Grammar in schools: some Q&As and a plea

Grammar was reintroduced into the National Curriculum (NC) for UK primary schools in the late 1980s, having disappeared from the curriculum for quite a long time. The curriculum was updated in 2014. Children are required to learn the basics of grammar, including terminology such as ‘noun’, ‘adverb’, ‘subject’, etc., and take tests at Key Stages 1 and 2.

As a linguist I’m very pleased that grammar is back in the curriculum for the reasons I discussed in this post, so I won’t repeat what I’ve said before. The current post is prompted by a flood of negative publicity in the UK media about grammar in schools, more specifically the tests taken in years 2 and 6. Here’s an example from the Guardian:

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Quite a few commentators are pointing out that the tests are too hard, pointless and inappropriate for school children. Others have noted that grammar teaching is no more than ‘the naming of parts’, and does not help children to write well and imaginatively. Teachers have expressed frustration with the tests, especially because they often already feel unsure about their subject knowledge of grammar. Many weren’t taught much grammar in their teacher training.

The Englicious project has been mentioned in some of the discussions on Twitter, especially by Michael Rosen. More about that below.

In what follows I’ll try to address some of the points made in the media about grammar in schools, testing and the role of Englicious.

At the outset I would like to make the following very clear: Englicious is an independent initiative to help teachers teach grammar in schools. It’s a free resource created by an enthusiastic team of people at UCL. The site offers subject knowledge, lesson plans, videos, an extensive glossary and tons of materials for children to use in the classroom or at home. Our aim is for kids to enjoy learning about the language they use every day, to understand how it works, and to use it more effectively both in their formal and creative writing. We hope that we can make a difference in improving children’s literacy.

Here are some questions and answers:

Q: Do you think that the people who have pointed out problems with the curriculum are wrong?

A: No, I agree with them. There are certainly problems with the curriculum, and the recent furore over exclamations is a case in point. Such was the confusion over this that the Secretary for Education  published a letter of clarification in a newspaper, a sure indication that something was wrong. I agree that learning about how exclamations are grammatically defined as a sentence pattern that has either the word ‘what’ or ‘how’ in it is perhaps too difficult for children, and arguably not something they need to know at age 6-7. It must be said, though, that there was also a lot of disinformation about this, because many commentators claimed (and others parroted) that children can now only use exclamations marks after sentences that begin with ‘what’ or ‘how’, and this is simply not what the NC says. But now I’m beginning to sound like a DfE civil servant, which leads me to the following question.

Q: Some people have suggested that Englicious is responsible for the grammar tests in schools. Is it true that Englicious is responsible for devising the test? Is Englicious a mouthpiece for the government?

Here are some examples of tweets posted by Michael Rosen:

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A: No, neither of these is true. The tests are the responsibility of the Standards and Testing Agency at the DfE. As noted above, Englicious is brought to you by UCL, a university whose members have a mind of their own, thanks very much, ever since Thomas Arnold referred to us as that “Godless institution in Gower Street”. We do, however, have a passion for grammar and believe in the benefits it can bring for school children. We’re in favour of good and enjoyable grammar teaching in schools. Tweets like Rosen’s are unfortunate and give the wrong impression of what we are trying to do.

Q: But hold on, I have heard that one of the UCL Englicious team is involved with the SPaG tests. Is that true?

A: Yes, that’s true. I’m a member of a DfE Test Review Group of teachers, literacy advisors, and academic experts who scrutinise the tests before they are used in schools. Draft tests are rigorously and critically examined and discussed, and rejected if they are not fit for purpose. I have also been involved to some degree in giving shape to the NC Glossary. At all times, when taking part in meetings at the DfE, I’m a critical participant and would like to think that my presence helps avoid the appearance of unreasonable, silly or undoable questions on the test.

Q: What is your view of the tests? 

A: The tests are designed to test the curriculum, and as such they are part of how education works. The tests are by no means perfect and subject to improvement, which is why I have agreed to advise the government. I hope that over time the curriculum and the tests can be improved. This is not the place to discuss the efficacy of the tests, their usefulness or the politics surrounding them. There are valid questions to be asked about any of those issues.

