Code-switching (Post 28)

It sounds like something a double agent in a spy story would do. In fact, it’s something we all do – or at least, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t do it.

We speak in different ways when we are in different settings. I think the most influential aspect of the setting is the person or people we are with at the time. There are things that we would say to friends that we wouldn’t say to our parents; similarly, there are ways of speaking that we would use with friends which we wouldn’t use with our parents. For many people, swearing falls into this category.

HOW we speak, as well as what we say, changes when we are in different groups. In Post 3How do you sound? I asked you to record yourself speaking. You probably sounded rather different when consciously recording yourself, compared with when you speak naturally and in a relaxed way. That slightly more formal, more self-conscious way of speaking is one code; the relaxed, informal way of speaking with your friends is another code. Yet another code might be the way you would speak in an interview – more thoughtful and formal still, trying hard to create the impression you think the interviewer wants to hear (and see).

Gangs very often have their own codes – their own ways of speaking – which they use to identify one another. Rap often contains examples of gang code.

You might choose to speak in only one way all the time, and of course that is your prerogative [that is, it’s your choice to make]. You might think that that shows integrity, and it probably does. If you do only speak in one way all the time, however, you are losing what might be valuable opportunities to establish bonds with other people, and you may be displaying a lack of empathy [sharing other people’s feelings].

It is valuable to be able to code-switch. If people regard you as more like themselves, they are more likely to trust you. If they consider that you are not “one of us”, you must be “one of them” and so they might not accept you into their group. If their group happens to be the university you want to attend, or the business you want to work for, that’s going to place you at a disadvantage.

Here is the writer and journalist Oliver Kamm explaining why knowing how to speak (and write) in an appropriate manner (“code”) is helpful to you. The explanations in square brackets are by me. The extracts which follow are from his book Accidence will happen: The NON-PEDANTIC GUIDE TO ENGLISH. The title makes use of both a pun (see Post 18) and a homophone (see Post 19): “accidents will happen” is a much-used expression in our language, while accidence is the part of grammar dealing with inflection – where we put the stress on words; see Post 17Rhythm.

“We all adapt our style … according to our audience. We use intimate terms (and perhaps a private vocabulary) with a loved one, casual language with friends, and varying degrees of more formal language … with strangers, experts or figures in authority. … code-switching … saves us time and gains us credibility with listeners or readers whose attention we want … .”

” … the conventions of language enable you to talk to any audience without being dismissed or patronised [treated as if you were a child] because of the way you write or speak … .”

“The reason for speaking and writing fluently in Standard form [conventional or “correct” English] isn’t to show refinement; it is to make us at home in the world. Slang makes us at home in a like-minded group. That isn’t wrong but it is limiting.”

“Teenagers may be highly intelligent and also habitual users of slang and non-Standard forms; but if all they use is slang or non-Standard English, then their intelligence will not be recognised and their abilities will be needlessly constrained … .”

“… Linguistic superstitions don’t matter. Tacit [unspoken] conventions that make up Standard English do, because they enable you to get listened to without prejudice.”

And here is another writer on English language use – Professor David Crystal – making the same point about punctuation [commas, full stops, inverted commas, etc] in written English:

“… non-standard punctuation used in settings where we expect standard forms to prevail … can affect the user’s social credibility or career prospects.” [From his book Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation.]

I’d argue very strongly, then, that knowing how to speak and write in Standard or formal English is a valuable tool for anyone to have in his or her language tool-box. It might be said to be a power-tool. And this blog is all about the power that language use gives you!

Another Word Game (Activity 20)

I hope you’re enjoying playing Just a Minute (Post Number 12). Today’s game requires a little more preparation but the preparation itself is easier. You need teams of two; if there are only two of you, you can play together, but it’s more competitive if two-person teams compete against one another.

This is a communication game: it tests how well the speaker can describe the word on the card, and how well the listener can pick up the clues that the speaker is giving to him or her.

The more people you have playing, or the longer you want to play, the more words you have to have prepared in advance.

Get some paper and cut it into strips (15cm by 6cm is a minimum size) or if you have access to card, use or make cards of about that size.

