Children should learn grammar but are the SPaG tests really the way forward? CHLOE BLAKE investigates

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

References

Bousted, M. (2016, January 19). Take this absurdly difficult English test – and see why this generation of students will be alienated by education. Times Educational Supplement

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

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

Letts, Q. (2013, May 12). Is good grammar still important? The Guardian.

Hudson, R. (2016). SPaG, a brief history of the teaching of spelling, punctuation and        grammar and the SATs tests.

Myhill, D. (2010). 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.

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

Reedy, D., & Bearne, E. (2013). Teaching Grammar Effectively in  Primary Schools.       United Kingdom: UKLA.

Trudgill, P. (2000). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. United         Kingdom: Penguin.

UKLA. (2013). UKLA statement on teaching grammar

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Tools or rules in schools? KATRINA KITNEY explores the pros and cons of grammar teaching.

Grammar is the backbone of English and all other languages. The importance of the explicit teaching of grammar, and whether it can or should be successfully taught in schools has been an ongoing debate for many years. So, what is the point of grammar teaching in the classroom and how are children assessed on their linguistic abilities? Does having a good knowledge of grammar, such as being able to identify word classes and dissect sentences, help you to use language ‘correctly’?

Most linguists view grammar as a “central component to language” and it is generally understood that an implicit knowledge of grammar is acquired through the exposure to language we have during childhood (Nelson and Greenbaum, 2013, p. 1). However, the UK government has decided that more emphasis should be placed on the explicit learning of grammar in UK schools as advised through the national curriculum, set out by the Department for Education. Although the government acknowledges that the acquisition of grammar does originate in speaker interaction at an early age, more emphasis is definitely placed on the teaching of “correct grammar” within classrooms (The National Curriculum, 2013, p. 9).  

In recent years, statistics have shown below standard results in English reading and writing tests for primary school children. In an attempt to monitor and improve these results, the UK government has introduced the so-called “SPaG” tests (short for Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) into the national curriculum from May 2013. These compulsory tests for seven and eleven-year olds are another way of the government assessing children, but specifically a way to test children’s grammar, punctuation and spelling abilities. For a taste of what questions appear on the SPaG test, the questions range from identifying a word class or sentence type, to placing the right punctuation or choosing the correct affix for a word.

Since the tests were introduced four years ago, there has been some uncertainty around their effectiveness; a BBC News report stated that the new tests would lead to an even more specified curriculum and it is simply another way of “teaching to the test”. Unsurprisingly, many parents and teachers disagreed with the new assessments, concerned that it places more unnecessary pressure on pupils, who by age 11 are already “sick of a diet of practise SATs and drills” (Sellgren, BBC News education reporter).

Thomason and Ward (2009), suggest that grammar teaching would be more effectively taught if it were introduced as a “tool” that children could use to enhance their language abilities. Not all children are able to critically analyse texts, or find it difficult to identify an adjective from an adverb, but does this mean they aren’t able to produce a good piece of writing? Not according to Hillocks Jr and Smith (1991), who propose that grammar instruction does not improve students writing. They state that consistent research over a ninety-year period has shown that teaching grammar to students within schools has little or no effect (in Wyse, Andrews and Hoffman, 2010, p. 171).

Despite the controversy surrounding the introduction of the new tests, there are still benefits to the enforcement of grammar teaching in schools. Test scores have increased annually since May 2015, with 77% of students reaching the expected targets in May 2017, up 5% from May 2016 (Ward, 2017); showing an improvement in children’s grammatical skills. Furthermore, Crystal (2004, p. 24) suggests that the main advantage of learning grammar, is grasping the concept of meaning. The more capable we are of understanding grammar and how it works, the more we can express ourselves and observe how we (and those around us) use language.

Grammar is most definitely an important aspect of English (and any language) and I support any attempt to improve children’s grammatical abilities. However, I don’t agree with the government’s approach to enforcing tests on pupils as young as seven, who are already facing several more years in an education system where you are continuously tested and placed against targets. I believe that rather than enforcing grammar as an abstract set of rules, it could be more beneficial to teach children how to use grammar in context, allowing them to play and explore language and be creative within their writing.

KATRINA KITNEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Crystal, D. (2004). ‘A twenty-first century grammar bridge’. In Davison, J., Daly, C. and Moss, J.  (2010). Debates in English Teaching. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Department for Education (2013). The National Curriculum in England: Key Stages 1 and 2 framework document

Hillocks, G., Jr and Smith, M. (1991). Grammar and Usage. In Wyse, D., Andrews, R. and Hoffman, J. (2010). The Routledge International Handbook of English, Language and Literacy Teaching. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Nelson, G., & Greenbaum, S. (2013). An introduction to English grammar. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

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

Thomason, T., & Ward, G. (2009). Tools, not rules. Durham, CT: Eloquent Books.

Ward, H. (2017, July 4). Sats: 61 per cent of pupils reach expected standard in three Rs. TES

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

References

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.

 

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.

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.