Fronted adverbials & subjunctives. Do children really need to know how to describe the nuts and bolts of grammar? AIMEE KERR discusses the SPaG tests.

Did you find it problematic when you left primary school not knowing what a fronted adverbial is? Grammar is something relatively indescribable by the average adult. So why are we asking our country’s 11-year-olds to do just this? The recent introduction of SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) tests in 2013 has raised serious concerns and sparked a debate, despite the tests being younger than the children subjected to them. There are varying opinions as to whether formal assessment of the skills required by these tests are necessary for children in Key Stage 2.

The tests were introduced into the curriculum to “raise children’s literacy standards” and the Department for Education (DfE) (2013) explains that they, “are in line with the international best practice”. The DfE was informed by the Bew Review (2011), an independent review of the assessment system we were giving to our 11-year-olds. The review was largely concerned with there being no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. Instead the mark to be given in any assessment was to be based on a judgement of children’s writing. The SPaG tests do exactly what they say on the tin; they test for spelling, punctuation and grammar, something the UK government feels improves the writing abilities of children. However, are there ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers for grammar as argued by Lord Bew? Even if there are, does explicitly teaching children rules of grammar benefit them?

Michael Rosen, writer, broadcaster, and political columnist, reports in The Guardian (2015) that the, “evidence-free assumption” that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers to grammar is shown to be wrong. He states that the 2016 SPaG test suffers from ‘terminology-itis’ and it requires children assuming that there is a universal agreement on grammatical terminology. Even linguists have no concrete assumptions on what is a standard grammar, arguing that it is constantly changing. Children are even being tested on something experts believe doesn’t exist – the subjunctive (e.g. ‘If I were to know about grammar…’). If it were to exist, would it even matter? I’m sure the majority of people do not think about using a ‘subjunctive’ when writing emails. Why are we teaching and testing children on something so archaic? When considering whether decontextualised teaching of grammar is beneficial, The United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) explains that, “[r]epeated studies such as Andrews et al. (2006) have shown no evidence that grammar teaching out of context has any beneficial effect on reading and writing.” (2013). Sellgren (2012) on BBC News argues that the money spent on these tests is being wasted and that it would be used more effectively on teacher training.

There are those that believe these tests are the new way of boosting our children’s  literacy skills, allowing them to excel at writing and, later in life, help them better their chances of greater employment opportunities. Wiens, CEO of iFixit.com, has potential employees take a grammar test before being welcomed to the company. He aligns himself with Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003), explaining that he has, “ “a zero tolerance approach” to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid” (Wiens, 2015). Truss has an incredibly prescriptive approach to people who mix up their ‘it’s’ and ‘its’, saying they “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave” (Truss, 2003, pp. 43-44). Wiens believes that people who mix these up deserve to be passed on, despite them being perfectly qualified for the job. Sounds a little harsh. This argument is one main reason Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for Education and Childcare 2012-2014, introduced SPaG tests to the curriculum. She argued the 45-minute grammar test will improve literacy skills so that employers won’t, “bemoan the poor literacy of so many school and college leavers” (DfE, 2013).

There are some positive insights into teaching grammar, though later on in Key Stage 3. Myhill, Jones, Watson, & Lines (2013) found that, when in context thanks to real world examples, grammar teaching does improve students’ writing by as much as 20 per cent. This not only begs the question as to how we should teach grammar, but also when we should teach grammar.

The debate goes on. Is grammar teaching necessary? If so, when should we start teaching children? How should we teach grammar? While grammar is a fundamental aspect of language, it is the methods used to teach children grammar that have the most impact on their learning. I believe SPaG tests are unnecessary, as context and grammar go hand in hand, something government ministers seem not to understand. As for companies refusing to employ someone due to a misplaced apostrophe, is this really the worst thing someone could have done to make them unemployable?

AIMEE KERR, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

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. DfE.

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

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

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 News.  

The United Kingdom Literacy Association. (2013). UKLA statement on teaching grammar. UKLA.

Truss, L. (2003). Eats, shoots and leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books.  

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

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2 thoughts on “Fronted adverbials & subjunctives. Do children really need to know how to describe the nuts and bolts of grammar? AIMEE KERR discusses the SPaG tests.

  1. Matt says:

    Hi Aimee. Thanks for the thought-provoking blog. There is a lot of food for thought here. I wonder whether the teaching of punctuation and the explicit teaching of grammar are the same thing? I mean, I can understand employers being put off by job applicants who have not paid attention to Standard English in written applications. It’s all very well academic linguists taking a purely descriptive approach and claiming that SE is just one variety amongst many and that punctuation has evolved over time etc. and is therefore not inherently right or wrong. But is there not an argument that young writers need to be aware of the conventions of their own language and the varying situations in which it is appropriate to use one form over another? However, knowledge about word classes and clause elements is a very different kettle of fish. I doubt if many people who sit on interview panels, even in academia, would know or care whether a construction consists of a fronted adverbial or a relative clause. They might know whether one is being used appropriately but would not be able to label it. This is why I think the whole concept of the SPaG tests is a quagmire – because it is artificially blending many different skills together into one big test. I can think of two main benefits of being able to describe the forms and functions of words from a grammatical perspective: a) when learning a second language it is necessary to have a meta-language to discuss how the language being learnt works in a potentially different way to one’s own. Hence is is necessary to understand the concept e.g. of the past progressive or modal verb function. And b) from an analytical perspective, being able to explore how the discourse of one’s language works for various purposes from a critical perspective, e.g. to expose manipulative uses of language. But labelling for labelling sake is like learning the names of capital cities or how to identify national flags – useless unless you know something more about the countries involved or want to explore the etymology of the words and / or the historical roots of the flags’ symbolism.

  2. Luke White says:

    Hi Aimee,
    This blog provides a both interesting and informative read on SPaG tests. I am in complete accordance with your view that the tests are unnecessary to children at such an early age. The UK government puts strain on children as early as 11 to learn these rules yet countries like Finland, which does not require students to sit exams until they are 18, are consistently ranked higher by the program for international student assessment when it comes to literacy.

    However, if these tools are unnecessary to a child of the age of 11 do you not think that they ought to be a necessity for someone who is of age to be within a working environment? I rightly agree with Kyle Wiens and his decision to deny someone the job in question over a mistaken apostrophe as the gap from primary testing to the workplace provides great swathes of learning it which it necessary for a child to learn the basic rules of English.

    This leads me onto my final point. Do you think that the SPaG tests should be removed from the curriculum completely or do you think students should undertake them at a later point in their educational career?

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