Take a marker pen (a pen with a very thick nib) and write clearly on only one side of each strip or card.

Write one word on each. The words can be as easy or as difficult as you choose – but as with subjects for Just a Minute, remember that you may well have to guess the difficult ones yourself!

If you can manage 100 different words as a minimum, that allows you a good stretch of playing time (see below for ideas to get you started). If you can manage 200 or 300, all the better! And if you want to return to playing this game, of course people will forget the words they saw the first time, and/or there will be new players, so your pack of cards or strips can be used many times over.

The rules are simple. The speaker sits with the cards in front of him, with a shield between the cards and the listener – perhaps a cereal box, or a pile of books. A timer is set for one minute (or two minutes, if you prefer). If you have a third person as a time-keeper, that can help.

The speaker has to help the listener to guess correctly the exact word on the card in front of her/him, without using the word, or part of it, directly him/herself.

For example, if the word is HAPPY, the speaker mustn’t use (or spell out) HAPPY, HAPPINESS, HAPPIER, UNHAPPY and so on.

The speaker starts with the word on the top card/strip on his/her pile and is not allowed to move on to the next one until the word has been correctly guessed by the listener.

When a word has been correctly guessed, its card is put on a separate pile. When the time is up, the number of correctly guessed words is noted as that person or team’s score. If there are only two of you, whether you count the score as the speaker’s or the listener’s is up to you! That’s the important thing about communication: it requires both a good speaker and a good listener to be successful!

In the next round, the listener and the speaker change roles.

Don’t just put the used word-cards back to the bottom of the pile. Keep them until the game is over and then shuffle them around for the next time.

Suggestions for words to get you started: cat; dog; house; sky; clouds; planet; universe; stars; food; water; clothes; vegetables; lemon; purple; uncomfortable; wet; newspaper; sadly; song; theatre; poem; bowl; tennis; partnership; business; will; crash; books; music; terminus; forcefully; weak; curtain; rushing; trip; velvet; muddy; deep; theoretical; triangle; substance; incredible; diver; oxygen; trumpet; shellfish; quilt; see-saw; carpet; shoes (50).

Stealthily; fog; needle; jumping; twinkle; loud; forgetful; waterfall; puddle; tiger; horrible; dizzy; opera; baseball; over; virus; thermometer; electricity; waist; slippers; category; final; opening; across; island; remarkably; volunteer; pencil; yellow; flipper; magazine; tentacle; hypothetical; professor; writing; kick; dry; fold; pathway; mist; laptop; sunshine; dirty; propose; upset; quotation; keypad; remote; chair; shadow; porcupine (another 50).

Eye tolled ewe sew – Homophones (Post 19)

Homophones are words which sound the same but are spelled differently – I/eye; told/tolled; you/ewe; so/sew. There are many in the English language.

Eye-rhyme is when this happens the other way around: words look as if they should rhyme, but they’re actually pronounced differently – rough, through, although, cough. The language is well supplied with traps for the unwary!

If you were brought up from your childhood to speak (and read and write) English, you are fortunate: you will have learned to avoid most of these traps almost as a matter of course.

Even native speakers can struggle at times, though. See how you get on with this ditty (a ditty is a short poem that rhymes very obviously and has a very distinct and simple rhythm), reading it for understanding. Read it aloud (it’s allowed …) if you want to make that easier!

Spell Chequer

Eye have a grate spell chequer:

It came with my pea sea.

It plainly marques four my revue

Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye strike a quay and type a word,

And weight for it to say

Weather eye am wrong oar write;

It shows me strait a-weigh.

Whenever a mist ache is maid,

It nose bee four two long;

And eye can put the error rite.

It’s rare lea ever wrong.

Eye ran this poem threw it and

I’m shore your pleased two no

It’s letter perfect awl the weigh:

My chequer tolled me sew.

Puns (Activity 18)

Ben Battle was a soldier bold,

And used to war’s alarms:

A cannon-ball took off his legs,

So he laid down his arms!

This is the first verse of a rather silly poem which has a pun in almost every stanza (stanza is another word for verse, although stanzas don’t have to rhyme, whereas verse usually does).

Puns are plays on words. They usually depend on words having more than one meaning, or words which sound alike.

In the verse above, the pun is on arms. Arms – like legs – are limbs on the human body; but arms can also refer to weapons, such as the rifles that infantry soldiers use. (Infantry soldiers fought on foot originally, rather than on horseback; you’ll need to know this to appreciate another pun, later!)

A punster – a rather derogatory [insulting] term for someone who makes puns – might describe the unfortunate Ben Battle as ‘armless – making a pun on the fact that he has laid down his weapons and so can’t do any damage: he’s [h]armless. This is the second type of pun.

Puns can be “awful” – very contrived and possibly in bad taste! Most people appreciate them, however, even if they don’t want to hear them used too often.

The poem I’ve quoted, which is called Faithless Nelly Gray and was written by Thomas Hood, goes on to tell how army surgeons made Ben some wooden legs. When he goes to see his girlfriend, however, she dislikes them and says that he’s not the man she fell in love with – a handsome soldier in his (red) uniform. Ben suspects, though, that she has actually taken up with another man while he has been away in the wars. Distraught with grief, he takes his own life – but even this sad ending does not stop Thomas Hood filling his verses with puns!

I won’t reproduce the whole poem here, but see if you can explain the puns in each of the following stanzas:

Verse 2:

Now as they bore him off the field,

Said he, “Let others shoot,

For here I leave my second leg,

And the Forty-second Foot!”

Verse 3:

The army-surgeons made him limbs:

Said he, “They’re only pegs:

But there’s as wooden members quite,

As represent my legs!”

Verse 6:

“O Nelly Gray! O Nelly Gray!

Is this your love so warm?

The love that loves a scarlet coat

Should be more uniform!”

Verse 11:

“O false and fickle Nelly Gray!

I know why you refuse:

Though I’ve no feet – some other man

Is standing in my shoes!

Be careful what you say (Thought 14)

This is a reflection rather than a suggested activity – but it might affect your behaviour; the choice is, of course, yours.

To be known as “a woman of her word” or “a man of his word” is one of the greatest compliments you can ever be paid. It means that you “deliver on” what you say you’ll do.

If you “keep your word” – that is, do what you say you’ll do – then people will come to trust you; and being trusted – and trustworthy – is both a compliment and an asset to you.

Trust, however, takes a while to build up: you might have to prove on several occasions that you can, indeed, be trusted, before another person will take that for granted.

Trust is also very easily broken – and it is possible that you may never be able to rebuild it fully. It only takes one broken promise for the person to whom you made the promise to feel that he or she can never truly trust you again.

You may have heard the expression “white lies”. It means things that are untrue, but either unimportant, or a way of explaining something where the truth would do more harm than good. The Tooth Fairy might be an example of the first kind of white lie; saying that you like a present that a relative has given you when you don’t actually like it at all might be an example of the second kind of white lie.

Actually, I don’t believe that white lies are a good idea, or harmless. You may of course disagree. I think it’s better either not to make up untrue explanations – in the first example – or to find something different to say that is true, in the second (perhaps, “That is a really generous and thoughtful present! Thank you VERY much.”).

OK – enough of the “heavy stuff”.

Why does it matter that you keep your word? It matters because being trusted is the way that most of the important relationships in our world are built up. Personal relationships are an obvious example, but business and workplace relationships also work best when built on trust.

So does it really matter, in these bigger, more important settings, if you say, “I’ll get us something for lunch when I’m out this morning” and then don’t bring anything back? Surely that’s trivial – ? Or say you’ll empty the dishwasher, or put the clean washing up to dry, and then “forget” to do it – ? I think it does matter – because if you can’t be trusted with the small things, why should anyone believe you can be trusted with the bigger things? Are you a person who is true to his/her word, or not? Best to be able to answer that “Yes” or “No” rather than have to settle for “It depends …” – which isn’t really much use to anyone.

