Knowing your ‘afters’! EILEANOR DIXON explores the benefits and drawbacks of current grammar tests for UK schoolchildren.

How would you define ‘grammar’? Don’t worry if you find that question difficult. You may not have been taught much about grammar in school but you are still able to use it. According to Crystal (2017, p. 2) “[g]rammar is the study of the way we bring words together in order to make sense”, something we all do every day. So, why has the teaching and testing of grammar been introduced into primary schools, if we are able to use grammar without knowing much about it?

The national curriculum proposes to teach children terminology and the rules of grammar. Children are tested on what they have been taught via SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) tests at the end of Key Stage 1 (seven-years old) and Key Stage 2 (11-years old) (DoE, 2013). Children are given a 45-minute grammar test and a 15-minute spelling test (DoE, 2013).

The introduction of the new curriculum was prompted by an alleged decrease in literacy skills in school leavers. A skill survey conducted by the CBI in 2011 showed that “more than 40% of employers said they were not satisfied with the basic literacy of school and college leavers” (DoE, 2013). So, the aim of this new curriculum is to help children get a better grasp of the use of grammar in order for them, according to the then Education Secretary Elizabeth Truss, to “understand our language, and to use it properly, creatively and effectively” (Shepherd, 2013).

The introduction of the teaching of grammar has received a lot of positive feedback. Aarts (2017) claims that being taught knowledge about grammar is necessary for learning other languages. When a child has a good grasp of the components of English grammar (e.g. tense) they can then use this knowledge to understand how the same components work in a different language (Wyldeck, 2007, p. v).

Moreover, according to the government, the new curriculum has shown a rise in literacy standards of schools. In 2010, a third of children who had finished primary education were not “reaching the expected level”, however this figure has fallen to a fifth since the introduction of the new curriculum (DoE, 2015).

However, the way the children are tested on their knowledge of grammar has proved to be very controversial among parents, teachers and academics. A staggering 98.8% of head teachers who attended the national association of heads conference wanted to put an end to these tests (Sellgren, 2012).

So, what is so wrong with these tests that they have such an alarming amount of head teachers wanting to scrap them?

Firstly, many believe that the SPaG tests easily confuse the children (Michael Rosen, 2016). On the tests, children are asked to label words according to their grammatical function. This can be confusing because there are some words in English that can belong to more than one category depending on the context they are used in. Even university educated adults can be confused by this. In an interview about the SPaG tests, Minister Nick Gibb was asked a question taken from the Key Stage 2 tests and he did not get it right (Boult, 2016). Gibbs was asked to state whether the word ‘after’ was being used as a preposition or a subordinating conjunction in the sentence “‘went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner'” (Aarts, 2016). Gibbs labelled ‘after’ as a preposition, which it is in some contexts, however, in this context it was acting as a subordinating conjunction (Aarts, 2016).

Furthermore, these tests teach children that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ answer when it comes to grammar, but this is not always the case (Rosen, 2015). People’s use of grammar can change depending on who they are addressing and whether they want to appear more informal or formal (Rosen, 2013). Rosen (2013) demonstrates the flexibility of grammar by showing that either “was or were” can be used in the sentence “‘[i]f the Lord Bew statement … correct'” and it would still be grammatical.

Moreover, Rosen (2016) also argues that children should not be tested on grammar because no-one uses grammar correctly all of the time. Everyone makes typos and mistakes whether that be in writing or speaking. There is a whole job industry on checking and correcting people’s work before publishing it and there is also an industry which plays on the incorrect use of grammar (advertising-copy) (Rosen, 2016).  So, to teach children that they should use grammar correctly all of the time is not realistic nor believable (Rosen, 2016).

So, despite some positive reaction to the introduction of the teaching of grammar into the national curriculum, the way the curriculum proposes to test the children has received a backlash. Do you think there is an alternative to these much opposed SPaG tests?

EILEANOR DIXON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aarts, B. (2016). Right and wrong answers in grammar tests. Grammarianism

Aarts, B. (2017, May 12). Change the tests, but don’t ditch grammar. Grammarianism.

Boult, A. (2016, May 3). Can you pass this grammar test meant for 11-year-olds. Daily Telegraph 

Crystal, D. (2017). Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Department of Education. (2015). Record number of pupils in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools. 

