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.

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.

SPaG tests: raising the bar or killing confidence? EMILY PATERSON pronounces her sentence

Recently introduced to the UK schools’ curriculum, so-called ‘SPaG’ tests have already raised serious concerns amongst both parents and teachers. Children as young as four are embarking on their literacy journey enduring soul-destroying grammar tests. Children who may not be able to read or write with ease, are being forced to tackle compulsory grammar drills. Surely I am not the only one questioning what the pros are of a school curriculum which puts emphasis on complex grammar at such a young age?

SPAG tests (short for Spelling Punctuation and Grammar) test these areas in children aged five and eleven. However, parents and teachers are very worried that since May 2013 when the tests began, they have seen signs that show the new tests are age-inappropriate and can impact on a child’s confidence significantly if they don’t perform well. According to Espinoza, 2016 (Education Editor for The Telegraph) teachers reported that even bright pupils weren’t able to finish the test and the stress of the tests alone reduced the children to tears on several occasions.

One of the major problems with the Government’s imposition of grammar tests lies within the fact that even for linguists the concept of ‘a standard grammar’ isn’t easy to define. Although opinions can differ among linguists, it is believed that Standard English is a dialect which is understood by many and associated with education and prestige (see Crystal, 1995). In contrast there are many varieties and forms of English including different accents and dialects (see Trudgill, 1979) which people use more in the context of speaking. On reflection it seems ludicrous that children aged four are expected to be able to differentiate between the uses of Standard and non-Standard English.

Furthermore, many linguists believe that the benefits of teaching and reinforcing grammar remain unclear.  According to Myhill (2011) there is very little evidence so show that teaching grammar aids children’s writing skills therefore what is the point in putting children through additional stress and essentially ruining their long-term relationship with literacy?

Having studied the new SPAG tests which were sat by five-year-olds and eleven-year-olds this year, I think it is clear that the Government’s expectation of primary school aged children is way too high. Children are expected to label complex grammatical terms, such as ‘fronted adverbials’, ‘relative clauses’ and ‘the subjunctive’ a task which a handful of students in my final year English Language seminar group struggled with when faced with a past paper from this year. It comes to something when professionals in education begin to rip the test apart. Michael Rosen (Children’s Author and Poet) slated the new SPaG test in a letter to the then Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan. He pointed out that there isn’t always one correct answer in grammar and the new SPAG test doesn’t adhere to this. Many of the questions are vague and there could be more than one answer but the mark scheme doesn’t address this – this is a major issue.

On the other side of the grammar tests debate, Gwynne, 2013 (a self taught teacher) argues that having good grammar guides our decision making and additionally leads to happiness. In my opinion Gwynne’s view is very controversial and he lacks evidence for his claim that grammar can lead to happiness. However some linguists do believe that grammar provides the foundations of English Language. This implies that without understanding the rules of grammar, you can’t fully exploit the richness of English (see Crystal, 2004). Crystal highlights the reasons why grammar can help everyone – not just teachers of English. Similarly, Wyse, 2013 (Professor of Primary Education at University College London) also believes teaching children grammar is highly important and beneficial. He believes it is beneficial to their language use and that it plays a key role in children’s understanding of their social and cultural environment.

It is clear that grammar is essential to the English language and in my opinion the teaching of grammar is important in a child’s education. However, grammar tests are not necessary- they just give another reason for children, parents and teachers to worry unnecessarily.

EMILY PATERSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. Cambridge Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press.

Espinoza, J. (2016, May 9). Students reduced to tears over ‘hardest’ tests, The Telegraph

Gwynne, N. M. (2013). Gwynne’s grammar: The ultimate introduction to grammar and the writing of good English. Ebury Press.

Milroy, J., Milroy, L. (1999). Investigating Standard English. Prescription and standardization. London: Routledge.

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

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

Trudgill, P. (1974). Sociolinguistics: an introduction (4th ed.). Harmondsworth Penguin Books.

Wyse, D. (2013). Teaching English, language and literacy. London: Routledge.

Testing times: HOLLY WILLIAMS explores the role of grammar tests and Standard English in primary schools

Since the instalment of Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar tests (otherwise known as SPaG tests) in the UK in 2013, there have been varying opinions on whether or not Key Stage 2 (age 7-11) pupils need to be assessed formally when it comes to this particular set of skills. Do children of this age need to have a full understanding of Standard English when they leave primary school? Will it be problematic or beneficial when it comes to their literacy skills in the future?

Professor Debra Myhill (2011) states that [m]any English teachers and educationalists advocate a pluralist approach to teaching, one which values dialectal diversity but also acknowledges that giving learners access to Standard English may help them in gaining access to powerful discourses and powerful positions”. Myhill takes into account that dialectal diversity is important and that some pupils may find certain elements of Standard English to be unnatural to them, due to the regional dialect they were bought up with, therefore giving them a disadvantage when it comes to the SPaG tests. However, she also states that if pupils acquire knowledge of Standard English, it could help them in accessing a wider spectrum of opportunities and more powerful positions. So how can a primary school pupil’s knowledge of Standard English help them obtain a powerful, influential reputation?

In an online article discussing why grammar is important, written for the English Speaking online website, it claims that “[u]sing the correct grammar (when you write or speak) is important to avoid misunderstandings”. It goes on to say that [i]f your English is too full of mistakes, you will slow down communication and conversations, and find it harder to express your ideas and thoughts clearly and concisely”. This is spreading the belief therefore that the better your grammar, the wider an audience your voice can reach. If you use Standard English when speaking and writing, more people will be able to communicate with you/relate to what you are saying. Having said this, I previously mentioned that this puts certain pupils with distinctive regional dialects – those that do not tend to use Standard English outside of the formal school environment –  at a disadvantage, not only when it comes to SPaG testing but also their future communication skills. Would it therefore be problematic and unfair not to give pupils the education they may need for literacy and communication in the future, when it comes to Standard English?

Brady (2015), states that “whether intentional or not, the pedagogical practices of teachers and the curriculum may serve not only to perpetuate the power of those who guard, sanction and thus legitimise language but also to disempower those who have reduced access to the language”. Brady believes that the national curriculum and the way it is taught in general, serves the pupils who have been bought up speaking Standard English and disempowers those who have been bought up with dialects that do not naturally use Standard English. Surely this gives further reason to teach grammar as a subject in primary schools so that all children have the same opportunites in time to come? However, does this give reason for SPaG testing?

Pells (2016) in The Independent, states that primary school testing has been “widely criticised by parents, teachers, school leaders and government ministers as overly complex and the source of “unnecessary” pressure on children at too young an age”. Although as discussed, grammar may be an important subject for pupils to be educated in, testing them on it at such a young age is said to be unnecessary and far too pressurising considering their age. Pells also states that “[c]ampaign organisers Let Kids Be Kids argued that children as young as six were becoming increasingly stressed over unfair testing methods which also account for reduced creative learning and activities in schools”. It is believed that creative learning is also important in primary education and that these tests and exams are generating needless anxiety and worry in primary school pupils.

So what are your thoughts? Is grammar testing a necessity at such a young age? Is it of any importance at all? My personal beliefs lie with children’s happiness and enjoyment with schooling. Education is very important so for a child to start out feeling stressed and uneasy, it would be awful for them to carry that feeling all the way through their schooling and therefore feel discouraged and disheartened about testing and literacy in the future.

HOLLY WILLIAMS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Brady, J. (2015). Dialect, power and politics: standard English and adolescent identities. Literacy, 49 (3), p. 149.

Englishspeakingonline.com. Speaking English –  Why Correct Grammar is Important. 

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

Pells, R. (2016). At what age should we start testing our children? The Independent