Think before you speak. If you can’t be sure that you’ll do what you say, then be honest: “I’ll try to get that done, but I might have to put it off until tomorrow or the next day.” Or “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not do that.” People will admire you far more for being honest than if you’d said what you thought they wanted to hear, and then failed to deliver on it.

You don’t have to be hurtful, however, to be honest. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing, or to say something different, rather than tell the truth and hurt another person’s feelings. If you haven’t already heard it, you soon will hear people referring to the classic excuse, “Sorry, I have to wash my hair this evening” – used when someone doesn’t want to go out on a date. It’s so well known now that it probably isn’t used any more in reality – unless the speaker wants to say it as a code for, “I don’t want to go out with you!”

Better not use that one, then – but there is no reason to be brutal and say, for instance, “I really don’t like you and I wish you’d stop asking me out”. How about, “I don’t see this friendship going anywhere, and I appreciate your asking me out, but I’m going to say no. Thanks anyway” – ?

I’m writing this from experience, as you can maybe tell. When I was quite young, my mother – who had brought me up always to tell the truth – was appalled when I told my grandmother that I didn’t actually like the present she’d bought for me for my birthday. Well – she had asked me what I thought of it! My mother told me later that day to go back to my grandmother and apologise, and tell her that I did like it after all. I still haven’t really got my head around that one – which is why I developed the belief that if you can’t tell the truth without hurting someone, you should tell a different truth instead, if that’s possible. Even although I was very young, I could have said to my grandmother, “Thank you! That’s really kind of you. I love you.”

How to Write a Story (Suggestion 13)

Of course there are some of you who don’t need to read this! Many people love writing stories and find that they can do so without any help from others. If you are one of those, I hope that you are enjoying having the time to write more, while we are living in Covid19 “lockdown” conditions.

Other writers just need a stimulus – an idea to start them off – and then they’re happy to get down to the task of creating a story based on it or in some way related to it. If you’re one of those writers, here are some ideas:

“Long ago, it must be. I have a photograph … .”


The end of the road.

The argument.

My first love.

May Day.

Architecture is frozen music.

Those who do not remember their history are condemned to re-live it.

There is nothing new under the sun.

“This is the dawning of the Age … .”

If however you are someone who finds writing a story quite difficult, here is a suggested way of doing so.

Make some notes in answer to the following questions; make the answers up with the thought in your head that these are going to be the ingredients of a story you can write.

WHO is going to be in your story? Don’t have too many characters, but give at least five details about each one, e.g. name (if you want him/her to have a name); occupation (job); physical characteristics (such as hair colour, height, gender); age-group; the mood (s)he is in at the start of the story.

WHERE is the story going to take place? Give as much detail as you want.

WHEN is this happening? Most stories are written in the past tense – that is, as if they have already happened. This is probably the easiest way to tell a story, even if it is actually set in the future or another imaginary time. For example, a science fiction story set in the future might begin, “She got off the space shuttle around 6 pm as usual, but it was only when the animal crossed the road in front of Louisa that her day became unusual.”

WHAT is going to happen in your story? Give an outline of the plot/story-line/events. This can be the most difficult part for writers who find story-telling tricky. Some writers don’t map out their plots in advance, but just start writing and see what happens!

WHY have these events taken place? Often this is the climax – the most exciting – part of the story and for the reader the part that (s)he’s been waiting for. For that reason – the build-up of suspense, which keeps people reading – the climax of the story is very often at the end. Murder mysteries are the best example of this.

So – now you have an outline STRUCTURE of your story. It can be true, of course – based on something that’s actually happened, perhaps to you or in your family – or completely made up, or a mixture of both.

Good luck! If you really want to write a story – or if you really have to, for school, for example – keep trying. Don’t give up. Like everything, writing a story becomes easier with practice.

The JOY of Reading (Post No.11)

As I’ve written before, there are different types of reading: we read differently depending on WHY we’re doing it. Today, however, I want us to focus on reading for sheer PLEASURE!

For some of you, that may be a “given” – that is, you already know what a joy reading can be.

