A guide to perfect spelling and grammar or a test of out-of-date rules?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




One thought on “A guide to perfect spelling and grammar or a test of out-of-date rules?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

  1. Zaka Khalid says:

    Like you’ve pointed out, these new spelling and grammar tests have been in the news quite a bit lately, and almost always for the wrong reasons. No doubt Lord Bew’s ‘independent review’ was a thorough one, though I’m not entirely sure if the widespread disdain for these tests has to do with the quality of marking.

    Having looked at some possible example questions, I am in total agreement with Michael Rosen, who said that there are too many ‘trick questions’. Some of the questions are worded poorly and I feel that some of the choice answers provided to the young students are far too similar. In the end, it really does just seem to come down to a guessing game, though I’m quite sure that’s not really the most effective method in teaching these kinds of things.

    You also made a great point about the whole notion of Standard English. Not every child comes from the same environment, and some words and phrases are used differently depending on the region. The fact that English is a language which has evolved over many centuries (as well as the fact that it emerged as an amalgamation of other prominent languages) really ought to serve as a reminder that this pompous attitude towards an idealised ‘golden standard’ of English is injudicious, and should be discouraged at all costs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s