A guide to perfect spelling and grammar or a test of out-of-date rules? Brad Hennessey discusses SPaG tests

Wading through much controversy since its creation, the Key Stage Two spelling and grammar test only seems to be gathering more rejection as time goes on. The leaked paper fiasco, where answers were accidentally shown online, admittedly didn’t help the case for the SPAG test (as it is informally known) however technical errors are the least of its problems.

“The reliability of National Curriculum Test results has been questioned, with debate centring on the quality of marking, even though this is only one facet of technical reliability” claimed Lord Bew in 2011. Bew chaired the independent review of Key Stage Two (SATs) provision and during his final report he dismissed attacks on the tests’ reliability by stating that “misclassification” and “measurement-error” is often misinterpreted. According to Bew, “[i]t is generally accepted that any test or examination, however well constructed, will always include a degree of measurement error. Therefore the margin of error for both pupils and schools needs to be considered” (2011:54).

However this newly founded test has been under much scrutiny as of late. Since its conception the ‘SPaG’ test has unwillingly been at the forefront of a heated debate over Standard English and its reliability. Leading the march and flying the opposition flag is children’s author and poet Michael Rosen who dissects the SPAG test bit by bit during a rather interesting letter to the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan.

In the letter, which was published in The Guardian newspaper, Rosen argues that there are too many “trick questions” and that in order for an accurate test of one’s written ability to be established, there should not be multiple choice questions. Multiple choice questions could lead to a child guessing answers in an attempt to get lucky. After all there is a one in four chance of getting it right. Rosen also picks up on the various different teaching methods that could cause mass confusion across the nation dependant on how individual children are taught. For example the technical term for ‘my’, ‘your’, they’, and so on could just as easily be taught to be known as determiners rather than possessive pronouns as they are referred to in one question. Perhaps the most important quote that highlights issues with the grammar tests is “[t]he Spag test was brought in on the evidence-free assumption that spelling, punctuation and grammar questions have ‘right and wrong’ answers” (2015). This questions the “evidence free assumption” that prescriptivist ministers and teachers seemingly make about education which ultimately contradicts many qualified linguists’ opinions.

Trudgill, for example, mocks prescriptivist attitudes to grammar by stating that “[a] good rule of thumb is that if a particular grammatical structure is proposed as ‘correct’ by prescriptivists, then this is a sure sign that native speakers do not use it”(2011:10). When commenting on a book of grammar usage published by Neville Gwynne (a self-taught grammarian), linguist Professor Geoffrey Pullum expresses that “[i]t’s the familiar old nonsense, modified through 200 years of rubbish, from teachers who didn’t quite understand it to students who understood it less” (2014). I feel this description fits perfectly with the attitudes that most modern linguists have towards the Spelling and Grammar test. After all, why are children being taught to adhere to the Standard English rules that were forged hundreds of years ago when language has evolved so much since then, let alone being tested on it at an age where they are still relatively new to the concepts of language rules?

To conclude, personally I feel that perhaps more time should be spent on a child’s creativity when it comes to writing rather than testing them on rules that in fact could be abolished/replaced in 10 years’ time. Rosen signs his letter of by questioning the interests of those who devised the test asking “[b]ut are the people who devised this test really interested in writing? I doubt it.” I feel he’s onto something.

Brad Hennessey, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Lord Bew (2011). Independent Review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability – Final Report

Rosen, M. (2015) Dear Ms Morgan: in grammar there isn’t always one right answer, The Guardian

Trudgill, P. (1999) ‘Standard English: What it isn’t’ in Bex, T. and Watts, R.J. (eds.) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge, pp. 117-128.

Pullum, G. as cited by Chivers, T. (2014) Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language? The Telegraph




Is Standard English worth all the fuss? LOGAN VINTERS explores whether Standard English should have a place in education

A repeated discussion you may hear is whether or not Standard English has a role to play in education in Britain. Is Standard English purely cosmetic or does it bring with it a certain prestige and notion of sensibility?