Department for Education. (2013). New grammar, punctuation and spelling tests 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. (2013, April 5). The Spag test is a hoax. Michael Rosen

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

Rosen, M. (2016, April 16). Why SPaG is nasty and dangerous. Michael Rosen

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

Shepherd, E. (2013, May 20). Eleven-year-olds wake up to compulsory spelling and grammar test. The Guardian

Wyldeck, K. (2007). All you need to about grammar (2nd ed.). Glebe, Australia: Pascal Press.



2 thoughts on “Knowing your ‘afters’! EILEANOR DIXON explores the benefits and drawbacks of current grammar tests for UK schoolchildren.

  1. Matt says:

    Hi Eileanor. Some interesting points you make there. My feeling is that the government mistakenly thinks that teaching children to label parts of speech (nouns, verbs, prepositions etc.) and other syntactic structures (e.g. fronted adverbials) will make them better writers. They are confusing the acquisition of writing skills, which come from reading and practice, with a scientific knowledge of the structures of sentences which is a different kettle of fish. As ever, a knee-jerk reaction to the apocalyptic claims of business leaders bemoaning the lack of grammatical accuracy in the writing skills of young employees. Explicit knowledge of the structures and functions of your own language is useful if you want to learn another language as it helps you understand the role of inflections, case, aspect and so on – you need the linguistic labels to be able to discuss how syntax works in another language. It also useful just for knowledge sake. However I doubt if it makes you a better writer. Good writing stems from practice, just as getting fit stems from exercise. I know what exercises keep me fit by watching others and trying them out myself but I have no idea what names to attribute to the various muscles, tendons, parts of the blood circulation system etc which contribute to this. Children should be encouraged to learn how grammar works through experimentation with various genres and if grammatical description is necessary, should learn this by exploring the ‘functions’ of language (to persuade, inspire etc.). Learning that modal verbs are essential in political speeches (‘we MUST’, ‘they SHOULD’) or that Justin Beiber uses imperatives (‘Love Me’) or interrogatives (‘What do you mean?) as the titles of his songs is more likely to give meanings to these descriptive labels as performing a function in context, rather than bland labelling (and testing) exercises.And you are right – not all linguists agree on the label for the same part of speech. Is ‘my’ in ‘my comment’ a possessive adjective, determiner or pronoun? There is no consensus on this. Any more thoughts?

  2. Alice Fox says:

    This is a very good explanation of the SPaG tests Eileanor and the facts you have used are fascinating.

    I completely agree with the argument that the tests are too complex for primary school aged children. I am interested to know whether you think that the tests should be completely abolished or perhaps an ‘easier’ test should be introduced therefore the children will still be learning about grammatical functions and features in primary school.

    The shocking percentage of head teachers who believe the tests are a bad thing was eye-opening and also very confusing to me. How can the government believe these tests are a positive thing if 98.8% of head teachers at the conference disagreed? Surely they have an expertise in this subject.
    I think its clear to see that the tests have had more of a negative reaction than positive by the general public, including the parents of the pupils taking these tests. Do you think that the opinions of the parents should be taken into account when these drastic changes arose?

    I can see that you have pointed out the fact that children become quite confused by the tests and content. Do you believe that the stress levels of the children can be increased as an implication of the tests? I think that if children as young as seven and eleven years old are finding something stressful, then this is an indicator that the tests do not suit the purpose they were introduced for. How can the government justify putting young children through so much stress for something that hasn’t been proven to bring literacy levels up, if anything they have dropped since the tests were introduced. Perhaps there is a correlation between the confusion and the failure levels.

    I found the point by Rosen (2016) very intriguing and refreshing. By pointing out the fact that grammar is constantly incorrectly used is such an important factor that I’ve not heard being argued before. How can we teach children grammar if grammatical mistakes are surrounding us?

    In terms of the question you’ve left for the readers, I believe there is an alternative for the SPaG tests. If a child is taught grammar at primary school and at the ages of seven and eleven years old they are expected to take a test, then the tests should reflect the fact that they are still very young children. Instead of using terms that university students, graduates and just the general working public cannot even identify, perhaps use terms that are more advanced that previously accepted for primary school, but no more advanced that mid-high school (year nine) level.

    Thank you for this inviting blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s