For others of you, you may be thinking, “Yeah, right. That’s not going to happen.”

I’d ask you to try your best to get to a stage where reading is not an effort for you. It can be a great pleasure as you lose yourself in fiction, fantasy or real-life stories – especially at this time when we are all having to stay indoors and away from other people a lot more than we are used to doing.

So – two aspects to today’s post: ONE – WHAT you might read; TWO – HOW you might come to read easily.

ONE – WHAT might I read now? If you know what sort of book you like, this is a good time to get hold of more of the same type and to enjoy them.

If you want to experiment with books that are different from the ones you’ve already read, this is a good time to do that as well! We almost all have plenty of time on our hands at the moment.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford to buy books online, there are many places where you can do this – Amazon, of course; also Waterstones and Blackwells bookshops, and possibly an independent bookseller closer to your home. Look at the “blurb” – what’s written about the book – before you add it to your list, and also read the reviews; if you’re spending money, you want to be fairly sure that you’re spending it on something you’re going to like. Don’t feel pressured into buying something that’s won prizes or had a lot of publicity; buy what appeals to you, and perhaps books that are recommended by people you know, who like the same sort of thing that you do. Feel free to type in lots of different categories in the Search bar; this is also a good time for online browsing, and you might come across interesting-sounding books that would otherwise have escaped your notice.

If you can’t or would rather not buy books online, there are many which can be downloaded for free. Just searching for “free books online” I came across a number of sites which you might want to browse. for example lists 15 sources of free online books, with the 15 categories differing widely. I thought that also looked promising, again because you can browse by category and also because it didn’t seem overwhelmingly American in tone.

I’m not recommending anything – site or book – in particular at this point, because I know from experience how awkward and boring it can be if you’re recommended something and end up not liking it. Feel free to make your own choices!

What I would say, though, is that unless you really LIKE reading on a screen, you’ll probably get more enjoyment from a hard-copy – i.e. paper – book, and find it easier to follow and to read swiftly. So for that reason, another GREAT source of new reading material is ANYTHING THAT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY ALREADY HAVE IN THE HOUSE. This may not be the time to be choosy: read as much as you can, and see what you like and don’t like.

TWO – HOW can I get to the stage where I read almost without realising I’m doing it?

If you’ve been doing what I recommended in Post No. 5 – Read, read, read! – you’ll be well on the way to absorbing written words rather than having to make an effort to read them. Well done: keep up the good work!

If you haven’t started that, give it a try – and don’t be put off by difficulties. Anything worth doing takes effort and practice. Stick at it. Ask for help with words you don’t recognise. Use a dictionary if you need help which you can’t – or don’t want to – get from another person. This site tells you how to pronounce words, too: Just be sure to choose the English (BrE) version of the word rather than the American (NAmE) one (unless you want to sound American, of course – which is fine!).

Choose a story you think you’d like to read. A short piece is better to start with – maybe something from a magazine.

Do you find it easier to read aloud to yourself rather than “in your head”? That’s fine to start off with. Read to yourself until you’re happy with the speed that you’re achieving. If there are too many puzzling words, though, try to find something easier to read. At this stage you want to grow in confidence and fluency, not to struggle unnecessarily.

Once you’ve got up to a speed you’re happy with, try your next (part of the) story just moving your lips to shape the words but not making any sound. Again, keep going until you’re happy with the speed and understanding of your reading. Be aware that this may take days or weeks: don’t over-do it each day, just make sure that you practise each day and try to improve each time.

Finally (for now), practise reading without moving your lips. Make your eyes move from word to word at a steady pace, and pause a little at commas, and a little longer at full stops. These are the places from which to go back, if you find you haven’t understood something.

Now you’re well on your way to reading for pleasure. Well done! Keep practising!

Look how you speak! (Suggestion No. 9)

Today’s suggestion comes from Jordan Pfotenhauer, Programmes Director of the English-Speaking Union in Scotland. Its “Speak up Scotland” programme encourages debating activities in schools.