The concept of a standardised language in general seems very appealing. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) has revolutionised the way that people who would typically be mutually unintelligible to each other because of their geographical location, to communicate with a fair amount of ease. Both of these languages have a regulating board that gives some guidelines as to what constitutes part of the standardized language.

So what seems to be the difficulty with Standard English? Well to begin with it seems that critics cannot come to an agreement on what constitutes Standard English. Hayley Davis explains that for her, it is a variety of English that is usually seen in print and the variety that is taught to non-native speakers of the language (1999: 70). Peter Trudgill says that Standard English is purely ‘a social dialect’ and that it no longer has a geographical location linked with it (2001: 124). Paul Kerswill goes as far to say that Standard English is ‘subject to how the observer views the matter’ and that it is more of a ‘social judgement’ (2009: 238).

Differing opinions on what constitutes Standard English makes it extremely difficult for any individual to make a decision on whether it has a place in education. How can it be taught if we do not know what it is? Trudgill finds it in his heart however, to explain what Standard English isn’t. According to him Standard English is neither a language, an accent, a style nor a register (1999). Put simply, Standard English is a dialect; a singular dialect amongst many of the English language. A common misconception that people tend to make is thinking that Standard English has a bearing on accent or pronunciation – specifically with Received Pronunciation (RP) – but this is simply not true. All RP speakers will be able to speak Standard English but not everyone who speaks Standard English must speak in RP.

Why bother with Standard English (SE) then? There does seem to be some use in teaching SE. The idea is to have something similar to MSA/MSM where there is a middle ground in terms of language that everyone can converse in, making communication easier between geographical locations in the country. This carries over into written forms of SE, anyone familiar with speaking SE will be able to read it in written form which encourages the idea that written forms should be in SE.

There is the argument that for a child it is beneficial for them to learn SE to prepare them better in later life. The Newbolt Report encouraged this line of thought and reports that ‘it is emphatically the business of the Elementary school to teach its pupils to speak Standard English’ (1921: 65). Furthering this, the Daily Mail recently reported of a school in Middleborough who handed out letters to parents asking them to correct their children’s speech to something more akin to SE. Christopher Rollason agrees with the teaching of SE and says that SE ‘is a means to individual empowerment’ (2001: 11)

The other side to this argument however, is the notion that the teaching of SE will result in the destruction of regional cultures. Tony Bex and Richard Watts explain that ‘learning Standard English can lead to devaluation of other dialects’ (1999: 14). If certain elements of knowledge are ingrained in a region’s culture and dialect and this is lost, there is the possibility of losing this information; this being an argument very similar to ‘language death’. Also, try and imagine watching the film Trainspotting without the regional dialect. The loss of regional dialects means a loss of different forms of expression, which for creative writing would be a disaster.

In my opinion it seems to be an extremely difficult task to teach children to verbally speak SE; a child will continue to converse in the dialect that they use at home because it is used more frequently. The Bullock Report sums this up quite sensibly when it talks about the teaching of SE. It reports that the idea of teaching SE is not to‘alienate’ the child from their regional dialect but more so to ‘enlarge his repertoire’ (1975: 143). I agree with this and – especially in written form – believe that SE has an important role to play.

LOGAN VINTERS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bex,T. Watts, R. (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge.

Culpepper, J. et al (2009) English Language: Description, Variation and Context. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Davis, H. (1999) ‘Typography, lexicography, and the development of the idea of ‘standard English’’ in Bex, T. and Watts, Richard J. (eds) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate London: Routledge.

Department for Education and Science (1975) A Language for Life [The Bullock Report]. London: HMSO.

Holborow, M. (1999) The Politics of English. London: Sage Publications.

Rollason, C. (2001) The Question of Standard English: Some Considerations on John Honey’s Language Is Power. Published in Terminologie et Traduction / Terminology and Translation: A Journal of the Language Services of the European Institutions (Luxembourg: European Commission), No 3. 2001, pp. 30-60

Trudgill, P. (1999) ‘Standard English: What it isn’t’ in Bex, T. and Watts, R.J. (eds.) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge, pp. 117-128.

