How would you define ‘grammar’? Don’t worry if you find that question difficult. You may not have been taught much about grammar in school but you are still able to use it. According to Crystal (2017, p. 2) “[g]rammar is the study of the way we bring words together in order to make sense”, something we all do every day. So, why has the teaching and testing of grammar been introduced into primary schools, if we are able to use grammar without knowing much about it?
The national curriculum proposes to teach children terminology and the rules of grammar. Children are tested on what they have been taught via SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) tests at the end of Key Stage 1 (seven-years old) and Key Stage 2 (11-years old) (DoE, 2013). Children are given a 45-minute grammar test and a 15-minute spelling test (DoE, 2013).
The introduction of the new curriculum was prompted by an alleged decrease in literacy skills in school leavers. A skill survey conducted by the CBI in 2011 showed that “more than 40% of employers said they were not satisfied with the basic literacy of school and college leavers” (DoE, 2013). So, the aim of this new curriculum is to help children get a better grasp of the use of grammar in order for them, according to the then Education Secretary Elizabeth Truss, to “understand our language, and to use it properly, creatively and effectively” (Shepherd, 2013).
The introduction of the teaching of grammar has received a lot of positive feedback. Aarts (2017) claims that being taught knowledge about grammar is necessary for learning other languages. When a child has a good grasp of the components of English grammar (e.g. tense) they can then use this knowledge to understand how the same components work in a different language (Wyldeck, 2007, p. v).
Moreover, according to the government, the new curriculum has shown a rise in literacy standards of schools. In 2010, a third of children who had finished primary education were not “reaching the expected level”, however this figure has fallen to a fifth since the introduction of the new curriculum (DoE, 2015).
However, the way the children are tested on their knowledge of grammar has proved to be very controversial among parents, teachers and academics. A staggering 98.8% of head teachers who attended the national association of heads conference wanted to put an end to these tests (Sellgren, 2012).
So, what is so wrong with these tests that they have such an alarming amount of head teachers wanting to scrap them?
Firstly, many believe that the SPaG tests easily confuse the children (Michael Rosen, 2016). On the tests, children are asked to label words according to their grammatical function. This can be confusing because there are some words in English that can belong to more than one category depending on the context they are used in. Even university educated adults can be confused by this. In an interview about the SPaG tests, Minister Nick Gibb was asked a question taken from the Key Stage 2 tests and he did not get it right (Boult, 2016). Gibbs was asked to state whether the word ‘after’ was being used as a preposition or a subordinating conjunction in the sentence “‘went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner'” (Aarts, 2016). Gibbs labelled ‘after’ as a preposition, which it is in some contexts, however, in this context it was acting as a subordinating conjunction (Aarts, 2016).
Furthermore, these tests teach children that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ answer when it comes to grammar, but this is not always the case (Rosen, 2015). People’s use of grammar can change depending on who they are addressing and whether they want to appear more informal or formal (Rosen, 2013). Rosen (2013) demonstrates the flexibility of grammar by showing that either “was or were” can be used in the sentence “‘[i]f the Lord Bew statement … correct'” and it would still be grammatical.
Moreover, Rosen (2016) also argues that children should not be tested on grammar because no-one uses grammar correctly all of the time. Everyone makes typos and mistakes whether that be in writing or speaking. There is a whole job industry on checking and correcting people’s work before publishing it and there is also an industry which plays on the incorrect use of grammar (advertising-copy) (Rosen, 2016). So, to teach children that they should use grammar correctly all of the time is not realistic nor believable (Rosen, 2016).
So, despite some positive reaction to the introduction of the teaching of grammar into the national curriculum, the way the curriculum proposes to test the children has received a backlash. Do you think there is an alternative to these much opposed SPaG tests?
EILEANOR DIXON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK