SPaG tests: raising the bar or killing confidence? EMILY PATERSON pronounces her sentence

Recently introduced to the UK schools’ curriculum, so-called ‘SPaG’ tests have already raised serious concerns amongst both parents and teachers. Children as young as four are embarking on their literacy journey enduring soul-destroying grammar tests. Children who may not be able to read or write with ease, are being forced to tackle compulsory grammar drills. Surely I am not the only one questioning what the pros are of a school curriculum which puts emphasis on complex grammar at such a young age?

SPAG tests (short for Spelling Punctuation and Grammar) test these areas in children aged five and eleven. However, parents and teachers are very worried that since May 2013 when the tests began, they have seen signs that show the new tests are age-inappropriate and can impact on a child’s confidence significantly if they don’t perform well. According to Espinoza, 2016 (Education Editor for The Telegraph) teachers reported that even bright pupils weren’t able to finish the test and the stress of the tests alone reduced the children to tears on several occasions.

One of the major problems with the Government’s imposition of grammar tests lies within the fact that even for linguists the concept of ‘a standard grammar’ isn’t easy to define. Although opinions can differ among linguists, it is believed that Standard English is a dialect which is understood by many and associated with education and prestige (see Crystal, 1995). In contrast there are many varieties and forms of English including different accents and dialects (see Trudgill, 1979) which people use more in the context of speaking. On reflection it seems ludicrous that children aged four are expected to be able to differentiate between the uses of Standard and non-Standard English.

Furthermore, many linguists believe that the benefits of teaching and reinforcing grammar remain unclear.  According to Myhill (2011) there is very little evidence so show that teaching grammar aids children’s writing skills therefore what is the point in putting children through additional stress and essentially ruining their long-term relationship with literacy?

Having studied the new SPAG tests which were sat by five-year-olds and eleven-year-olds this year, I think it is clear that the Government’s expectation of primary school aged children is way too high. Children are expected to label complex grammatical terms, such as ‘fronted adverbials’, ‘relative clauses’ and ‘the subjunctive’ a task which a handful of students in my final year English Language seminar group struggled with when faced with a past paper from this year. It comes to something when professionals in education begin to rip the test apart. Michael Rosen (Children’s Author and Poet) slated the new SPaG test in a letter to the then Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan. He pointed out that there isn’t always one correct answer in grammar and the new SPAG test doesn’t adhere to this. Many of the questions are vague and there could be more than one answer but the mark scheme doesn’t address this – this is a major issue.

On the other side of the grammar tests debate, Gwynne, 2013 (a self taught teacher) argues that having good grammar guides our decision making and additionally leads to happiness. In my opinion Gwynne’s view is very controversial and he lacks evidence for his claim that grammar can lead to happiness. However some linguists do believe that grammar provides the foundations of English Language. This implies that without understanding the rules of grammar, you can’t fully exploit the richness of English (see Crystal, 2004). Crystal highlights the reasons why grammar can help everyone – not just teachers of English. Similarly, Wyse, 2013 (Professor of Primary Education at University College London) also believes teaching children grammar is highly important and beneficial. He believes it is beneficial to their language use and that it plays a key role in children’s understanding of their social and cultural environment.

It is clear that grammar is essential to the English language and in my opinion the teaching of grammar is important in a child’s education. However, grammar tests are not necessary- they just give another reason for children, parents and teachers to worry unnecessarily.

EMILY PATERSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. Cambridge Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press.

Espinoza, J. (2016, May 9). Students reduced to tears over ‘hardest’ tests, The Telegraph

Gwynne, N. M. (2013). Gwynne’s grammar: The ultimate introduction to grammar and the writing of good English. Ebury Press.

Milroy, J., Milroy, L. (1999). Investigating Standard English. Prescription and standardization. London: Routledge.

Myhill, D. (2011). Living language, live debates: Grammar and standard English. In J. Davidson, C. Daly & J. Moss (Eds), Debates in English teaching (pp. 63-77). London, United Kingdom: Routledge

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

Trudgill, P. (1974). Sociolinguistics: an introduction (4th ed.). Harmondsworth Penguin Books.

Wyse, D. (2013). Teaching English, language and literacy. London: Routledge.

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8 thoughts on “SPaG tests: raising the bar or killing confidence? EMILY PATERSON pronounces her sentence

  1. Paul Flanagan says:

    A nice Blog Emily- I share your bewilderment over teaching the subjunctive to primary school children (in fact, to anyone at all in the context of Present-day English!). You focus a lot on grammar here, so my question would be: Is it the testing of grammar in particular that you take issue with, or testing children in general? Are spelling and punctuation tests, for example, good practice in primary classrooms?