The Newbolt Report (1921) http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/newbolt/

How do we define ‘Standard English’? JAMIE GLASSON discusses the difficulties

What is ‘Standard English’? Many linguists have different ideas as to what they perceive Standard English to be, but is there actually a universal definition for this term? Some believe it is the correct way to speak English, others believe that it is just a way of separating the intelligent from the unintelligent. So many different definitions, where do we begin?

Tony Crowley (1999, p.271) believes that “Standard English is the medium of writing in the English language, grammatically stable and codified”. Based on this, Crowley is saying that Standard English is applied to just writing, and not so much speech, and is essentially the ‘correct’ way to write using the English Language. While this is definitely a good attempt at trying to define what Standard English is, it doesn’t cover spoken English and therefore needs to be addressed. Ronald Carter (1999, p.163) states that “Standard English consists of a set of forms which are used with only minimal variation in written English and in a range of formal spoken contexts in use around the world.” With this definition, Carter acknowledges that Standard English is not just limited to writing, but also applies to speech as well. With this interpretation, we are at least getting a broader idea of what Standard English is, in the sense that it is not just limited to written or spoken English, but is rather a mix between the two instead. However Crowley (2003, p.266) also acknowledges that there is standard spoken English as well. It is ‘standard’ not in the sense of making and having something in common. It is ‘standard’ in the sense of being able to share sense and meaning through common effort and participation.” This encourages the belief that as long as you and the person you are talking to are able to understand each other successfully, then it is classed as Spoken Standard English.

 Hayley Davis (1999, p.70) goes on to say that Standard English is a “variety of English which is usually used in print, and which is normally taught in schools and to non-native speakers learning the language.” Davis here is saying that Standard English is the preferred variety to be taught in schools and to non-native speakers. Whilst I firmly believe and agree that having Standard English as the set way to teach English in schools, it is definitely a skewed concept because of the fact there is no exact definition of what Standard English actually is. Yes there are many different ways of interpreting what Standard English is, and while we seem to have managed this long without coming to a conclusive idea as to what it is, it certainly makes the idea of teaching it in schools questionable.

John Honey (1997, 21-22) believes that “[t]he speakers of non-standard social and regional dialect forms suffer comparable forms of disadvantage.” This is because Honey believes those who are not able to speak or write Standard English are dubbed as unintelligent. However, Honey’s idea of what Standard English means seems rather skewed as well, claiming “[b]y standard English I mean the language in which this book is written, which is essentially the same form of English used in books and newspapers all over the world.” (Honey, 1997, p.1). Again, just like the definitions shown earlier on, none of these interpretations can seem to agree on what Standard English is, and each seem to offer a different perspective of what it could actually mean.

After exploring the different interpretations of what other linguists believe Standard English to be, it is clear that this particular term is void of an exact definition. I believe that if you are able to understand each other, and are able to communicate successfully between one another when using different varieties of English, then the need for Standard English is surely exaggerated. However, it is blatantly clear that nobody can actually define what Standard English is, and therefore it has to remain described only by its characteristics.

JAMIE GLASSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Carter, R. (1999). ‘Standard Grammars, spoken grammars: Some educational implications’ in Bex, T. and Watts, Richard J. (eds) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge.

Crowley, T. (1999). Curiouser and Curiouser: Falling Standards in the Standard English Debate. In: Standard English: The Widening Debate,ed. by Bex, T & Watts, R.J., London.

Crowley, T. (2003). ‘Language against Modernity’ in Standard English and the Politics of Language. (2nd edn) Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Davis, H. (1999). ‘Typography, lexicography, and the development of the idea of ‘standard English’’ in Bex, T. and Watts, Richard J. (eds) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge.

Honey, J. (1997).  Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London, Faber and Faber


Grammar tests: raising standards or stress levels? TAMSIN TAYLOR investigates

Standard English is a difficult thing to define – even linguists struggle to describe exactly what it is. Most dictionary definitions relate Standard English to the educated or the most ‘correct’ form of English. However, some dictionaries seem to apply it more to speech than writing whereas linguists like Strevens (1985) argue that Standard English has nothing to do with pronunciation but more to do with grammar and vocabulary. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that it is related to the language of ‘educated’ users which is a controversial claim.

