School proofreading: Do teachers need a safety net too?

I have a confession to make: with a colleague, I proofread secondary-school reports. Not OFSTED reports – the ones that schools send home to students and their parents.

I say ‘confession’ because when I mention this to friends and family, I get some mixed responses:

  • ‘But teachers shouldn’t need anyone to check their grammar!’
  • ‘Teachers should take the time to get it right.’
  • ‘Oh, that’s good – I’m always spotting errors in the reports we get from the school.’
  • ‘That’s a bit of a luxury!’ (This from a retired physics teacher … who also happens to be my dad.)

My colleagues who work on school reports say they’ve had similar reactions. It seems to be more surprising that a school would have its reports checked by a professional than that Professor Brian Cox would get an article copy-edited or JK Rowling would have a book proofread.

So why do people expect teachers to pen perfect reports without any help?

Maybe it’s because school reports are so highly valued – they’re one of the few ways that parents find out how their child is doing at school, and they’re often kept for years (I still have mine). For some, the quality of the report is a measure of the quality of education that the school provides: if the report has been written with care and attention to detail, this reflects the level of attention the teacher pays to the student.

Another reason might be the belief that there are more important things for schools to spend their money on than professional proofreading, especially with recent funding cuts.

Others might argue that because teachers are providing education, their grammar, spelling and punctuation should set an example to students. In other words, teachers shouldn’t need a safety net when it comes to writing reports.

But …

A teacher is no different from any other writer.

Every writer makes grammatical, spelling and punctuation mistakes – best-selling authors, editors and proofreaders (especially in emails to important clients) and, yes, teachers.

It’s easy to type ‘form’ instead of ‘from’ or ‘affect’ instead of ‘effect’ when your mind is in writing mode, not editing mode. It’s just as easy to miss out an article (for example, ‘Amy is excellent student’). Or your tablet’s autocorrect might decide that you really want to say ‘contentious’ instead of ‘conscientious’. Copying a generic sentence in a rush can lead to the wrong student’s name being used, or ‘he’ instead of ‘she’. Spellcheck won’t pick up on these things, so they can easily slip through into the final version.

This doesn’t reflect teachers’ lack of knowledge – it’s normal for any writer to make these kinds of slips. Even if we have time to re-read what we’ve written, we might not spot the typo, because our eyes see what we think we’ve written, not what’s actually there.

Teachers don’t have much time to write their reports.

Anyone who has a teacher in the family knows that they have a huge number of reports to write, in a very short space of time. The reports have to be up to date and relevant, so it’s not possible to give teachers weeks and weeks to write them. As mentioned in this article in the Times Educational Supplement, they are ‘often written as rush-jobs, late into the night, by teachers with other things on their minds’.

In this article in the Huffington Post, a teacher said of spelling mistakes, ‘that’s just wrong and there is no excuse’. But in the same article, another teacher explains that he ‘didn’t have time to be more thorough’.

People make mistakes when they have to rush, so having a second pair of eyes check the reports can pick up on these. But there’s often not much time to re-read them either, so it’s not always possible for teachers to check each other’s reports.

Not all teachers are grammar pros.

While most people would expect a teacher’s report not to be full of grammatical errors, perfect knowledge of English grammar isn’t what makes a brilliant art, maths, PE, IT or science teacher.

In the UK, many teachers who were at school in the 1970s and 1980s won’t have been taught grammar at all, because of the dominant thinking at the time about how children learn and internalise the grammar rules of their own language.

For some teachers (for example, native speakers of foreign languages taught at the school), English might not be their first language.

So, just like many other professionals, teachers might confuse ‘practice’ (the noun) with ‘practise’ (the verb) or write ‘could of’ instead of ‘could have’.

What’s more, language evolves, and the grammar ‘rules’ that were taught 30, 40 or 50 years ago might now be considered to be simply matters of style.

Is it a mistake or an inconsistency?

In secondary-school reports, it’s likely that different teachers will write different sections of the same student’s report. In UK English, if one teacher writes that a student is very ‘organised’ and another writes that the same student is always ‘organized’, neither teacher is wrong – it’s a style choice. But these can look like mistakes.

So, some schools like to be consistent about certain style choices – for example, whether or not to capitalise subject names, use abbreviations, allow contractions or use ‘-ise’ or ‘-ize’ endings.

It’s not easy to think about these things when your mind is focusing on the content – what you want to say about a student’s progress and how they’re doing.

Proofreading’s a bit of a luxury!

Those who believe this (like my dad, and my brother-in-law too, come to think of it) have a point – when budgets are tight, not every school can afford or wants to pay for proofreading. There are often higher priorities when it comes to allocating spending.

There are ways around this. Some schools check their reports internally – for example, teachers read through each other’s reports, form tutors proofread all the reports for students in their form, or the head of year proofreads all the reports for their year group. Or, non-teaching staff might do the proofreading while the teachers get on with the report-writing. As well as saving money, there are other advantages to having members of staff check the reports, as mentioned in this post by my colleague Helen Stevens.

On the other hand, sending the reports off to a proofreader can free up teachers and other staff to do the work that they do best, it can achieve a higher level of consistency (because fewer people are doing the checking) and it can save time (through greater efficiency).

Schools can choose to pay for professional proofreading or check their own reports – there’s value to both approaches. But I don’t think it’s fair to assume that teachers can avoid making the same kinds of slips that other educated writers make, simply because they’re teachers. If a school does use professional proofreaders, it doesn’t mean that the teachers don’t know where to put a possessive apostrophe or that they don’t care about setting a good example – it just shows they want to spend the limited time they have on what matters most: telling parents about how their children are doing at school.

If you’d like to find out more about how schools and proofreaders can work together, read this personal account by editor Helen Stevens.

Image credit: Photo by Leio McLaren on Unsplash.

Proofreader and copy-editor living in the Peak District, UK. Advanced Professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. 'Owner' (ha, ha) of two feline assistants.

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Posted in School proofreading
2 comments on “School proofreading: Do teachers need a safety net too?
  1. Liz Dexter says:

    Fascinating reading: I knew you did this but hadn’t really thought about the background to it.

    Like

  2. Laura Ripper says:

    Thanks, Liz! Before I started doing this, I hadn’t thought much about the background either! I do know a few others who proofread school reports (including one who works with a school in China!), but it would be interesting to know how common/widespread the practice is.

    Like

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