Grammar, it is claimed, is classed as being one of the things needed to know to succeed in English. If you have good grammar you can go far in life and reach your potential (Espinoza, 2016). But do we really need to put children through the new rigorous SPaG tests to prove that they know how to label the function of individual words in sentences?
SPaG tests (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) were introduced into the UK primary school curriculum in 2013. They assess children, aged seven and eleven, in an hour long spelling and grammar test.
The tests and associated learning are clearly being promoted by the UK government as beneficial to children’s writing skills. But they have left many teachers and parents very worried about their children’s wellbeing. Espinoza, 2016 (Education Editor for Daily Telegraph) claims that the tests have left even the bright children struggling and they are very demoralizing for the children.
Children are asked to point out the subordinate clauses, the adverbials, conjunctions, relative clauses etc., potentially quite tricky at that age when they haven’t been learning grammar for very long. Children are already able to use these grammatical constructions in their day to day life so what are the benefits of being able to point them out in a sentence?
Grammar can be very difficult to define. The linguist David Crystal (2017) defines grammar as “the study of how sentences work”. This is very similar to the UKLA’s (United Kingdom Literacy Association) definition – “[g]rammar is the study of how we make sense in speaking or writing so that we can understand people who speak the same language as we do” (Reedy & Bearne, 2013). So grammar, in essence, is referring to the structure of sentences.
When children are using language in formal contexts in schools they are expected to use standard grammar. Standard English is classed as a dialect and is one of the many varieties used in English (Trudgill, 2000). There will be dialect variation across the UK but each child will be expected to use standard English when completing the test, putting pressure on children to know when to use their regional dialect and when to use standard English.
The government argue that because grammar involves the basic building blocks of language, being taught grammar in the classroom will mean children can reach their full potential in life because without it they will fall behind (Hudson, 2016). Letts (2013) supports the explicit teaching of grammar in schools stating that “[g]rammar is the coat hanger on which language can hang [meaning] – [i]t provides structure for sentences”. They support the government’s stance claiming that not only will children learning grammar help with job applicants but it will train their minds. Children learning grammar is important but is going to the extent of testing them via SPaG tests really necessary? Is there not a way of making it more fun for children?
According to Myhill (2010) there is little evidence to prove that teaching grammar to children helps their writing. Children learn grammar better and find it more exciting by writing stories. Not only does it help their writing skills but it helps develop a wide variety of others such as making sense of the world, understanding emotion and sequencing time (Bousted, 2016). This then helps their development of grammar by exploring other ways of writing. Surely learning through this way is more enjoyable for not only the children but the teachers as well? Can children not be tested on their grammar through their stories rather than through SPaG tests?
The government are setting the children up to fail in a sense. When it comes to grammar there isn’t always one correct answer. The SPaG tests don’t make this clear, for each question there is only one answer. This may leave children more confused later in life because they are having to be untaught something they have previously learnt (Rosen, 2015).
So, do children really need the extra stress of having these long and difficult, potentially demoralizing tests, when they can lean grammar in more of a fun and interesting way?
CHLOE BLAKE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK