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for Standard English and grammar teaching to reinforce cultural, economic and social privileges (1997), are rather outdated and old-fashioned.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.



One thought on “Grammar tests: raising standards or stress levels? TAMSIN TAYLOR investigates

  1. Thomas Hookham says:

    Hi Tasmin,
    I found your blog post on Grammar tests extremely interesting and I agree with your conclusions that the level of tests that children are receiving are excessive, setting unrealistic goals for children. Your use of data from the NUT report (National Union of Teachers, 2016) shows that your argument is grounded with evidence. By also using sources that are pro-grammar testing, such as Hudson and Walmsley (2005) shows that you are engaging with many different critics that have differing views.

    I enjoyed the inclusion of academics such as Trudgill (1999) and Crystal (1996). Both Crystal (1996) and Trudgill (1999) agree that Standard English does have its uses in society. Particularly by the media who need to use a form of English that can be understood by all speakers, regardless of dialect. It is clear how these views can be important in regards to the importance of teaching a standard form of grammar.

    It is true that the British government’s changes to children’s grammar tests is unfair. The British government place too much of an importance on the teaching of grammar rules which many linguists such as Krashen (1981) and Thompson (1969) criticise as unneeded. By the fact that there has been such an uproar by teachers and parents alike shows that these governmental changes are excessive.

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