You say CONtroversy, I say conTROversy. JANA STAMMBERGER explores pronunciation prescriptions and descriptions

We can learn fixed rules in the field of science, which, if applied in the way we are taught, necessarily lead us to the correct result. Can the same circumstances be said about language?

Here, we are already at the core of a major debate.  The dominant view in the field of linguistics says that language is not an absolute set of rules. The conventions of language use are man-made rather than laid down by the laws of nature, and therefore keep changing –  and always have done (Curzan, 2014, p. 1). This view is also the “basis for dictionaries, which record changes in vocabulary and usage” (Battistella, 2007, p. 5). The declared aim of the Oxford English Dictionary is “to provide a brief, scientific account of the history and usage of all the words of the English language, wherever and whenever they were spoken”, and is therefore a record of the English language rather than an instruction on how to use it (OED online, 2018). Judgements about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ language are usually frowned upon by descriptivists.

In contrast, in his book Strictly English, Simon Heffer claims that the question if English can be good “is not rhetorical” (Heffer, 2010, p. xv). Prescriptivists like him make attempts to pin down one point in time where the language was allegedly “pure”, that is, correct. This they regard as the ‘standard’ that they make efforts to maintain or to get back to. However, this is not merely their own opinion. Heffer claims that “whether the linguistics experts like it or not, there remains an idea of “standard English” as it is spoken in Britain […], set by an educated class” (Heffer, 2010, p. xv).

Who belongs to this educated class? Bernard Lamb may be one of those people. Educated he is – given his large range of achievements, including BSc, PhD, DSc, FSB, CBiol and FRSM. This alone, of course, does not imply that he is a potential prescriptivist. Nor does his age (he is now in his late 70s) – although a prescriptive tendency often increases proportionally to age. This might be accounted for by the – in some respects quite rapid – change of language use, which is seen as a process of decay or “fall in standards”, to use Lamb’s very own words. But for more than 10 years he has been President of the Queen’s English Society which was “formed in 1972 by a small group of people who loved the English language and were concerned at the widespread deterioration in standards” (Queen’s English Society). The Society is leading campaigns to spread the teaching and use of what they call ‘proper English’.

There are different levels on which people criticise language. While the Queen’s English Society explicitly focuses on “written and spoken English”, both have to be looked at separately (Queen’s English Society, 2018, Standards). The English spelling system, for instance, has been fairly fixed for a couple of centuries, since during the 18th century efforts were made to “enshrin[e] English spelling to prevent further corruption” (Horobin, 2013, p. 144). The focus was on orthography as “this is the aspect of the language that is most easily regulated” (Horobin, 2013, p. 144). Pronunciation is a different matter, as it is much harder to standardise, which does not mean, of course, that the attempt has not been made. Would you pronounce the term ‘controversy’ with emphasis on the first or on the second syllable?  According to the OED, ” early editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. give only first-syllable stress; later editions of Jones give second-syllable stress as a variant from at least ed. 8 (1947). J. C. Wells Longman Pronunc. Dict. (1990) noted that while among RP speakers the first-syllable stress probably still predominated, a majority of British speakers now favoured second-syllable stress” (OED Online, 2018). Obviously, both options have co-existed for at least decades, and the dominant or preferred use has changed over time.

So who determines how we should pronounce words? We do, said the BBC shortly after their foundation in the 1920s. Arthur Lloyd James, then member of the BBC Advisory Committee of Spoken English, condemned “the slurring of sounds, the missing of sounds, the untidy articulation of sounds” (Mugglestone, 2008, p. 212). The BBC was promoting an RP accent as the standard pronunciation, which is why it is still commonly referred to as BBC English. Yet, there has been a shift within the BBC, away from prescriptivism. Daniel Jones, also member of the Advisory Committee, wrote in the preface to the 1956 edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary that  “no attempt was made to decide how people ought to pronounce”, and RP meant “merely widely understood pronunciation” and he did “not hold it up as a standard which everyone [was] recommended to adopt” (Wotschke, 2008, p. 97). These days the BBC are much more liberal when it comes to varieties of English. On the radio and on television, regional dialects are no exception among presenters.

This has led to sharp criticism and complaints by readers and institutions about “falling standards” and a “drop in quality” (Creighton, 2014). Whether they actively support it or not, a strong idea of a standard set to be kept by authorities remains to be present in people’s minds.

JANA STAMMBERGER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Battistella, E.L. (2005). Bad language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP.

Creighton, S. (2014, October 30). BBC stars who can’t say ‘aitch’: Corporation accused of falling standards after viewers highlight way number of presenters say the letter ‘H’. Daily Mail.

Curzan, A. (2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and language history.  Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Heffer, S. (2010). Strictly English. The correct way to write and why it matters. London, United Kingdom: Windmill Books.

Horobin, S. (2013). Does spelling matter?. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Jones, D. (1967). The Pronunciation of English (4th ed.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge UP.

Mugglestone, L. (2008). Spoken English and the BBC: In the Beginning.  Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 33(2), 197-215.

OED online. (2018).  The OED and innovation. 

Queen’s English Society. (2018). Standards. Policy Document.

Queen’s English Society. (2018). Campaign. 

Wotschke, I. (2008). How educated English speak English. Lewiston NY, United States: The Edwin Mellen Press.


Is it all smoke and mirrors? VICTORIA HULSE explores whether the news can ever be a window on the world

Objectivity, transparency and neutrality or subjectivity, opacity and bias? Which set of words would you associate with the news? If it was the latter you are not alone. How could the news ever be the former when 71% of the national newspaper market is owned by just three companies (Media Reform Coalition, 2015) making the choice of events to report on and the political/social stance to take, very limited. So how neutral can the news really be? Is there ever such a thing as reporting the facts?

It is argued that “[t]he news does not simply reflect the world as if it were a mirror as journalists often claim […] the news does not simply construct a picture of the real either” (Matheson, 2005, p.15). Richardson (2007, p. 10) suggests that news reports are constructed based on their expected audience and because of this it “recreates these social and sometimes institutional expectations – expectations that we all have when we pick up a newspaper”. It is apparent that these expectations directly affect the “newsworthiness” of events and therefore the reporting of them. Harcup and O’Neill (2001) argued that “the news needs to be interesting or appealing to the target audience” (as cited in Richardson, 2007, p.91) and therefore, the content will be manipulated. Therefore, it seems impossible to be completely impartial when reporting events and through the drive to sell newspapers, it appears that the truth of the event may become distorted to fit the ideologies or events that sell.

An example of this distortion can be seen through the ideology of news reports. Ideology can be defined as “a systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics, economics or society and forming the basis of action or policy” (OED online, 20/04/2017). Therefore, ideologies are often present in news reports to reinforce an idea or belief that the newspaper wants people to adopt. For example, the EU referendum provided a binary choice, which meant newspapers that were primarily Eurosceptic produced anti-European reports which disseminated the ideology that Britain is better out of the European Union, whereas newspapers that favoured remaining in the European Union produced pro-European reports. So which is it? Were we factually better off in leaving the European Union or remaining?

Well it seems that your opinion will be formed depending on the newspaper you read due to the variance in reporting. This is apparent on the two front covers of different newspapers the day after the result was announced. The Daily Mirror took a negative stance in its reporting with the headline ‘so what the hell happens now?’ and a picture of David Cameron and his wife looking uncertain. The Daily Express however, took a more positive stance with a headline such as ‘historic day for Britain’ and displaying a picture of the Chelsea Pensioners potentially showing pride. Therefore, if two people read either of the newspapers they may develop completely different ideologies about the same event and therefore it is arguable that the news does not just simply report an event, it offers the reader a viewpoint to read with.

To conclude, it is difficult for the news to ever be a completely unbiased and neutral source of information and there will always be the possibility that the reports will have an agenda or ideology they want to implement. Even if news outlets aim to be neutral, there is still an overreaching element of subjectivity in their reporting even if this is unintentional. It is also important to consider perspectives. What one person may view as positive, another may view as negative and therefore is it possible that we as the audience influence how we view the world. On the other hand, there are organisations such as the BBC that attempt to remain unbiased and therefore it is possible certain news outlets can be or at least attempt to be a true representation of events. However, news values contribute to the distortion of reality dependent on their deemed ‘newsworthiness’, therefore, what is reported and the stance taken is primarily motivated by the audience. Therefore, can the news ever really be a window on the world?