This suggestion is a development of my Post No. 3 – How do you sound? If you have carried out that task, you should be well on the way to getting rid of any verbal “tics” or fillers that you picked up when you listened to the recording you made of yourself. Now it’s time to see whether you like – or are impressed by – how you look when you speak.

How we look when we speak – how we “deliver a speech” – can have a very strong impression on our listeners. It can make them more likely to agree with us, or drive them to reject what we have to say.

Not all listeners respond to the same speaker in the same way. Some listeners like serious speakers. Some like entertaining speakers. Some are moved by passionate, emotional deliveries; others are more convinced by a sombre, measured approach.

What you’re talking about – your topic – will also influence the style you choose when you are talking about it. Some subjects – topics – suggest that a sad delivery would be most suitable. Some are light-hearted and lend themselves to a more joking approach.

Here is Jordan’s suggestion: Choose something that is currently irritating or angering you. This can be as serious (people losing jobs because of coronavirus shut-downs?) or as playful (having to share a bathroom with your brother or sister?) as you like. Write a one-minute speech and deliver it to yourself in the mirror (Try to find a full-length mirror, and also to look at all of yourself as you speak. You can do this several times, perhaps until you don’t need to read your speech but can deliver it without notes). Try to deliver your speech in such a way that you would convince a listening audience that you are RIGHT to be angry.

How did you feel about doing that exercise? Was it awkward? Did you enjoy it?

If you don’t want to pay attention to what you’ve got to say, why should anyone else want to do so?

Watching yourself, as well as listening to yourself, can be quite embarrassing to do at first. Carrying out these activities will help you to present yourself in a way that suits you.

Visit for more of Jordan’s suggestions. You can influence people with both what you say AND how you say it.

Passing on a good idea (Post No.6)

Yesterday morning I heard on the radio of an idea that apparently has the backing of Stephen Fry and other great users-of-words. I thought I should pass it on. It is probably of more use to your younger siblings or children, but anyone who is uncertain about recognising words might like to try it.

It is simply this: to turn on the subtitles when watching – or allowing your children to watch – television.

Now, if you can read and hear perfectly well, subtitles can be irritating and distracting: they are always slightly behind the sound of what’s being said, and the software isn’t perfect so sometimes it doesn’t reproduce in words what is being said onscreen. (However, some of the mis-translation can be quite amusing … .)

For those with hearing problems, subtitles are a great boon; that is their intended purpose.

Children often learn without realising they are doing it, however, so the idea behind this new use of subtitles is that they will pick up the written equivalent of some of the words they are hearing. Not a bad idea, especially with the simpler programmes, for early primary years children, as there is not a lot going on at any one time and the words will be simple and repeated quite often.

And as an extension of this: do READ ALOUD to children, and indeed to adults if you and they would enjoy that. It’s good for the reader, especially as (s)he gets to practise interpreting the story with different accents and tones of voice [See post no. 3]; and it’s great for the listener, who can hear the story or news item without having to make the effort to read it. Those learning to read also benefit if they can follow the pages in the book as you read them aloud – especially if there are illustrations.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the Easter weekend; it’s important to have some holiday and relaxation, as well as to keep up your learning, in these difficult times.

Why should I do schoolwork when my exams have been cancelled? (Thought No. 4)

Hmm … Good question, and one that many school students will have been asking themselves over the past two weeks or so.

Well, if you’re in the younger yeargroups, you’ll have to go back to school at some point. “The teachers will just start from where we were, and help us catch up,” you might say. Probably true, but you the pupils are the ones who will have lost out there. You won’t have as much time left before, for example, you have to choose exam subjects, and knowing less in each subject means your choice won’t be as well-informed as it would have been. So that’s one good reason to keep working in each subject.

Another is – and this applies to everyone who’s off school – that the longer we don’t study, the lower our IQ (Intelligence Quotient) becomes. I need to try to find the study again, to reference this, but research does show that over, say, a 6-week summer holiday, a learner’s IQ falls by 4 points!

Our study skills, like so much else, tend to operate on a “use it or lose it” basis. If we don’t keep ourselves in the habit of learning, it will be much harder to return to it and have to re-learn those skills.

