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English by Numbers

0. The first step...

There is quite a common thread in the thinking of the teaching of English that things like beautiful writing, and flowing, detailed analysis come innately to a student, and perhaps cannot even be taught at all. In this thinking a student comes to the discipline with a gift (or not!) and the teacher can only nourish (or attempt to nourish!) what comes with the individual into the classroom.

They are a beautiful thought, aren't they, these chosen ones? These students who arrive with a seed already planted and beginning to bloom. The idea that logically follows is that the teacher’s job is to cover the child in literary fertiliser, cover their own nose, cross their fingers, and watch the student metaphorically flower. It is movie worthy; it has been movie worthy! And it is also, of course, for the most part, nonsense.

The part that isn't nonsense is this: it is true that students arrive at school with different academic levels in English, and that some are already excelling. Why? Well, they haven't yet found a the DNA coding for English essay writing skill, and, whilst one in a million students might be the Sheldon Cooper of English, that is unlikely be the answer either. In fact, it’s more than likely that a big part of their pre-existing English level is the amount they read at home.

Reading is nothing. Zero. And by that I mean it is everything. The number 0 is not actually a number - it is a concept that underpins all other numbers. It is the starting point; the origin. Without 0 no other number could exist. So too with reading - it is the origin for every other skill you will need in every other subject in your academic life. Reading is the best thing you can do for your studies. If you don’t read at home, begin immediately. Does the Kindle count? Yes. Does this blog? Sure - but I wouldn’t rely solely on it. Does Instagram? Or Twitter? You already know they don’t. Read much and read often. And what should you read? Anything that fits the description of something that you could find in a library or bookshop (that isn’t the plastic tat at the till). If you don’t want to do it, set a timer for twenty minutes a day, suck it up, and get it done. And you do have time, no matter what you tell yourself. Trust me when I tell you this is the first step on the road to your academic success. If you do nothing else, do this.

Fine - you read now, or you always have done and didn’t need the reminder. Are you now gifted? Well, probably not, honestly. But, if you read extensively at home, you are very likely to arrive to classes with a commensurate or better vocabulary than your classmates. You’ll also have been exposed to a variety of syntactical structures which you will have absorbed, and which you will (when the time is right!) regurgitate into your own writing whether you want to or not. And that gives you a huge head start in what is to come.

The next step is to learn to structure what you already have using frameworks designed to help you write high level, fluent, engaging prose that hopefully scores well in grading criteria. You and I are going to call this approach, ‘English by numbers’.

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