Are SPaG tests a gateway to fluency or yet another hoop for school pupils to jump through? SOPHIE COOPER investigates

The importance of Standard English in schools emerged with the Newbolt Report in 1921. Newbolt believed Standard English had the ability to heal the damage done to the country by uniting us after the First World War, and that the inability to use this dialect was a “handicap” (p. 67), even going so far to claim regional dialects to be “evil habits of speech” (p. 59).

Few would be so bold to be quite so discourteous today, especially in official government reports, but many, such as Trudgill (1995), claim this attitude towards standard and non-standard dialects still lingers. A school in Middlesbrough compiled a list of non-standard terms, requesting that parents ‘corrected’ them, even labelling commonly used lexis, such as “dunno”, ‘incorrect’ (Williams, 2013). Can we really be outraged that a school went so far as to distinguish a right and wrong way to speak, when primary schools up and down the country are now enforcing Standard English through weekly “grammar hammers” and SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) tests on children between the ages of 5 and 11?

These tests, which the Department for Education (2013) claim are needed in order to raise literacy standards, were informed by an independent report carried out by Lord Bew. He suggested there are “elements of writing […] where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing” (Bew, 2011, p.60). Thus, the SPaG test was born. The tests are not without controversy; their introduction has faced much criticism from teachers and experts alike. The United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) stated that decontextualized teaching of grammar is “certain to be counterproductive” (2013), and Sellgren (2012) reported that the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) voted in favour of stopping the tests, stating that they are a waste of resources, and that they will only add more stress to children already buried under exams.

One of the main statements used to justify the tests, however, has found support in the form of iFixit CEO, Kyle Wiens. The government asserts that these tests are crucial due to complaints from employers about the amount of so-called illiteracy among school leavers. Wiens reaffirms this attitude in a 2012 article, stating he would not hire those who used non-standard grammar (Wiens, 2012). Although this is just one man’s opinion, research seems to reaffirm the sentiment. In 2011, Myhill claimed that allowing a speaker access to Standard English allows access to powerful positions (p.76). Speicher and Bielanski (2003) support this, highlighting findings across studies that suggest social mobility is prevented when speech is “deemed inappropriate” (p.158).

This suggests children should be given access to Standard English. But are these tests the way forward? Is it really necessary to know the complete ins and outs of grammar at such a young age?

Children’s writer and political columnist Michael Rosen suggests not. In an open letter to the then UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, Rosen (2015) highlighted some key issues with the tests, stating that grammar is not always black and white, that these tests seem to be setting children up to fail, and that many items presented as fact are actually contested in linguistic circles. Linguists do not necessarily agree on what constitutes a standard grammar, and Brindley and Swann (1996) propose that even Standard English is not immune to changes over time (p.209); an idea which these tests seem to be fighting against, especially with their use of archaic terms such as ‘subjunctive’. Is it, as Rosen suggests, a waste of time to teach children such specific terminology, which even degree level students aren’t necessarily clear on? Does this knowledge truly aid writing development?

In 2006, Andrews et al set out to find the answer. Upon reviewing the research available at the time, they found that teaching syntax has negligible impact on the quality of children’s writing. Interactive and creative teaching of grammar, however, may be beneficial. Researchers Myhill, Jones, Watson and Lines (2013) found that when grammar is taught in context in high schools, writing scores improved up to 20%. In light of this, in KS3 at least, through certain teaching methods, explicit grammar could be argued to improve writing.

Obviously, the issue remains a point of contention in the education community. Teaching methods are evidently an important aspect when it comes to having an actual impact on the writing skills of British children. If we truly want to get to the bottom of the issues this test proposes to fix, we have to take these methods into account. Otherwise, one could argue that the SPaG test is yet another example of teaching children to jump through hoops.

SOPHIE COOPER, English Language undegraduate, University of Chester

References

Andrews, R.C., Torgerson, S., Beverton, A., Freeman, T., Lock, G., Low, G., Robinson, A. & Zhu, D. (2006). The effect of grammar teaching on writing development. British Education Research Journal (32)1, 39-55.

Bew, P. (2011). Independent review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability. 

Brindley, S., & Swann, J. (1996). Issues in English teaching. In N. Mercer & J. Swann (Eds), Learning English: Development and diversity (pp. 205-242). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Department for Education. (2013). New grammar, punctuation and spelling test will raise children’s literacy standards.

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

Myhill, D., Jones, S., Watson, A., & Lines, H. (2013). Playful explicitness with grammar: a pedagogy for writing. Literacy, 47(2), 103-111.

Newbolt, H. (1921). The teaching of English in England. London, United Kingdom: HMSO.

Rosen, M. (2015, November 3). Dear Ms Morgan: in grammar there isn’t always one right answer. The Guardian. 

Sellgren, K. (2012, May 6). Heads oppose new punctuation and spelling test. BBC.

Speicher, B. L., & Bielanski, J. R. (2003). Critical thoughts on teaching standard English. Curriculum Inquiry, 30(2), 147-169.

Trudgill, P. (1995). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

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

Wiens, K. (2012, July 20). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. Harvard Business Review.

Williams, O. (2013, February 3). Primary school tells parents to stop children using slang phrases as it is preventing them from learning ‘standard’ English. The Daily Mail.

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2 thoughts on “Are SPaG tests a gateway to fluency or yet another hoop for school pupils to jump through? SOPHIE COOPER investigates

  1. Holly says:

    Great blog post Sophie! After reading through, I’d say that you sway more towards the idea that testing children is unnecessary. Is this the case and if so, what other methods do you think should be used?

  2. Vicky Tams says:

    This is a really great blog post, Sophie. I really do agree with your opinion towards SPaG tests! A very interesting read, especially when you are discussing the attitude towards standard and non- standard English and how teachers in some areas of the country are trying to enforce Standard English by ‘correcting’ children’s lexis. What is your opinion towards teachers trying to correct children’s Lexis? Do you think something like this could be done across all schools or do you think it would have more of a negative impact?
    I also wondered if you have considered how these SPaG tests may be suited to foreign language students, or how this could benefit the teaching of English as a foreign language as they will be able to test the level of the students spelling, punctuation and grammar?
    As you have discussed the fact that Kyle Wiens, iFixit CEO, stated that he would not employ “those who used non-standard grammar” does this not suggest to you that as such, children should be learning standard grammar from a young age to give them the best hope for future employment (if this argument is shared with other employers)?
    From reading your blog post, it seems to suggest that you lean more towards the negative effects of SPaG tests, do you therefore think that SPaG tests have more of a negative effect on children too? If so, I am interested into seeing what you may suggest as an alternative test which may be more effective?
    Thank you for a great read!

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