The teaching of grammar and Standard English in British primary schools is a subject that has been widely up for debate since as long ago as 1921, when Sir Henry Newbolt presented a report to the English and Welsh Board of Education highlighting the lack of English teaching in schools, and outlined future changes to be more inclusive of the subject (Oxford Reference, 2003).
Fast-forward almost a century and primary schools up and down the country have introduced obligatory spelling, punctuation and grammar testing – or SPaG tests, as they are more widely known – for all Key Stage one and two students in order to promote and enforce the usage of correct grammar and Standard English in 4-11 year olds. However, since their inception into the British schooling system in 2013, SPaG tests have received mixed to negative reviews from parents, teachers and students alike, being accused by the National Association of Head Teachers of being a “waste of time and resources” resulting in “increased misery” for year six students already anxious about their SATs tests and impending transition to high school (BBC, 2012).
Furthermore, the SPaG testing regime has frequently been accused of trying to ‘catch out’ young students through arguably poorly worded and vague questions. These include asking year two students (6/7 year olds) to correctly distinguish the punctuation mark to be put at the end of the sentence “What a wonderful present you gave me”, accepting only an exclamation mark as the correct answer regardless of the fact that a full stop would be perfectly adequate. The use of the pre-determiner ‘what’, usually associated with questions, at the start of the sentence may serve to trick the younger students to wrongly use a question mark. The UK Literacy Association (UKLA) have waded into the debate, arguing that “decontextualised teaching to the intended test of grammar, spelling and punctuation is certain to be counterproductive” (UKLA, 2013) and therefore regard SPaG tests as unnecessary and even obstructive to the acquisition of ‘correct’ grammar.
Not everyone has been so quick to criticise elementary grammar testing however. A large majority of EFL teachers maintain that a decent grasp of grammar is beneficial to teaching both English and other modern foreign languages, stating that “you won’t be able to convey your ideas to their full extension without a good command of the underlying grammar patterns and structures of the language”, and that a decent understanding of grammar and syntax actually increases the ease at which British children may pick up a second language (Foppoli). This can only be seen as a benefit considering that a survey in 2011 ranked England’s teenagers “the worst in Europe” when it came to learning modern foreign languages (Paton, 2013).
It has also been reported that, due to a falling standard of grammar and Standard English in recent years, companies are more keen than ever to take on employees with a good grasp of English, with Wiens (2012), the CEO of the company iFixit.com, claiming that an applicant’s use of grammar could be the difference between being offered a job at his company and being ignored. Furthermore, a 2010 Survey of Employability found that, when reading a covering letter, employers generally attributed 18% of their attention to spelling and grammar, and a further 26% to clarity of speech, amounting to 44% of attention being drawn to a potential employee’s grammatical ability (Hilden, 2010).
Another modern dilemma faced by many when it comes to the implementation of Standard English in primary schools is the rise of text-speak and slang which is allegedly slowly creeping into mainstream usage. In 2013, the Daily Mail newspaper (Levy, 2013) reported that 14.3% of a sample of 35,000 sixteen-year-olds admitted to using text-speak, colloquialisms and non-Standard English in their schoolwork and even GCSE exams. According to Wood, Kemp and Plester (2014) it was found that children who text more perform less well in Cognitive Abilities Tests, observing that “as [their] texting increased, children’s performance on the CAT decreased”. Surely then, with modern society’s growing obsession with mobile devices and instant messaging – with one in ten children now receiving their first mobile phone at age five (Sayid, 2013) – it is more crucial than ever to ensure that correct grammar and Standard English is taught and enforced from an early age?
ANNA TOLLITT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK