Is the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test for Key Stage 2 too hard?

In the Times Educational Supplement Mary Bousted, writes about the Key Stage 2 (KS2) Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling  (GPS) test under the heading:

Take this absurdly difficult English test – and see why this generation of students will be alienated by education

She cites a number of questions from a sample test published online by the Department for Education (DfE). Here are a few examples:

  1. Underline all the determiners in this sentence: “Two apple trees screened the open windows on one side.”
  2. Complete this sentence so that it uses the subjunctive form: “If I ____ to have one wish, it would be for good health.”
  3. Identify the verb form that is in the present perfect in this passage: “Rachel loves music and has wanted to learn how to play the piano for years. She was hoping for piano lessons, and was delighted when her parents gave her a keyboard for her birthday.”
  4. Is the phrase “where my father works” in this sentence a preposition phrase, a relative clause, a main clause or a noun phrase? “My baby brother was born in the hospital where my father works.”

She writes:

It may surprise you (it horrifies me) to learn that these are sample questions for the key stage 2 Spag test, to be taken by 11-year-olds.

She also says:

While I have absolutely no objection to learning grammar – indeed I think it is helpful for children to understand the basic building blocks of a sentence (on which fluency in writing is based) – the level and range of grammatical terms outlined above are daunting and counterproductive.

As a linguist I never fail to be surprised at the constant bashing of grammar teaching in schools, whereas nobody ever feels the need to be critical of mathematics teaching. Everyone agrees – and rightly so – that it’s useful to have a basic knowledge of maths. The reason for this is that it is all around us, and it would be hard to live our lives without being able to use maths competently. For this you need to be taught about number, place value, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, percentages, ratios and proportions. This is a wide range of concepts, all of which are quite abstract, but they are nevertheless part of the KS2 specifications for maths.

What about the structure of language, i.e. grammar? This is also all around us, and arguably it would be even harder to live your life without language and knowing something about how it works. So doesn’t it make sense that children are taught some basic grammar terminology? Bousted uses very negatively charged words to talk about grammar teaching:

The pitfalls of grammatical drilling are well known, and well evidenced. An obsession with describing language takes teaching time and attention away from children developing their own language abilities. They need opportunities to read widely and to write stories, because stories are our way of making sense of the world – of sequencing time, of understanding emotion, of learning how to describe what we see and feel in ways that are powerfully affecting for other people – our readers.

Learning about the language you use every day can only only be called ‘grammatical drilling’ if the teaching you receive is unimaginative and unengaging. This is the way that grammar was taught in the early 1960s, and one of the reasons why it was scrapped from the curriculum. (See Hudson and Walmsley’s article ‘The English patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century’; available here.) However, as I have argued before, things have changed and the concepts that are part of the KS2 specifications can be taught in a fun and playful way, without ‘obsessing’ about describing language and without resorting to ‘drilling’ of any kind. Taught in the right way grammar can enhance children’s problem-solving skills, help them to write stories and to describe their responses to what they read. But for this they need a toolbox, just as they need a toolbox to talk about literature, maths, or geography. Like any other subject taught in schools grammar makes use of concepts that are useful to any educated person, and we should not shy away from teaching these concepts.

Oh, one more thing: the first question that Bousted cites was discussed on this blog. This question on the sample test was inappropriate because it is not clear from the National Curriculum specifications whether or not the numerals two and one should be regarded as determiners. However, the sample test that Bousted cites from had not been seen by the usual panel of experts that scrutinises the GPS tests before it was published online by the DfE, so the question shouldn’t have occurred in the sample test.

7 thoughts on “Is the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test for Key Stage 2 too hard?

  1. “Taught in the right way grammar can enhance children’s problem-solving skills…….”
    But is grammar taught in the right way, if it is taught as the prescription of a favoured dialect rather than the description of how language works? Question 2 in your list, for example, might be seen to prescribe the subjunctive as the ” correct” form, which it may not be in all English dialects.


  2. Pupils will be judged by their ability to write in Standard English and the teaching of grammar is an ideal opportunity to note and explain dialect varieties – ‘we was’ and ‘she am’ for example,in the Midlands.

    In my experience of teaching KS2, pupils enjoy and engage with ‘SPaG’ and understanding it helps them to punctuate more effectively and analyse with more clarity.

    The real problem is the varied quality of teaching by their ill-prepared teachers – who simply don’t know what they were never taught unless they make a concerted effort to learn it. Many English graduates do not have a firm grasp of grammar and many leaders of English in primary schools are not even English graduates.

    Sarah B


  3. Yes, but should pupils, or anybody else for that matter, be “judged on their ability to write in Standard English” ? Why should grammar be taught through the conventions of one dialect, especially when that dialect is so closely linked to power and privilege?


    • That’s a different subject. Germany, I believe , also have a standard dialect but it is less of an issue because theirs is a more equal society. I agree it is unfair that pupils, who already have so many advantages, have one less thing to even consider. Those pupils with strong regional dialects, who hear nothing else spoken at home, are effectively EAL pupils. Tha six o clock news in the old AQA anthology springs to mind… I tell my pupils that this SE is the dialect of power and privilege and that they will be judged by their ability to use it. Then at least they have the choice!


      • You might like it to be treated as a different subject, but it is not. Nobody should be judged by his or her ability to use a privileged dialect. The science of linguistics gave up on prescriptive grammar over 100 years ago, and so should schools. It is only because we have a regressive curriculum, dedicated to a return to nineteenth century methods, and nineteenth century values, that the teaching of prescriptive grammar is tolerated. I teach descriptive grammar using a multi-dialectal approach, and also teach my students how to subvert those who would prescribe how they should write and speak.


      • Despite you seeming to wish that I were, I’m not disagreeing with you. However, pupils will be judged on their ability to use Standard English. They shouldn’t be. But they will be. So empower them.


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