The functional skills teenagers in England will need to get a grade C in maths and English GCSEs have been published for consultation.
It will be some years before people have to take the new tests
The move is in response to employers' complaints that even well-qualified youngsters lack workplace skills.
The qualifications watchdog's proposals include a need to punctuate accurately using commas and apostrophes.
It is trying two approaches: one using free-standing tests, the other incorporating them into the GCSE exams.
Accurate punctuation is expected already in GCSE exams and people lose marks for sloppiness.
But examiners at the AQA exam board, for example, noted many weaknesses in last summer's English papers.
"In some answers, the full stop had almost entirely disappeared, and capital letters were also virtually non-existent," they said.
"One suggestion as to the cause of this is the increasing use of electronic communication, where punctuation has disappeared altogether.
"Whatever the cause, centres must ensure that solid achievement in the written form of standard English is a crucial element of success in this examination as well as in the wider world of employment and education."
Throughout the QCA's proposals the emphasis is on practical skills.
At Level 2 (GCSE equivalent), people need to "read, understand and compare texts and use them to gather information, ideas, arguments and opinions".
This includes for instance being able to "detect point of view, implicit meaning and bias" and "read and actively respond to different documents (e.g. reply to each point in a letter of complaint)".
They should be able to do so in a wide range of texts for different purposes, on paper and on screen.
In writing, the requirement is documents "communicating information, ideas and opinions, effectively and persuasively".
This involves, among other things, using "a range of sentence structures, including complex sentences" and being able to "punctuate accurately using commas, apostrophes and inverted commas".
Functional maths involves applying various elements of the national curriculum.
So youngsters need to realise, for example, that there are situations that can be modelled mathematically.
They should be able to decide on the right methods and tools to use and be able to change values to see how that affects the results.
And they need to draw conclusions and choose "appropriate language and forms of presentation" to communicate these to others.
The government ordered a toughening up of the system in its response to the Tomlinson report on 14 to 19 learning in England.
It will be a few years before the new tests are in widespread use.
The QCA's consultation continues until the end of March.
Schools and colleges will introduce the revised GCSEs in English and ICT in September 2009, with maths a year later.
A spokesman said it had not yet been decided whether the functional skills tests - which are available at three levels - would be graded or could simply be passed or failed.
It was a case of working out where the balance needed to be, he said - being able to say that someone had demonstrated functional skills, while recognising that everyone makes mistakes.