Q: The grammar that is used in the NC is full of holes and linguists can’t agree on the terminology that is used.

The tests are based on a particular model of grammar which was designed by linguists as a useful ‘school grammar’. It is important to have a model because it eliminates (or at least reduces) confusion and the problem of teachers using terminology that is not fit for purpose, such as possessive adjective, or connective. In linguistics, as in any other area of study, there are differences of opinion on how we analyse certain phenomena. This situation is no different from any other discipline. For example, historians will disagree about the significance of historical events or individuals. Andrew Roberts recently wrote a biography of Napoleon, the upshot of which is that he was a misunderstood military genius. For others he was a war-mongering tinpot dictator, responsible for the deaths of thousands. Do we stop teaching history because of these disagreements? Or think of the multiple ways in which we can interpret the character of Hamlet. Do we stop teaching literature because of that?

The criticism levelled by Michael Rosen at the grammar model used in the NC is therefore misguided. He writes on his blog: “Please, please, please don’t be kidded into thinking that the stuff the DfE are dishing up as ‘grammar’ IS grammar.” I agree. As noted above, the grammar used in the NC is a particular model of grammar, agreed by a group of linguists. It is by no means a perfect model, but I think most people would agree that you do need a model to teach grammar. Most subjects use some kind of model and and associated terminology. Compare the first passage below from Rosen’s blog with my re-written version:

So, if I say, something is a ‘conjunction’ – all that tells us is that it con-joins two things. It doesn’t tell me anything about the resultant meaning or why I would want to conjoin anything.

So, if I say, something is a ‘metaphor’ – all that tells us is that it compares two things. It doesn’t tell me anything about the resultant meaning or why I would want to compare anything.

Michael, would you wish to argue that nobody should teach school children about metaphors? Presumably not. Learning about conjunctions or metaphors is a first step towards understanding how and why they are used by authors in their writing, and once you’ve understood this you can use them yourself effectively in your own writing.

Q: What is your view of some of the test questions that have surfaced online?

A: Some of the test questions that have appeared online are taken from commercially published books that have been marketed to ‘help’ children practise for the tests. The problem with some of these books is that they have been written by people who don’t know grammar well enough, or haven’t looked at the NC teaching specifications and/or test framework. This has resulted in questions appearing in these books that would never appear in the tests, because the questions are wrong and have not been scrutinised by experts. Michael Rosen posted one such query in a recent blog post:

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He then asks: “wouldn’t both example 3 and 4 be subordinate clauses of time, both headed by subordinating conjunctions?” The answer is ‘yes, both are indeed subordinate clauses’. Now, the problem here is not the NC, but the person who wrote this question, because they clearly don’t know enough grammar to be writing practice books for school children. There’s no problem with the grammar itself because in the NC both those clauses are subordinate clauses, and therefore this question would not appear on a test. Rosen goes on to ask “how is any teacher supposed to teach this so it makes sense? how is any child supposed to remember it? how is any parent supposed to know how to help a child to do it?” All good questions, but he fails to spot the real problem, which is that the government has not provided reliable resources to help teachers teach grammar. If teachers continue to turn to badly written books, or to use Google to help them with grammatical terminology, then confusion will ensue. I’m told that money was made available when the first NC came out to help teachers with their subject knowledge. This time round, there is no money available, which is causing many problems.

Q: What is your view of the NC Glossary?

The Glossary is an attempt to create some support for teachers with grammatical terminology. Again, nobody would claim that it is perfect, but the DfE is to be given some credit for consulting on this and listening to experts. The Glossary is, somewhat oddly perhaps, non-statutory, which means that not all the terminology in it needs to be taught in schools. The Englicious team has enhanced the Glossary to offer further explanations and support for teachers. It can be found here.

Q: What about subjunctives? Do kids really need to know about them?

No, they don’t. As is by now well-known, linguists advised the DfE to remove the subjunctive from the NC. Michael Gove insisted that it remain(s) in the NC. My views on the subjunctive can be found here.

Q: Some parents and teachers have said that kids hate learning about grammar.

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A: That’s a real shame. Kids needn’t have this kind of experience. We created Englicious to help teachers to make learning about grammar fun. This teacher agrees about the joys of learning about grammar:

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A plea

I finish this blog post with a plea. There has understandably been some disquiet about the grammar tests in the media. Some of the problems signalled by commentators are indeed problems; others weren’t really problems, but turned into easily gobbled-up, eye-catching tabloid-style headlines.

And here I turn to you, Michael Rosen. As a person who has enormous popularity and influence, why not channel your admirable, seemingly inexhaustible energy into working with Englicious and other stakeholders, who essentially want the same thing, namely to improve literacy, and instil in kids a joy for language and literature.

Postscript

I’ve realised that Michael Rosen is not interested in constructive dialogue. On Twitter he continues his cynical sniping. And my plea above fell on deaf ears, witness his blog response, which you can read here. I hope that readers will make up their own minds.

 

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22 thoughts on “Grammar in schools: some Q&As and a plea

  1. I find it quite frightening that people who write, and are allowed to publish, educational books by reputable publishers, don’t understand the grammar that year 6 pupils are expected to understand. That, in itself, should tell someone that this curriculum is too hard and too complicated.

    I hate teaching it and my year 5 daughter hates learning it.

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    • Thanks, Deb.
      You say: “That, in itself, should tell someone that this curriculum is too hard and too complicated.” Well, first and foremost it tells you how some publishers operate, and the standards they apply. With regard to your other point, as I say in the blog post, I think the problem is that the government hasn’t made funds available to help teachers with their subject knowledge. I sincerely hope that you have a look at Englicious, and all it has to offer. You may actually begin to enjoy teaching grammar!

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  2. Bas, you are clearly a sincere person and care about grammar in schools but as a teacher of 30 years experience – 19 at senior leadership – I have to disagree fundamentally on two issues.

    Firstly, I totally agree children should learn grammar and this knowledge was woefully missing from my own education. The old national curriculum got a balance, children learnt grammar within a context of understanding genres of writing. The balance is now all wrong. The level of complexity required of 7 and 11 years old children is way beyond that which would be useful to improving their writing. The content is likewise too broad. The result is that children are now spending too long on studying grammar. Lesson that were once lively and dynamic are becoming soulless and flat. We have to get children to this standard due to the high stakes testing regime but it is destroying a love of English. You cannot disassociate yourself from this if you advise the DfE. You criticise Michael Rosen but read the comments from parents and teachers on his blog posts, he is reflecting a strong groundswell of opinion. If you really care about grammar you should advise the DfE to simplify and reduce the grammar component of the curriculum to allow more space for other areas of English.

    Secondly, it is inappropriate to defend the anomalies of the current grammar curriculum by suggesting it is only one ‘model’ of grammar. Many children are smart and perceptive. Like the little boy who noticed they emperor had no clothes they spot falsehood. When the grammar they learn does not reflect the language they hear and read on a daily basis they will be alienated or just put it to one side as ‘school stuff’ unrelated to the real world. It may be worth children learning different models of grammar for different settings and occasions (as they do with writing in different genres for purpose) but to do so we would have to reduce and simplify the current curriculum.

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    • Hi Steve, thanks for your comments. You write: “The level of complexity required of 7 and 11 years old children is way beyond that which would be useful to improving their writing.” I agree with you that some of the material, especially at KS1, is too complex and could have been left out. I make the same point in my blog post. My hope is that the curriculum will evolve and improve, and because I’m an independent advisor at the DfE I hope I’ll be in a position to help bring about this change. It will take time. You also say: “You criticise Michael Rosen but read the comments from parents and teachers on his blog posts, he is reflecting a strong groundswell of opinion.” Absolutely. Michael is in many ways a force of good, but please be aware that what appears on his Twitter feed from his followers is *only* from people who agree with him. When I finished writing the blog post above I sent him a tweet with a link to it, which he initially refused to retweet. Only when I emailed him privately did he do so, but very reluctantly. He told me that he only retweets messages from people who agree with him. At some level this is fair enough, but it does stifle debate, and his followers on Twitter barely get to hear from people who disagree with him. On teaching of a ‘model of grammar’: to my mind it’s the only way to teach a subject in the early stages. It’s not a matter of the model being ‘true’ or ‘false’. It’s a pedagogical strategy.

