Testing times: HOLLY WILLIAMS explores the role of grammar tests and Standard English in primary schools

Since the instalment of Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar tests (otherwise known as SPaG tests) in the UK in 2013, there have been varying opinions on whether or not Key Stage 2 (age 7-11) pupils need to be assessed formally when it comes to this particular set of skills. Do children of this age need to have a full understanding of Standard English when they leave primary school? Will it be problematic or beneficial when it comes to their literacy skills in the future?

Professor Debra Myhill (2011) states that [m]any English teachers and educationalists advocate a pluralist approach to teaching, one which values dialectal diversity but also acknowledges that giving learners access to Standard English may help them in gaining access to powerful discourses and powerful positions”. Myhill takes into account that dialectal diversity is important and that some pupils may find certain elements of Standard English to be unnatural to them, due to the regional dialect they were bought up with, therefore giving them a disadvantage when it comes to the SPaG tests. However, she also states that if pupils acquire knowledge of Standard English, it could help them in accessing a wider spectrum of opportunities and more powerful positions. So how can a primary school pupil’s knowledge of Standard English help them obtain a powerful, influential reputation?

In an online article discussing why grammar is important, written for the English Speaking online website, it claims that “[u]sing the correct grammar (when you write or speak) is important to avoid misunderstandings”. It goes on to say that [i]f your English is too full of mistakes, you will slow down communication and conversations, and find it harder to express your ideas and thoughts clearly and concisely”. This is spreading the belief therefore that the better your grammar, the wider an audience your voice can reach. If you use Standard English when speaking and writing, more people will be able to communicate with you/relate to what you are saying. Having said this, I previously mentioned that this puts certain pupils with distinctive regional dialects – those that do not tend to use Standard English outside of the formal school environment –  at a disadvantage, not only when it comes to SPaG testing but also their future communication skills. Would it therefore be problematic and unfair not to give pupils the education they may need for literacy and communication in the future, when it comes to Standard English?

Brady (2015), states that “whether intentional or not, the pedagogical practices of teachers and the curriculum may serve not only to perpetuate the power of those who guard, sanction and thus legitimise language but also to disempower those who have reduced access to the language”. Brady believes that the national curriculum and the way it is taught in general, serves the pupils who have been bought up speaking Standard English and disempowers those who have been bought up with dialects that do not naturally use Standard English. Surely this gives further reason to teach grammar as a subject in primary schools so that all children have the same opportunites in time to come? However, does this give reason for SPaG testing?

Pells (2016) in The Independent, states that primary school testing has been “widely criticised by parents, teachers, school leaders and government ministers as overly complex and the source of “unnecessary” pressure on children at too young an age”. Although as discussed, grammar may be an important subject for pupils to be educated in, testing them on it at such a young age is said to be unnecessary and far too pressurising considering their age. Pells also states that “[c]ampaign organisers Let Kids Be Kids argued that children as young as six were becoming increasingly stressed over unfair testing methods which also account for reduced creative learning and activities in schools”. It is believed that creative learning is also important in primary education and that these tests and exams are generating needless anxiety and worry in primary school pupils.

So what are your thoughts? Is grammar testing a necessity at such a young age? Is it of any importance at all? My personal beliefs lie with children’s happiness and enjoyment with schooling. Education is very important so for a child to start out feeling stressed and uneasy, it would be awful for them to carry that feeling all the way through their schooling and therefore feel discouraged and disheartened about testing and literacy in the future.

HOLLY WILLIAMS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Brady, J. (2015). Dialect, power and politics: standard English and adolescent identities. Literacy, 49 (3), p. 149.

Englishspeakingonline.com. Speaking English –  Why Correct Grammar is Important. 

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.