  2. Matt says:

    Dear Emily. Thanks for your thought-provoking blog. I think it is important to draw a distinction between our instinctive ability to be able to use grammar in a way which makes sense, as all children seem to do with little or no formal schooling (the subject of another debate!), and having explicit knowledge of grammatical rules and structures. Government policy seems to be conflating the two concepts and therefore are assuming that knowing about fronted adverbials, relative pronouns, subordinating conjunctions etc.(i.e. being able to spot and label them in sentences) is somehow going to make you a better writer. There is very little evidence that this is the case. I can play football, use gym equipment, go running, and engage in a whole number of other activities which will keep me fit and still not have the faintest idea how my physiology works. Does Messi have doctoral level insight into his every muscle fibre and bone structure? I doubt it! For those of us who choose to be linguists we study grammar and other aspects of language either as knowledge for knowledge sake or to demonstrate how language operates in context, but we choose this as a specialism. Imposing this level of contextless knowledge on children is going to bear little fruit and is likely to put them off the study of language unless they can see the point of it. Of course, this is really just another way the government can make quick-fix league tables of ‘successful’ and ‘failing’ schools by compiling yet more test statistics. If explicit knowledge of formal grammar is so important, then so is how the universe works, the big bang theory, animal behaviour, the wonders of the brain, how plants grow (which I would have found far more interesting as a kid!). Grammar tests, as you imply, are another form of control, especially when standard grammar is being privileged over that of regional dialectal variations. Discuss……

  3. Cassie-Rae Jones says:

    I agree with the consensus that making young children take SPaG tests is unlikely to lead to children having a better understanding of grammar and can severe effects on their confidence. However what do you think the outcome would result in if GCSE students were to take these SPaG tests? Would an older demographic benefit from it with another (at least) three years of education under their belts? Perhaps if the implementation of grammar was changed so that as children gradually progress through primary school to high school gets more complex?

  4. Anna Tollitt says:

    How would you respond to the failing grammatical performance of high school students due to the adoption of text-speak and slang into academic settings? Do you think this has anything to do with a lack of grammar teaching or are the two things unrelated?

  5. Sunny Jandu says:

    Great blog Emily! You’ve mentioned that grammar is important in the learning of the English language but that the tests are not age-appropriate. Do you think that the tests would be more effective and useful if they were age-appropriate so that teachers could still observe their understanding?

  6. A lovely perspective Emily and as Albert Einstein once said that “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid”. I think this can be well applied when it comes to the governments ideas of testing children.

    It appears that when it comes to education, being ‘book smart’ is the only credible source of intelligence and this becomes the sole focus of testing in schools. It seems that not only do these SPaG tests isolate children who aren’t as talented in reading and writing who may be better in the creative subjects, but it does not take into account the learning difficulties some children face such as Dyslexia which may not be well recognised at the ages of four and five. Instead, these children may instead be classed as failing these particular tests. Not only this, but as children have to retake the tests each year, their confidence and self-esteem may be knocked meaning that all the other learning they are doing could be effected. I also don’t think that many linguists have thought about the dialectal challenges of grammar such as the Northern Ireland dialect that has been seemingly unaltered despite being told it is ungrammatical with an example of “you was drinking water” as opposed to “you were”. This could affect a child’s ability to differentiate correct and incorrect grammar due to their common surroundings, and the SPaG tests, I do not believe, cater for these differences, only cater for accents.

    Having said this, it was an interesting point and I understand what you said regarding it being important for later in life. Children may never perfect their grammar or spelling but in understanding the basic rules they will have “good grammar guides” that will help push their education further and is essential in ensuring that the individuals who take these tests have a basic understanding of English so they do not look uneducated and have a better chance with their futures with careers and further education.

  7. Henry Cooper says:

    I agree with your feelings on SPaG tests! I feel like children need to be able to enjoy their school years as much as possible but these needless and stressful tests serve only to make children hate their school career. I think testing is necessary to ensure that children have effective communication skills but this should be saved until high school,otherwise children will develop a negative attitude towards school from an early age which will affect their performance later. When, if ever, do you think children should be tested?

  8. Megan Brown says:

    I thought this was a brilliant blog Emily! I agree with your points. I was wondering what alternative method do you think could be used to test children in schools?

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