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  3. The Year 6 Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar test is quite a challenge for pupils, but the real issue here is the fact that Primary School teachers have received very little, it any, training in even the basics of grammar. Student teachers undertaking their teaching practice at the school I work in do not appear to be any more informed in this new aspect of the curriculum either. I agree, Bas, that there are many badly written books written to help teachers teach grammar, which really muddy the waters – the Englicious website is great – we have begun using it in our school, and it’s proving to be a real help – thank you!

    I do get cross when grammar is criticised for simply being the ‘naming of parts’ – the same criticism is not levelled at maths – children at primary school spend large amounts of time learning mathematical terminology (names of 2d and 3d shapes for example). The children I work with love learning about grammar – one recently became very excited when he found that ‘likes’ can be a verb and a noun (as in ‘likes’ on Facebook!)

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    • Hi Fiona, as you will have seen, I’m embroiled in an online war of words with Michael Rosen, who seems hellbent on making me look like a sinister government agent! It’s really frustrating, as I do see all the problems with grammar teaching and testing, but at the same time I really believe that grammar is important and can be taught in a fun way.

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  4. The fact that the publishers of educational books (adults trained in the field) do not understand the national curriculum and tests demonstrates that there is a problem with what children under the age of 11 are expected to learn and not solely a problem with educational publishers.

    As you advise the government you are at least in part responsible for this. If you don’t like what they’re doing, then you should resign. As long as you remain a part of it people can completely justifiably criticise you for it.

    I think Michael Rosen is interested in constructive dialogue. He responds clearly to the points that you make – how is this not engaging with your argument? You may disagree with what he says but calling him sniping and cynical is not engaging with him and his ideas in a constructive way at all. How childish!

    Both of you want to encourage better English teaching in schools. Michael Rosen has been doing this for years, decades in fact. When I was a child I was inspired by his visit to my school.

    His visits and the teaching surrounding them inspire creative writing, taking risks, making mistakes, learning from the experience, developing an understanding of language and grammar used by real writers for different purposes.

    It does all that far better than any grammar test you helped to write ever could. It would’t matter if it were the best grammar test ever devised.

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    • Thanks for your response, Lucy.

      I have always thought that Michael is a force for good, as I said above. I’ve met him and like him, but that doesn’t mean he gets everything right. Look at the tone of Michael’s tweets and of his blog. When he’s against something his comments are confrontative, and designed to achieve an effect, sometimes sacrificing accuracy. There’s no nuance. For example, he’s completely ignored the work we have done at UCL in developing Englicious: free resources for teachers to teach grammar in a way that I think he would actually like. As far as I know he’s never bothered to look at it. I hope that you do. And I hope that you will be able to come to English Grammar Day at the British Library on 27 June in London, where Michael and I will share a platform.

      Finally, have you noticed that in his Twitter feed Michael never retweets any dissenting voices? If this were his blog, he wouldn’t have allowed your comments to appear here.

      Oh, and by the way, I don’t write grammar tests. That’s something Michael has led you to believe.

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      • Sorry I thought you said in your blog post above that you personally advised on the tests, which included rejecting them if they’re not fit for purpose. I thought that meant you were part of a body that helped to write them or at least to rewrite /improve them. My mistake.

        Thanks I have read Michael Rosen’s blog. With regards to retweets etc, I don’t really get your point. He’s campaigning for a change in policy, so he is going to retweet people who agree with him. That’s how many campaigns work whether on social media or wherever else. The purpose is to get your point across successfully to people who are undecided, not to give people that have already decided they disagree with you a platform. It’s also twitter so not the best arena for you to use if you want nuanced debate. Perhaps you need to rethink your own strategy?

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  5. This is just a word of support for Bas. I admire Michael Rosen a lot, but I think his response to you – linked to in you Postscript – is awful: it’s a kind of populist bullying, and of the wrong person anyway. In case he happens to read this, and for those who have not yet been convinced by the things you’ve patiently said here, I offer this thought.

    Suppose you had an academic physicist advising various curriculum bodies on what should be taught in school physics, and also putting up resources for physics schoolteachers to use. Would you (a) think it was all right for some populist to attack the academic physicist because some physics teachers are boring and some physics tests set by other people are bad tests, or (b) think it was all right for some populist to try to get the physics which the academic physicist thinks should be taught replaced by a sort of folk physics, which the populist has kind of figured out for themself and which can quite easily be made fun to teach, or (c) conclude that really academic physicists should not advise on the content of the curriculum of school physics at all?

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    • Hi Michael,

      I see what you mean and in many cases I would advocate people getting involved in things that are less than perfect in order to improve them. However I also think that there does come a point where you have to stand up for what you believe in and stop giving advice if you’re not being listened to, as by being involved you’re giving the process legitimacy and lending it your own credibility.

      In this particular case, I believe different tactics could achieve that same objective of improving the curriculum and that if experts joined together and walked out of government advisory boards they might even achieve more.

      I don’t agree with your distinctions between academia and populism and I don’t think anyone is arguing for a, b or c. There are other possibilities.

      Most academic physicists would be ill-equipped to decide on the physics curriculum for 7 year olds, as would popular physicists like Brian Cox. We are not preparing all 7 year olds for careers in academic physics or academic linguistics – which is what they are experts in. What we need is experts in the field of primary education, including relevant subject specialists, and practising teachers, taking a rounded look at primary education as a whole. No one, not even Michael Rosen, is suggesting he should decide the curriculum by himself on the basis of what is easy to teach. That’s a ridiculous argument to make and definitely not one I’m making.

      What I think we should be aiming to achieve is: that children can write in a variety of styles for different purposes and that they have the grammar and vocabulary they need at their disposal to do this.

      I don’t think this is best achieved by testing who has learnt a grammar rule off by heart or who can pick an answer from a multiple choice test, or shoehorning in particular grammar or punctuation into children’s writing. By being involved in bodies that help government with these tests and their nomenclature and not rejecting the tests, I think Bas is encouraging/supporting this and lending his own credibility to them.

      And as far as I can see, and I have looked, I can’t find any evidence that shows correlation, let alone causation, between children who do well in the spag test and those that write well.

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      • Hi Lucy,

        Thanks for this. This is just to clarify what I meant a bit, and to add one more comment (I’ve no idea whether Bas would agree with it). First, I wasn’t contrasting academics and populists, in the first instance, but academics and schoolteachers: the importance of the distinction is that academics are experts in their fields and so set their own curricula (in universities), whereas schoolteachers follow curricula set elsewhere (generally at some national level, and generally on the advice of some academics). What was important about populists for me was just their access to a certain kind of power. The reason why I wrote in support of Bas, whom I don’t otherwise know, was that it seemed to me that that power was being abused.

        Secondly, if the analogy between physics and linguistics holds good, it seems to me that Michael Rosen has been doing something very like (a), (b), and (c) – all three of them – if you look at the attacks he has made on the academics involved in Englicious, at the kinds of things he has been saying about what distinctions grammar should or should not be making, and at his refusal to accept the category of independent advisor. I agree entirely that there are other things to do. That was what I was saying really.

        Here’s the extra thought. At a couple of places in your reply here, I think you suggest that an understanding of grammar, at least at school level, has only an instrumental value: it is worth studying only insofar as it improves children’s writing. Perhaps that’s not what you mean, but from what I’ve seen of Michael Rosen’s blogs, it does seem that he thinks that. Anyway, it seems to me that this is not a view we should rush to endorse. I doubt that Michael Rosen himself would be happy with the idea that getting children to write imaginatively and well has merely instrumental value (in getting a well-paid job, for example); if that’s right, at least he needs to explain why he thinks some things have merely instrumental value in education, and some don’t, and why the ones which do do, and the ones which don’t don’t.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. You’re right. Academics are experts in their field and set curricula at the level of further education. I agree with you in that and I think that is right.

    However, school teachers and researchers in education are experts in their field. They have knowledge of child development, subject specific expertise and practical experience of teaching etc. I am arguing they should be more involved in setting the curriculum for their students, than academics in the field of linguistics at university level. Academics of linguistics have a different type of expertise, in linguistics at university level.

    Independent advisors are of course necessary, and I can see the point of wanting to improve the curriculum. But in this particular case, when politicians ignore the experts in their advisory groups and publish a curriculum and tests that are so unfit for purpose, I think it would be better tactics for those who want to improve the curriculum to walk out of the process and to do so publicly. It’s a question of tactics in this specific situation, not a question of disagreeing with the concept of an independent advisor. I hope you can see the difference.

    I am making an argument for the teaching of grammar that is instrumental yes. I think that’s fair enough. I don’t think all 7 year olds need to develop an intrinsic love of grammar and grammar tests for its own sake. They need to understand grammar to be able to bend it to their will for whatever future use they may have for it.

    They also need that for reading and writing generally – to be able to use both for unspecified purposes in the future as we don’t know what the future holds. I dont think that is controversial. However, that doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t also be nurturing a love of reading and writing in and of itself and for no purpose whatsoever. There is real pleasure to be had in both reading and writing. The two don’t have to be contradictory but can be complementary. In fact research from the IoE demonstrates that children who enjoy reading become better at it than children who don’t.

    If you think there is an intrinsic case to be made for learning grammatical rules, many of which are of a less than perfect model, I’d be interested to hear it. And if there is a compelling case for the intrinsic value of grammar and love of it for its own sake – do you think the current curriculum and spag tests really encourage this?

    Again I don’t think a, b or c are accurate. I think it’s fine for people, whoever they are, populists, or even a lowly individual such as myself, to disagree with academics and that having a critical discourse is fine. In fact I would argue that academics should be encouraging critical debate.

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  7. Hi Lucy,

    Lots of things to take up here, but I don’t want to prolong this too much. Just to say, though, that I’m sure all academics welcome and encourage critical debate; the problem was that critical debate was not what was being presented in Michael Rosen’s blogs on this. (What you’ve been offering here seems to me much more like critical debate.)

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  8. I’m writing in support of Bas – not just because we’re colleagues at UCL and I’m another grammarian, but to point out that Bas is getting an unfair dose of criticism from Michael Rosen for helping the SPaG team. The fact is that he’s only been helping them for a short while, and if anyone should face that criticism it’s me, because I’ve been helping them for much longer. But I have no regrets at all about my role, as I’ve explained on my website at http://dickhudson.com/education/#spag .

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  9. Learning grammar has a role to play in encouraging better writing. But testing it so formally particularly in the current climate where league tables are used to bash schools into submission is a waste of time. The test is (and I fear always will be) putting children in my year 6 class off writing. It’s divorced from interesting writing, introduces fear of failure into children and is overly complicated. Bas, get away from government, speak out against their nonsense and encourage grammar that is for clear writing not for tests.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What JP said. I run a book group for Year 5 & 6. As well as reading in a wide variety of genres, we build fantasy worlds, write poetry, make collaborative stories, draw comics, turn Shakespeare’s plots into choose-your-own-adventures. The children love it. They attend in their own time (lunchtime) and make intelligent, funny, original pieces of writing. This is what all primary school children should be doing. Tragically, one lunchtime is the only opportunity they get to do this. And why? Because of SPAG.

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      • Use creative exercises to talk about grammar? No, because the time for correcting and educating on grammar/ spelling is in the editing. My job is to fire a creative spark and I only have 45 minutes once a week to do it. I am not a paid teacher but a children’s writer and parent volunteer doing this in my own time. The teachers no longer do creative work with these 10 year olds, because they are desperately trying to prepare thirty children of vastly different abilities to ‘pass’ a grammar test that is pointless and deeply flawed. My Year 6 keen reader has wasted a whole term doing ‘grammar’ which has equated to constant practice papers. I’m afraid your reply demonstrates that you are utterly out of touch.

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