Pells, R. (2016). At what age should we start testing our children? The Independent

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8 thoughts on “Testing times: HOLLY WILLIAMS explores the role of grammar tests and Standard English in primary schools

  1. Paul Flanagan says:

    An engaging blog Holly! It sounds like you are not averse to children being ‘tested’ on (or at least taught) these things, as long as this assessment for learning (AfL) is carried out in a way which does not cause children undue stress or anxiety. I like your point that the use of Standard English potentially gives children more opportunity to reach a wider audience with their writing; do you think this also encourages children to think more critically about what they write and say, and the context in which they are communicating?

    • Holly says:

      Thanks Paul! Exactly, if it’s believed to be helpful and beneficial to them then certainly include it in the curriculum. However, if testing is going to cause such young children to become anxious and uncomfortable, maybe just ensuring it’s touched on in class is all that’s needed. In terms of thinking critically and considering context, I think that having a knowledge of Standard English could possibly help pupils distinguish between when they should be speaking/writing formally or informally. Also, the more literacy skills they have in general, the more likely it will be that they’ll produce clear, cohesive pieces of writing or speak more clearly, which is always a good thing. Thank you for the comment!

  2. Lauren says:

    Really interesting blog Holly! I really enjoyed reading it! As you believe that these current tests can be stressful, do you propose any other ways of testing children in school that could benefit the education system?

    • Holly says:

      Thanks Lauren! I think that primary school pupils, especially those in Key Stage 1, could be examined through observation whilst taking part in activities. I understand this could be problematic in terms of their teacher having to divide up their time equally, but at least the pupils won’t feel any pressure to perform in a certain way or worry about if they’re doing it right. Which is a much more accurate representation of the child’a abilities anyway. Thank you for your comment!

  3. Sophie Cooper says:

    Great blog, Holly! I completely agree with your statement about the happiness of children coming first. Do you believe that testing children on grammar will have a negative impact on their future enjoyment of writing?

    • Holly says:

      Thanks Soph! Yes, I think a lot of children struggle with testing in general so if they find these grammar tests difficult it might knock their confidence with other tests in the future. This could then hinder their relationship with literacy and writing like you said. Thank you for the comment!

  4. George Nethercott says:

    An interesting blog Holly. I can see that teaching the standard does help and does play a significant role in a child’s development. However I totally agree that it dis-empowers the minorities who struggle more. With SPaG testing it seems there is far too much terminology for some children to grasp at such an early age. I encountered a number of comments on a forum online (https://community.tes.com/threads/thoughts-on-the-2016-sample-questions.700054/) in which many say SPaG testing is all too similar to a maths paper. SPaG testing seems to always propose a right and a wrong. When we know this is not the case when developing grammar. I agree with the idea that creative learning must have an equal role in a child’s development. There must be balance at the very least. I also agree with your idea on the child’s happiness while learning. I feel if the child is happier, then the child is more likely to stay engaged and focused. They will develop more easily. I feel that a more comfortable learning environment is key. Clearly some children struggle due to the fact they are not comfortable with the current methods. Have you considered asking parents how they feel about SPaG testing?

  5. Henry Cooper says:

    The point you highlight by Myhill is true; people who use Standard English will be afforded greater opportunities than those who use regional dialects because these dialects will be subject to stereotyping. It is unfortunate that this is the case because it leaves many regional dialect users at a disadvantage, many of whom choose to adopt a standard dialect. However, I do think that people can still succeed in a variety of industries with regional dialects. I agree that forcing children at a young age to adopt Standard English over their native dialect will actually create other disadvantages. This, as you say, will be wasted on them because the child will not use Standard English outside of the school environment.

    Standard English is important when it comes to communicating effectively but most regional dialects can still be understood by most with little difficulty. The point raised by the online article to which you refer about ‘too many mistakes slowing down communication’ may be true but these so called ‘mistakes’ are likely to be dialect forms rather than genuine grammatical errors. While unfamiliar dialects or accents may slow communication very slightly, this is insignificant and discourse is still more than adequate.

    While I do think that some form of testing is necessary, I do not think that forcing primary school aged children to partake in countless tests will benefit them; children should be allowed to enjoy their early school years so that a positive attitude to education can be established.

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