VICTORIA HULSE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Matheson, D. (2005). Media discourses. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Media reform coalition. (2015). Corbyn’s first week: Negative Agenda Setting in the Press. 

Richardson, J. E. (2007). Analysing newspapers. An approach from critical discourse analysis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Daily Mirror Cover (2016) What the hell happens now?


Should there be a ‘swear-police’ or should we not give a shit? HENRY COOPER goes on the offensive.

Swearing as we know it is defined in the OED as “the uttering of a profane oath; the use of profane language”. Many people have problems with the use of offensive words despite these words being entirely arbitrary. Unlike with most linguistic debates, there are not two clearly defined groups with opposing attitudes to swearing. Generally, people do not care for swearing, arguing that it is impolite, that language should be suitable for all listeners, and that “offensive language is improper and daring” (Battistella, 2005, pp. 76-77).

Typically, words that are considered offensive revolve around taboo subjects. Allan & Burridge (2006, p. 1) outline what is considered taboo: bodies, effluvia (sweat, faeces, blood, etc.), organs, sex acts, defecation, naming, addressing, and viewing persons. During earlier periods of religious repression in history, such topics were thought of as blasphemous and sacrilegious, meaning that many did not publically speak of such things and were shunned if they did. Religion was undeniably the most significant factor in the stigmatisation of swearing, as supported by Hughes (1991). We no longer live in a time where taboo subjects are thought of with such disdain. More people are expressing themselves through tattoos and piercings; more people are openly discussing the private sex-life; and more people are swearing in casual discourse.

One word that is frequently considered the most offensive of all actually dates back to the 13th century and was not actually offensive at all. ‘Cunt’ according to the OED “does not seem to have been considered inherently obscene or offensive in the medieval period” and has undergone significant semantic shifts over the past 800 years. It is during this shift where it became offensive and the subsequent stigma has only perpetuated this. If you ask people why this word offends them, many will say something along the lines of ‘it just is’. There is very little about the actual words that are considered swear words which makes them offensive. Being offended by offensive words with arbitrarily assigned meanings is, fundamentally, the same as being offended by the word ‘tree’. There is nothing inherently tree-like in the structure of this word nor is there anything inherently sex-like in the word ‘fuck’. Using these words to directly insult an individual is obviously going to offend them. The use of swearing only exacerbates the level of offense due to the stigma of swearing. Referring to someone as ‘you bitch’ is more offensive than saying ‘you scruffy-looking-nerf-herder’ as a result of the stigma, not the word itself.

There is some sense to why people do not like them and that is in part due to the phonology ( A number of swear words such as ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ include velar sounds which are harsher and therefore associated more with aggression leading to a more negative perception. The presence of plosives in swear words such as ‘bitch’ and ‘dick’ is also important because they create a build-up of energy during the hold-phase which results in an explosive release with emotive force and power. Such phonetic features do add a greater level of aggression, and therefore unpleasantness, to the words but there are many other words with similar phonetic structures which are not considered offensive. For instance, the word ‘dock’ has the harsh velar plosive /k/ in word-final position and the alveolar plosive /d/ in word initial position allowing for a large build-up of energy but this word is not considered offensive due to the lack of arbitrary meaning behind it.

Regardless of the arbitrary nature of swear words, many in society still find them offensive. Swearing should not be prohibited but should not be used without the appropriate context. Swearing is best suited for casual and colloquial discourse and may be seen as rude in formal occasions or unprofessional in the workplace environment. It seems to be that swearing is gradually becoming more accepted with it being used more and more in film and television. Censorship boards can adequately control the use of swearing on television but controlling an individual’s use of swearing is impractical.

How could this realistically be done? Would governments need to implement Swear-Police as if we were in some kind of Orwellian nightmare? Directly insulting someone using offensive words is undoubtedly wrong but what harm is there in dropping the occasional F-Bomb? Those who are deeply offended by the use of swear words may wish to consider why it is that they find this language offensive and should realise that there are far more important things to be offended by than the occasional non-aggressive use of swearing.

HENRY COOPER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K., & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language. London, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Battistella, E. (2005). Bad language: are some words better than others? New York, United States of America: Oxford University Press.

English Stack Exchange. (2011). What makes a word offensive?

Hughes, G. (1991). Swearing: A social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in English. London, United Kingdom: Penguin

OED Online. (2017). Oxford University Press. 

Should we accept or mourn the loss of languages? JESSICA WOOLLEY surveys some opinions

The debate surrounding language death and the preservation of endangered languages contains numerous opinions, some which are emotive, and others that are based on more concrete evidence.

In a study on endangered native American languages, James Crawford lists four common arguments amongst linguists which outline why we should care about language death. Crawford’s first point outlines how the death of a language results in linguists missing out on valuable information that could have otherwise contributed towards their science (1995, p. 31). For the second reason, Crawford discusses an argument shared by many others, i.e. “the loss of linguistic diversity means a loss of intellectual diversity” (1995, p. 33). The third reason is the loss of cultures, and the fourth reason, which Crawford (1995, p.33) describes as being the most important one is “the human costs to those most directly affected,” as in the loss of a culture’s and individual’s identity.  This therefore creates challenges when it concerns the solutions to family, poverty, and school issues, and ultimately jeopardizes the success of small communities in the modern world (1995, p.33).

Such losses are a reality for many communities across the world, especially in linguistically diverse countries like Nigeria. Take Kasabe, a language spoken in Mambilia (which is a region in Cameroon), for instance. On November 4th 1995 Kasabe existed, but with the death of its last speaker, it disappeared by the 6th of November 1995 (Crystal, 1999). The linguist who analyzed Kasabe, Bruce Connell, remarks how the last speaker told him that “his mother had been born in the same village where he himself grew up [therefore] indicating several generations had passed” (Connell, 1997), but all is assumed to be lost with the death of the last speaker.

Yet, not everyone shares Crawford’s list of concerns about language death. As Nettle and Romaine explain in their book Vanishing Voices (2000), some argue that instead of trying to save endangered languages, it would make more sense to spread and encourage the use of dominant languages so that smaller communities can experience the same high standards of living as people speaking the dominant languages (2000, p.151). Nettle and Romaine further define this line of argument as being the benign neglect position: those who would prefer to let endangered languages gently disappear over time think that it would be right to do so because of the correlation formed between language death and the extinction of species. They argue that extinctions have occurred throughout history, so why worry about the loss of languages? (2000, p.153). Even though Nettle and Romaine do not support the benign neglect position, and go to great lengths to undermine it in their book, there are other linguists who do, to some degree, support part of it. For example, the linguist Peter Ladefoged argues that in some countries, such as Tanzania, tribalism goes against what it is that they are trying to achieve – unity (1992, p. 809). Thus, attempts at preserving endangered languages in places such as Tanzania would not benefit communities in a way that linguists would originally hope.

But what about the people who purposefully choose to speak a more dominant language? According to James Harbeck, some speakers of endangered languages choose to speak a dominant language because they “see their language as limiting: if they or their children are to be successful, they need to know the language of education, of science, of business” (2015). And just as Ladefoged discusses in his own study, not everyone sees their language as being sacred like some linguists suggest (1992, p. 809). For example, young speakers of Dravidian, which is spoken in southern India, want to be a part of modern India and simultaneously honour their ancestors. But in order to be a part of both, they have decided to stop using Dravidian on a regular basis (Ladefoged, 1992, p. 810).

Whilst it is easy to get caught up in the debate, I think it is important to consider the opinions of all those affected by language death, and what it is that they desire. But overall, the question still remain – should we preserve endangered languages?

JESSICA WOOLLEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Connell, B. (1997). Moribund Languages of the Nigeria-Cameroon Borderland. Symposium on Language Endangerment in Africa. Leipzig, Germany, 29-31 July 1997.

Crawford, J. (1995). Endangered Native American Languages: What is to be Done, and   Why? The Bilingual Research Journal, 19 (1), 17-38.

Crystal, D. (1999, November 20). Millennium briefing: the death of language. Prospect     Magazine. 


Harbeck, J. (2015, March 2). Why do we fight so hard to preserve endangered languages?. The Week

Ladefoged, P. (1992). Another view of Endangered Languages. Languages, 68(4), 809-811.

Nettle, S. & Romaine, S. (2000). Vanishing voices: The extinction of the world’s languages.           Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.  


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


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.

Reading skills: a strict phonics diet or mixed methods? MELISSA TAYLOR investigates

The best approach to teaching children how to read has divided opinion. The government urge systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) as the “first, fast and only” way to teach reading (Rosen, 2014), so that phonics screening checks (tests) for five to seven year-olds have been compulsory in England since 2012. However, this ‘one size fits all’ approach “simply does not work” according to Sue Lyle (2014, p.68-74).

Children are taught the relationship between sounds (phonemes) and letters (grapheme) correspondence and how to blend sounds together .For example, “[shop] would be pronounced as /sh/-/o/-/p/ and then blend those phonemes to produce [ʃɒp]. This is the first important step in learning how to read and also to master spelling” (Education, 2012, p.6). The National Literacy Strategy (1998) states the English language has encoded “44 phonemes” which represent “26 letters” with “140 graphemes” throughout the written English language. Children are required to identify the phonemes and how they are “spelt, blended, segmented and manipulated”.

According to the former UK school’s minister Nick Gibb, evidence shows that systematic synthetic phonics “can boost children’s reading age by an average of 28 months above their chronological age by the time they turn seven” (Gibb, 2016). Dr Marlynne Grant, an educational psychologist conducted a longitudinal study of SSP (2014). Her research demonstrated SSP is an “excellent opportunity to drive up literacy standards. Children picked up reading quickly and become enthusiastic and confident readers”.

Despite this, opponents of SSP challenge this theory, arguing that phonics does not teach children how to read everything. Due to the complex, chaotic and irregular spelling system of English, problems will occur when it comes to reading for pleasure and taking meaning from a text. It is claimed that phonics does not take into consideration homographs (words that are spelled alike, but have distinct pronunciation) or homophones (words spelled differently but pronounced the same) or that combinations such as <th> can be voiced in the, this or that and also be voiceless as in thin, thank and thick. Also an <s> can be voiced, for instance, when in a verb, but voiceless in the noun form of the same word:

The cattery housed the lost cat (verb voiced)

Look at the house” (noun voiceless).

So the pronunciation can differ depending on the context.

Also, as Lyle, (2014, p.70) explains, “we read for meaning and decoding is not reading”. When confronted with a squiggle on paper, we look for meaning and understanding, usually by the context and pictures around the squiggle. The “first, fast and only” approach has led schools into using only decodable texts and preventing children being exposed to non-decodable texts (Rosen, 2014).

However phonics experts claim that English being too irregular to use phonics is just a myth. Hepplewhite (2007) for instances agrees that “the English Language is complicated with its spelling and pronunciation variations”. However, all this means is that “tweaking the pronunciation and examining the irregular parts need to be taught”.

The Department for Education is strongly encouraging schools to follow phonics programmes claiming “a single approach is more effective than mixing different methods”. They explain that “beginning and struggling readers need to understand that they do not have to know the meaning of every word they read. They need to be confident that when they encounter an unfamiliar word, they can decode it, even if it has no meaning to them” (Education, 2012, p.6).

Daniel Willingham (2015) claims that there is an “increasing evidence confirming that children learn better from different activities, depending on their strengths and interests they bring to learning. Therefore there should be a balanced literacy which is the best solution. The best cause of action is to react to the child with different strategies, not to make the child react to just one”.

In my opinion, SSP programmes were devised first to help children who could not grasp alphabetic codes, so it seems peculiar to apply this to everyone, especially when mixed methods worked. I am not anti-phonics, although I do agree it should be used as a method amongst other methods. Fixating on phonics has caused schools to overlook the significance of reading for meaning and pleasure. I do not think phonics alone equips children with these crucial, life skills.

MELISSA TAYLOR, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Davis, A. (2014). To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy (No. 20).

Dept for Education (2014, June). National curriculum in England: English programs of study

Dept for Education (2015, March). Reading: the next steps. Supporting higher education in schools

Dept for Education (2012). The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading.

