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Exam board Edexcel will launch a new course next year designed to embrace the modern pupil's love of social networking and text-speak.

With their reliance on 'text speak' and slang, websites such as Facebook and Twitter are often criticised for dragging down standards of literacy.

But now teenagers will be able to gain an English GCSE by studying them. 'Digital texts' including Wikipedia, blogs and podcasts will also feature in the qualification being developed by exam board Edexcel.

The course will be aimed at pupils on the border between C and D grades, and will take the form of a four week long course which can stand alone as a qualification or make a second GCSE in combination with English.

Participating students will be required to read, analyse and critique a variety of texts used by companies or advertisers for podcasts, video streams, websites, social networks and blogs.

Students will be able to take GCSE English Studies: Digital Communication as a stand alone qualification or alongside traditional GCSEs in English language or literature.

Ofqual, which regulates exams, is currently looking at the course content and Edexcel aims to launch the GCSE next year.

Sample assessment material states that students 'must be able to read, analyse, critique and plan' different types of text.

These should be 'industry made or user generated examples of advertising, audio podcasts, video/moving image, websites, social networks, wikis and blogs'.

But Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, said: "This is undoubtedly dumbing down and it's distracting from things that children should be learning if they're going to do well in the world.
'They would be far better gaining a good grasp of English grammar and our great canon of English literature.

"Most youngsters learn about this sort of thing in their own time. It's certainly not something for teachers and schools to be spending time on."

Edexcel defended the qualification, saying it was intended to complement GCSE English. It stressed that students would not take the qualification instead of a GCSE but as an additional 'add on' to compulsory GCSEs.

A spokesman said: "This qualification builds on students' interests in digital texts and proved to excite and engage both boys and girls in our pilot. It reflects the changing needs and interests of learners."

Andrew Davis, former marketing and content producer for MySpace, who will teach the first course, said: "The course mainly covered Social Media but also career choices and life skills that added value to the GCSE English syllabus."

Pilot testing of the new course has shown that the majority of pupils on C-D borderline who take the course are likely to receive a C-grade qualification.

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