Grammar is a fundamental element of any language, providing the structural foundations for spoken and written communication and a set of ‘rules’ for language users to abide by. Letts (2013), describes grammar as “the coat hanger on which language can hang” (Higson & Letts, 2013). In recent years, the teaching of grammar in primary schools has become more explicit and advanced, but is it right that the government has increased the pressure on young children learning grammar? Or is the new method of testing children’s grammar knowledge negatively impacting primary school children?’
In 2013, the UK government introduced the SPAG tests (Spelling, Punctuation And Grammar) which assessed children aged seven and eleven. The grammar aspect of the test included questions involving connectives and subordinate clauses. These were introduced because allegedly statistics had shown that these children were below their expected level for their writing ability. The education minister at the time, Elizabeth Truss, emphasised that the tests would enable children to learn the skills which they need to understand language, and use them effectively (Department for Education, 2013). Clarke (2016), supports the need to learn grammar by identifying the change in the curriculum as a positive one, suggesting that it is an essential element to literacy. The claim is that the government’s grammar reforms could not have come quick enough, as data presented in 2012 highlighted that England was the “worst in the developed world for literacy” (Clarke, 2016).
Alternatively, others, such as teaching union leader Mary Bousted, believe that these tests are inappropriate, and that the curriculum causes children harm (Pells, 2016). In fact, The United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) argue that “children’s intellectual and creative achievements in language cannot adequately be tested by short, summative tests”. Alternatively, teachers should be encouraged to give a formative assessment instead of the tests (UKLA, 2013). I agree that this is a better method to identify children’s achievements, as it allows the teacher to gain a clear picture of the stage the child is at. This method of assessment also decreases the pressure which is put onto the child. The government ministers however, argue that the tests are “part of a necessary and important reform” (Pells, 2016).
Since the tests were introduced, there has been some uncertainty as to whether the tests are beneficial for children’s learning experience. The tests were found to leave children in tears and they were described as a “demoralising experience” for those children that were considered intelligent (Espinoza, 2016).
The tests are also identified as setting the children up to fail (Bousted, 2016), which is shown through the debate about whether in grammar there are clear right and wrong answers. A review states that there are elements in writing “where there are clear right and wrong answers, which lend themseleves to externally marked testing” (Bew, 2011, p.60). This idea is shown through the aims of the SPAG test, because one key aim is to test children on whether they can use grammar correctly (Department for Education, 2013).
Rosen (2015), uses the test, to argue against the assumption that there is one correct answer. The examples used to argue against this were in the 2015 test, where children were asked to choose the correct verb form to put into a sentence, but Rosen identifies that there is a possibility of two (Rosen, 2015). There has also been disagreement between the school minister Nick Gibb, and an interviewer, when looking at the word ‘after’ in the sentence “I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner”. The disagreement involved whether the word was used as a subordinating conjunction or a preposition (Aarts, 2016). Rosen (2016), states that the test is constructed in a way that involves ambiguities and inconsistencies. So why is it fair to provide children with a test, where there is not a universal agreed correct answer?
The government also emphasises that the tests ensure that primary schools place a firm focus on the teaching of key writing skills, which will ensure that children leave feeling more confident with these writing techniques (Department for Education, 2013). Bloom (2017), states that the way grammar is taught in schools identifies a “persistent mismatch” between the government’s policy and the academic evidence. Learning to write is much more than learning the grammar, instead “[g]rammatical knowledge should be neither taught nor tested outside the context of purposeful writing” (UKLA, 2013).
Despite the arguments against the tests, results in 2017 identified that 77% reached the expected standard in the SPAG test (Ward, 2017). But, what do you think about the tests? Should children be tested in this way or not at all?
JESS VICKERS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK