Are grammar tests for school pupils a necessity for job success or a waste of time and resources? ANNA TOLLITT discusses SATs and CATs.

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

References

BBC. (2012). Heads oppose new punctuation and spelling test.

Foppoli, J. (Date Unknown). Is Grammar Really Important for a Second Language User? 

Hilden, E. (2010). Survey of Education. 

Levy, A. (2013). Exams and essays full of ‘txt speak’.

Oxford Reference. (2003). Oxford University Press.

Paton, G. (2013). Three-quarters of adults ‘cannot speak a foreign language’.

Sayid, R. (2013). Children given mobile phones at age of 11. The Mirror. 

UKLA. (2013). UKLA statement on teaching grammar.

Wiens, K. (2012). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar.

Wood, C. Kemp, N., Plester, B.  (2014). Text messaging and literacy: The evidence. London: Routledge.

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5 thoughts on “Are grammar tests for school pupils a necessity for job success or a waste of time and resources? ANNA TOLLITT discusses SATs and CATs.

  1. Charlotte Scott says:

    Very interesting blog Anna. You cover a range of different points regarding SPaG testing especially the negative opinions on the tests but what is your personal opinion upon them? Do you believe that there are alternative ways of teaching and testing key stage one and two pupils on spelling, punctuation and grammar?

  2. George says:

    An interesting post! Especially when considering the impact of text-speak… Have you read any further on how the education department have tried to combat this?

  3. Daniel says:

    I share with the points you made about SPaG tests, that they are trying to “catch out” young students. I also found the modern dilemmas quite interesting, especially the point about text speak being used by a small number of pupils in their school work.

  4. Alice says:

    There’s some really good detail regarding the SPaG tests, but my question is similar to one above. Do you believe there are other strategies in order to test children’s abilities? And if so, do you think that some form of testing is essential in order to avoid some under-achieving or less-abled students ‘slipping through the net’? Or do you prefer the techniques applied by Scandinavian countries where children are encouraged to learn through play during the early years?

  5. JORDZHAH-LOU ROWLEY says:

    A very interesting blog Anna! You make a very strong argument against the enforcement of grammar testing in primary school. I agree with the points that you have made about the testing, however I would like to know where you stand on the idea of teaching complex grammar in primary schools, from the age of four. Do you feel that complex grammar should be taught at such a young age, or do you feel, much like your blog suggests that simple grammar is enough at this age?
    I noticed that you looked into a variety of different sources and noticed that one was from the National association of Head Teachers, who stated that at this age it would ‘increase misery.’ I completely agree with this statement due to the fact that they are under immense pressure from the fact that they are due to start high school and subsequently the next stage of their life. However, due to another point that you made with regards to employment, and that employers are looking for potential employees’ with a good knowledge of grammar. Do you then feel that perhaps grammar testing is essential, but maybe it should be taught and carried out at a later stage, GCSE perhaps?
    I thought your views on the need for standard English to be interesting. Though you state that it is essential for grammar to be taught due to an increase of text speak in younger students, I wondered what your views were with regards to accent and dialect. This is due to the fact that many regional dialects do not follow the rules of standard English. Do you feel that it is unfair to penalise some students due to their accent/ regional dialect? For example was/ were levelling, as a primary school child is it beneficial to the child to be told that the way that they speak is incorrect? Or is it more of a hindrance?
    One point that you make which I find quite interesting is the fact that British teenagers are the worst in Europe when it comes to learning other languages! This is quite a scary statistic! This is obviously one of the main points that people make with regards to the teaching of grammar at a young age, as it can be transferred into other languages, with more complex grammar structures. Though saying this it is questionable as to whether this is enough as you stated create ‘misery’ in vulnerable year six’s. Perhaps one way to increase students knowledge of modern foreign languages is to teach them from a younger age, as they do with the welsh language. What are your thoughts on this?
    Thank you again for a great read!

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