Grammar and Standard English go hand in hand. The great debate surround the teaching of grammar finds most of its roots within controversies of Standard English. Trudgill (1999, p.163) points out that Standard English is used in newspapers and published words, and argues that standard grammar is necessary in these texts or communication may break down. It is also suggested that standard grammar forms need to be known, especially when writing, in order to be part of the wider community (Crystal 1996).

There are many arguments both for and against the explicit teaching of grammar. Some views, such as Honey’s desire for Standard English and grammar teaching to reinforce cultural, economic and social privileges (1997), are rather outdated and old-fashioned. However, Hudson and Walmsley (2005) offer a balanced result offering seven reasons why grammar should be taught in schools after assessing the arguments for each. The most understandable suggestions include: to expand grammatical competence in order to understand the grammatical patterns which are used in adult life, but that are not found in the casual conversation of children; to reinforce writing, reading, speaking and listening skills so that teachers and pupils are able to communicate about their performance and are able to explore more complex elements such as genre; and to support foreign-language learning, essentially making it easier. Some of their reasons are unusual and difficult to see the logic behind, but they do make some good points.

But there is another side to the argument. Most arguments against are in support of language being natural and therefore grammar knowledge and acquisition should be achieved naturally. Krashen (1981) is one of those people, offering the suggestion that there is really no need for grammatical teaching and that Chomsky had the right idea to suggest there is a ‘universal grammar’. Thompson (1969) also questions how useful grammar teaching is, even going so far as to suggest children are simply unable to learn it because it is just too hard. There’s also reasoning by Thompson (1969) that those who do learn the explicit rules of grammar, find it to be pointless knowledge and of no use. But is Thompson really reliable when his comments come from a time period where grammar teaching was viewed by all as a ball and chain on children?

The current debate largely surrounds the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar tests at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. The tests were introduced in 2013 by the Government (HM Government, 2013) and there has been a lot of media attention focusing on these tests over the past year. Both teachers and students have many problems with the tests and have condemned them, stating that they are simply too hard. Everyone is asking “How can we put our children through this when we can’t even answer the questions ourselves?”

The teachers themselves have united to share their unhappiness with the testing in a NUT Report (National Union of Teachers, 2016). The high percentages shared are really shocking: 96% of respondents said they thought recent changes to KS1 and KS2 curriculum and assessment will lead to children being expected to learn content before they are ready. 96% said they were worried that the spelling, grammar and punctuation test (SPAG test) and preparation for SPAG tests will cause too much stress for many children. 92% agreed that much of the material in the KS1 SPAG test is too advanced for seven-year-olds and the same high proportion (91%) agreed that much of the material in the KS2 SPAG test is too advanced for 11-year-olds.

If the parents and the teachers don’t think the tests are right, surely the government should be listening by now. I personally see no problems with tests at KS1 and KS2; however the tests at the current standard are simply ridiculous. The wording is vague and many questions could have multiple answers but teachers can only mark one as correct. It’s simply unfair for everyone involved. Once again I ask, is it right for our children, our brothers and our sisters to be put through these tests? Or is it all just too much? I know where I stand.

TAMSIN TAYLOR, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crystal, D. (1996). Discover grammar. London: Longman

HM Government (2013). English grammar, punctuation and spelling test framework end of key stage 2 framework for assessment 2013–2015. 

Honey, J. (1997). Language is power: The story of standard English and its enemies. London, UK: Faber & Faber.

Hudson, R. & Walmsley, J. (2005). The English Patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century. Journal of Linguistics. 3(41).  593-622.

Krashen, S. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Strevens, P. (1985). Standards and the standard language. English today. 1(02). 5-7.

Trudgill, P. (1999). Standard English: what it isn’t. In Standard English: The Widening Debate. London : Routledge, pp. 117–28.