-winning authors of international bestsellers have their raw manuscripts edited.
Having your writing checked and edited is crucial. A trained editor views your writing with fresh eyes and will find minor errors, inconsistencies and ambiguity. They will also advise on whether the writing is suitable for the target audience and comment on the structure and accuracy of content.
A good editor is like gold and they are very much part of the writing team.
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Read Widely and Often
Any author will tell you that a huge part of their day is spent reading the work of others. The seemingly simple act of sitting back with a book and settling in to read, allows you to absorb and analyse different writing techniques and the way other writers use words to explore emotion, setting and character.
If you read widely, you will definitely develop opinions about what you love and what you dislike. It may be a certain style, or a particular genre or even a turn of phrase. All of this experience will, in turn, come out in your writing.
You may find yourself becoming critical of certain writing styles. Perhaps you find the overuse of adverbs to be annoying and unnecessary. Another author might write long paragraphs of description that you find dull. You'll find things you love too — and it's all good because it shows you care about writing.
The Development of English as a Language
Putting a date on the creation of English as a language is difficult, although we do know that the history of English goes back to 430 CE. At this time, people came to Britain from a range of lands, all speaking variations and dialects of a Germanic language — Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish. As time went on, the groups became dominated by the Anglo Saxon race, and a new language, an amalgamation of dialects, emerged — which we now know as Old English.
It is believed that around 85% of the words from Old English have died out, but there are others that have survived to become commonly used words in the English we speak today. It is true, also, that a number of Anglo Saxon texts survived, the most well-known being Beowulf, written at some point between the 8th and 11th centuries.
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