THREE ABILITIES are indispensable in English-speaking contexts for tertiary students and postgraduates, and for business and professional people who need to write letters and reports and give talks. 

The first is to write English well.  The second is to present questions or topics and responses to them (in speech as well as in writing) clearly and in a logical order.  The third is to engage for oneself in sound and fruitful reasoning.

In these Sets, my three documents named here (two booklets and one single page) deal, respectively, with the three abilities:

  1. Questions and Principles for Sentence-construction (QPS”), in Set A;
  2. “Seven features of a good talk or paper” (“7F”). also in Set A;
  3. Reasoning, in Set C.

QPS would best be studied by most readers of this Introduction in conjunction with my book Making up Sentences (“MS”: third edition, Learningguild 2021).  With it I have helped both native and non-native speakers of English to increase their understanding of sentence-construction and improve their practice of it.

The cumulative study of its six chapters would make a substantial part of an excellent secondary education in English suitable alike to young people and to adults.  Appendix A, “Abbreviations for Annotation”, would be helpful both to students and to anyone who wants to make detailed comments on someone’s written work.  Click here if you wish to download a free copy of MS or parts of it.

The printed book can be bought from Learningguild for $25 (postage within Australia $9).  A cheque may be sent, made out to Learningguild and posted to 23 Fallon St, Brunswick, Victoria 3056, or a bank draft to Learningguild’s account (633 108 1622 69245).

This Introduction, the three documents named above, and the book are brought together in “The Three Abilities Package” (“3 Ab”), available from Learningguild for $30 (postage etc. as above).

It’s good to distinguish, from broadest to narrowest, a discipline (such as law or physics), a region within that discipline (such as jurisprudence within law), an area, a subject, and a topic.  The kinds of study productive of the three abilities – are they regions of some discipline?  Yes, one not commonly recognized as such, mental development, both theoretical and practical: becoming a more careful, perceptive, thoughtful, articulate, and hence confident person.

In writing English, what could count as indicating proficiency?  How could one go on towards excellence?  That pair of questions has hardly ever been answered in specific terms.  Answers are needed especially, as a matter of equity or fairness, by those whose first language is not English.  They are also needed by those many native speakers who have not received much systematic help in their secondary or tertiary education to develop proficiency.

One sign of proficiency in English (achievable in fact by the end of Year 11 of good secondary education) would be to give acceptable corrections in nearly all the places where the sentences at the end of Ch. 5 of MS are defective.  Another would be to do the same for the faulty sets of words at the end of each section of QPS.

Progress towards excellence can be made by building up (especially in Year 12?) an ability to write perceptive, relevant, concise and grammatical answers to such sets of various questions as those at the end of Ch. 6 of MS.

In Set B, after appreciations of my work from professors at Oxford, Princeton/Melbourne and Boston, are five Learningguild exam papers set 2014-16, each accompanied by the report on that particular exam.  All of these pairs are worth consulting, perhaps especially that for April 2014.  To obtain a mark of middle B or above indicated proficiency, a mark in the A grade excellence.

The five sections of these exam papers and reports can provide plenty of material for developing understanding, care and perceptiveness in each region; but so can the teacher, and the students, especially through discussion.  Early notice should be given of any other kinds of work such an exam will or may require, and of any oral exam.

It is a very serious matter, detrimental both to tertiary institutions and to their students called tertiary, that in at least the past thirty years some students have entered or are entering those institutions without proficiency in written English.  There are two causes.  One is the absence in most secondary schools of a series of books or a single book such as MS, specifically concerned with both grammar and principles of good writing, with exercises to be done from Year 7 through to Year 11.  The other is failure to require plenty of unassisted writing, in exercises and elsewhere.  Many a secondary and tertiary student, and even some postgraduates, have become reliant on their computer’s spell-check or grammar check, and/or on a friend or even a paid person to provide correction.  Should we not challenge secondary schools to recognize and remedy these deficiencies?

Let us use these two acronyms to describe, positively, two sets of students: many are SPREEs and some SEREEs, so called because they are seeking proficiency in reasoning and English expression, or seeking excellence there.  SPREEs especially need to do plenty of exercises, and to receive prompt annotation (see MS, Part 3 of the Preface and Appendix A) from a tutor or guide who has an appointment with them, normally one at a time, at least once a week and is available at other times.  Such a guide may sometimes hold a REE discussion class for those (say ten) whom he or she thus meets, but it is individual progress that needs to be especially fostered and attested to.  All exercises in MS should be done with a pen, and at the bottom right of each page should be a U for ‘Unassisted’ (if so), and a C followed by a tick, meaning that this page has been thoroughly checked by its writer.

N.B.: SPREEs should first ensure that they are or become familiar with the basic grammar provided on pages 7 and 8 of SSCSentences to Study and Change, which is also in Set A.  (A sheet with those pages is often added to the package.)  They may need to recognize that they should do a lot of work of the kind explained and illustrated in that booklet, preferably with the Oxford Essential Dictionary, because of its multitude of example-sentences within a wide but limited range, and only then turn to close study of MS and QPS.

QPS is not only related to MS but also a stimulus to consult Rebecca Gowers’s book Plain Words, which updates the classic The Complete Plain Words by her great-grandfather Sir Ernest Gowers.  Published by Penguin in 2015, it’s systematic, wide-ranging, witty, and inexpensive.

MS and the two booklets are concise: they are certainly not voluminous.  How they are used is crucial.  One of my students, a brick-cutter and a member of Learningguild, who came to Australia from Croatia, has recently completed all the exercises in MS: quite an achievement.  He has gained momentum and developed understanding through weekly completion of an exercise and through responses to the dotted square (again, see Part 3 of the Preface).  A SPREE in a tertiary institution should normally aim to complete half a chapter’s exercises each week?

I shall gladly respond to enquiries.  Addresses are at ABOUT on the website.

 John Howes

June 2022