Gibb, N. (2014, 16 June). Phonics tests show progressive teaching is doomed to failure. The Telegraph.

Grant, D. M. (2014). Longitudinal Study from Reception to Year 2 (2010-2013). The Effects of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Program on Reading, Writing and Spelling, 2-24.

Lyle, S. (2014). The limits of phonics teaching. School leadership today 5, pp. 68-74.

Rosen, M. (2014). Teaching phonics ‘first, fast and only’ is an absurdity’ Teach Reading and Writing.

Willingham, D. (2015). And the winner in the reading wars is…. Times Educational Supplement, 24-28.






A guide to perfect spelling and grammar or a test of out-of-date rules? Brad Hennessey discusses SPaG tests

Wading through much controversy since its creation, the Key Stage Two spelling and grammar test only seems to be gathering more rejection as time goes on. The leaked paper fiasco, where answers were accidentally shown online, admittedly didn’t help the case for the SPAG test (as it is informally known) however technical errors are the least of its problems.

“The reliability of National Curriculum Test results has been questioned, with debate centring on the quality of marking, even though this is only one facet of technical reliability” claimed Lord Bew in 2011. Bew chaired the independent review of Key Stage Two (SATs) provision and during his final report he dismissed attacks on the tests’ reliability by stating that “misclassification” and “measurement-error” is often misinterpreted. According to Bew, “[i]t is generally accepted that any test or examination, however well constructed, will always include a degree of measurement error. Therefore the margin of error for both pupils and schools needs to be considered” (2011:54).

However this newly founded test has been under much scrutiny as of late. Since its conception the ‘SPaG’ test has unwillingly been at the forefront of a heated debate over Standard English and its reliability. Leading the march and flying the opposition flag is children’s author and poet Michael Rosen who dissects the SPAG test bit by bit during a rather interesting letter to the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan.

In the letter, which was published in The Guardian newspaper, Rosen argues that there are too many “trick questions” and that in order for an accurate test of one’s written ability to be established, there should not be multiple choice questions. Multiple choice questions could lead to a child guessing answers in an attempt to get lucky. After all there is a one in four chance of getting it right. Rosen also picks up on the various different teaching methods that could cause mass confusion across the nation dependant on how individual children are taught. For example the technical term for ‘my’, ‘your’, they’, and so on could just as easily be taught to be known as determiners rather than possessive pronouns as they are referred to in one question. Perhaps the most important quote that highlights issues with the grammar tests is “[t]he Spag test was brought in on the evidence-free assumption that spelling, punctuation and grammar questions have ‘right and wrong’ answers” (2015). This questions the “evidence free assumption” that prescriptivist ministers and teachers seemingly make about education which ultimately contradicts many qualified linguists’ opinions.

Trudgill, for example, mocks prescriptivist attitudes to grammar by stating that “[a] good rule of thumb is that if a particular grammatical structure is proposed as ‘correct’ by prescriptivists, then this is a sure sign that native speakers do not use it”(2011:10). When commenting on a book of grammar usage published by Neville Gwynne (a self-taught grammarian), linguist Professor Geoffrey Pullum expresses that “[i]t’s the familiar old nonsense, modified through 200 years of rubbish, from teachers who didn’t quite understand it to students who understood it less” (2014). I feel this description fits perfectly with the attitudes that most modern linguists have towards the Spelling and Grammar test. After all, why are children being taught to adhere to the Standard English rules that were forged hundreds of years ago when language has evolved so much since then, let alone being tested on it at an age where they are still relatively new to the concepts of language rules?

To conclude, personally I feel that perhaps more time should be spent on a child’s creativity when it comes to writing rather than testing them on rules that in fact could be abolished/replaced in 10 years’ time. Rosen signs his letter of by questioning the interests of those who devised the test asking “[b]ut are the people who devised this test really interested in writing? I doubt it.” I feel he’s onto something.

Brad Hennessey, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Lord Bew (2011). Independent Review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability – Final Report

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

Trudgill, P. (1999) ‘Standard English: What it isn’t’ in Bex, T. and Watts, R.J. (eds.) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge, pp. 117-128.

Pullum, G. as cited by Chivers, T. (2014) Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language? The Telegraph