If you are in the older yeargroups, you’ll be working towards qualifications – National 4 or 5, Highers, GCSEs, A-levels, for example. If you’re in the first year of a two-year course, it’s really important that you keep yourself working on it; you won’t be able to make up the time if you don’t use it now. Yes, you might be able to work harder and cram more in when you do go back to school, but that “catch-up” material won’t be as well learned as if you had spread its learning over a longer time, and the pressure on you will mean that new material has less time to “sink in”.

If you’re in the final year of your courses, and you know that your exams aren’t going to happen, that’s a really frustrating situation to be in, and I feel for you. Your grades will depend on the standard of the work you did before the schools closed, including mock or prelim exams. That is what your teachers will use to predict your grades for the exam boards. I know that many school students – not all! – tend not to take prelims or mocks seriously, telling themselves that these exams don’t really matter, and that they (the students) will work a lot harder for the “real” exams. Sadly, it is partly for situations like the current one that mocks/prelims exist. OK, we haven’t had as widespread a situation as this before, but the principle is the same: if a learner can’t take his or her “real” exam – for whatever reason – the prelim/mock result is used to indicate what the student might have been expected to achieve.

“Hindsight is a great thing,” you might be muttering, resentfully – and I take your point.

So – if you are not going to be continuing a subject after this school year, is there any point in working on it? In all honesty, probably not. HOWEVER, you have to be REALLY sure that you’re not going to need or want knowledge of that subject at any time in the future. For example, you may not want to be an accountant, but you’ll need to understand numbers for many, many aspects of your life beyond school – pay-slips, checking tax and National Insurance, appreciating the consequences of interest rates for borrowing and saving, to name but a few. Physics may not be a great interest of yours, but if you ever wonder why waves make the patterns they do, in the sea or in a puddle or on a river, physics is the subject that’s going to explain that to you. And of course, you’ll be using language for the rest of your life – reading (even if only for work or social contact), writing (typing onscreen is a form of writing), speaking and listening. So you REALLY do have to keep on getting better and better at using language, because you need to grow into and keep up with the use of language by people in the world beyond school.

If you’re taking a subject on to the next level, next academic year, you can’t escape the importance of keeping up your learning over the coming months.

If you’re hoping to go on to university or college to study your subject(s), you need to keep learning so that you’ll be in a place of (relative) confidence when you start your HE (Higher Education) or FE (Further Education) course. If you’re really concerned about whether you can do this on your own, it is well worth finding out whether there is tutoring help available. Some tutors – for example, students who are already on your chosen course, but a year or two ahead – might well be happy to tutor you for free. Other tutors will charge, but it might be money well spent if it gets you off to a good start at college or university. All this will have to be online or by phone (or even by post!) at the moment, of course.

If you’re hoping to move school, perhaps for Highers or Sixth Form, and you’re uncertain whether your predicted grades will get you in, it will help if you can show that you have been working with a tutor – or if you can show actual evidence of work you’ve been doing on your own – during the time the schools have been closed. Remember that this is a time of uncertainty for everyone: your new school might be glad of help such as this when trying to make decisions about which students to admit.


What matters is what you can do, and what you know. This is what employers are looking for, and it is what will be of most use to you in life. A bit of paper with subjects and grades written on it is not, when you come to think of it, a great deal of practical use.

It would be great if an employer were able to take you on for a few months to find out whether you have the skills and knowledge that (s)he is looking for. Unfortunately, that isn’t a practical proposition in today’s job market, where there are so many applicants for each post, and people will travel or relocate readily in order to take up a job. So qualifications are designed to reassure the employer (or university or college) that you really do have the skills and knowledge that (s)he is looking for.

Why am I pointing that out? Because it’s the skills and knowledge that are the important things, not the qualifications themselves. That means that it is REALLY IMPORTANT that you continue to practise and to learn the skills and other attributes that you are going to need after this summer.

It’s not the qualifications that matter, it’s what you can actually do.

Keep learning, keep reading, keep thinking. You have many skills: use them, don’t lose them.