This time last year the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test (GPS, popularly called SPaG) was in the news almost every week. The DfE was mocked for not being able to prevent the leaking of a test, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb couldn’t answer a grammar question on live radio, and parents kept their 6-year olds at home to boycott the Key Stage 1 test. Numerous well-known writers, poets and education specialists railed against the tests and their inadequacy. Now, it’s spring and the debate has flared up again. Last month the House of Commons Education Committee published its report on primary assessment. After hearing a large number of experts who made clear that they did not like the tests, the Committee recommended that the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) review them, and that the KS2 test, like the KS1 test, be made non-statutory. (Did you spot the subjunctive verb? I’ll come back to it later.) In May the Guardian published a piece by Warwick Mansell on the SPaG tests in which the arguments in the debate were rehearsed. And the next day another piece appeared in the Guardian.
It is unfortunate that the debate on grammar teaching and testing is muddled because there are several strands to it which are confused or ignored. The first two strands concern whether grammar should be taught in schools and, if so, how. The third and fourth strands are the questions of whether and how it should be tested.
Let’s look at each of these strands.
Why do we teach grammar in schools? Critics say that the curriculum is already full and that we can do without grammar. Of course, it’s true that we can lead a happy and fulfilling life without knowing anything about subordinating conjunctions or determiners. But the same could be said for history. You can go get to the age of 95 without ever having heard of Henry VIII or the Great Fire of London or knowing what a parliament is. However, nobody would deny that learning about history enriches us and helps us to understand the world as it was, and how it is today. But have you noticed that nobody ever asks for evidence of the beneficial effects of teaching history? We just assume, quite reasonably, that knowing about history is important. For me learning about grammar is as important as learning about history. One reason is so obvious that it almost doesn’t need pointing out, and this is that grammar plays a central role in our lives, as part of the language(s) we speak. When we learn about grammar we learn something about ourselves because only human beings have language. We use language all the time, all day long, talking to friends and family, writing shopping lists, text messages and school essays. It makes sense for all of us, not just school children, to know something about how our language works, how the bits and pieces fit together. And of course, having a knowledge of grammar is also indispensable for learning foreign languages. If you teach Spanish and your students don’t know what an adjective is, it is harder to explain that they should order dos cervezas frías, not dos frías cervezas in a bar in Spain.
For a long time critics have argued that teaching grammar stifles children’s creativity. It’s better for them to engage with stories and poems and learn about language in that way. Grammar teaching is sneeringly called the ‘naming of the parts’, so that being able to label a word as an adjective is no different from knowing that the red car that just passed you in the street is a Ford Mondeo. Well-known writers such as Michael Rosen have made this point. E.L. Kennedy is on the record as saying that she has no idea what fronted adverbials are. It seems that for her the logical conclusion is that nobody else therefore needs to know what they are either. On Twitter people have said that they have an English degree from Oxford, and that they can’t answer the questions on the SPaG test. They seem to be saying that having an Oxford degree means that you know everything that needs to be known. As for the person who said that the primary tests would have stumped Jane Austen, well….
There is recent research that suggests that kids very much enjoy learning about grammar. When you point this out to critics and journalists it is steadfastly ignored.
Here are some quotes from Huw Bell (2016) citing teachers:
And in Kimberley Safford’s (2016) article much the same points are made:
It’s time some serious attention is given to this kind of research.
The last quotation above points to an issue that to my mind lies at the crux of the complaints we have been hearing about the tests: teachers feel insecure about teaching grammar. When the new National Curriculum was published people quickly noticed that apart from traditional terms such as ‘noun’, ‘adjective’ and ‘verb’, it also contained some new terms that are in line with the terminology used in modern linguistics, such as ‘conjunction’, ‘determiner’, and ‘adverbial’. From a linguist’s point of view this is very welcome, but it understandably caused alarm among teachers because they were suddenly faced with having to teach a subject about which they weren’t taught much themselves during teacher training, so they can be forgiven for feeling unhappy about it. It is a major failing of the government that it has not offered teachers any support on how to teach grammar.
Here we come to the second strand of the debate, namely how to teach grammar. Education specialists have pointed out that teaching grammatical terminology has no benefits at all. They say that it won’t help children to write better or read better. This may well be true, but much more research is needed to establish this. But even if turns out that grammar teaching isn’t directly beneficial, that doesn’t mean that we should ditch it. We teach history or literature, because these subject have an intrinsic value, and the same is true for grammar. When the critics talk about grammar teaching you find that there is often an unstated assumption, namely that when teachers teach grammar they must be teaching the ‘naming of the parts’ and no more than that. For older generations this was often what grammar teaching was like. But grammar pedagogy is much more than just teaching terminology, and has moved on from the way it was taught in the 1950s. Grammar terminology can now be taught using online resources which get children to learn about grammar in a playful and engaging way, using technology that is also used in games (see Englicious). Of course we do still need to teach some terminology, because it’s useful to have a metalanguage to talk about a subject, in the same way that it is useful to know what a metaphor is when you talk about literature, or what a monarchy is when you study history. There’s nothing to stop teachers from teaching grammar in a more contextualized way by using literary texts such as poems, plays and songs. As we have found at UCL in the CPD courses we offer, when teachers are offered the right kind of support to teach grammar they begin to enjoy it and see the benefits.
What about the tests? It is true that these are problematic in various ways. People’s views of the tests are coloured by the fact that they were brought in by Michael Gove, who was disliked by many teachers. It was Gove who insisted that the subjunctive be taught in schools, despite linguists advising him not to include it in the curriculum. Admittedly, the tests are somewhat unimaginative when children are asked to identify word classes or underline subordinate clauses, not least because it leads to teaching to the test, and the results of the tests affect how teachers and their schools are judged. So the tests need reform both in the way they are set, and in the way they are used.
Should we scrap the tests altogether, as some people have suggested? To my mind that would not be the right thing to do, because it would probably mean the end of grammar teaching in schools, and for the reasons given above that would be a shame.
1. As I have mentioned in different places on this blog, I should make clear that over the past few years I have advised the DfE on the SPaG tests by being a member of a Test Review Group. In this group a large number of experts, which includes teachers and literacy advisors, scrutinize the questions that will appear on the tests to ensure that they are clear and fair. The tests are looked at by other experts too, such as test specialists, statisticians, inclusion experts, and so on. There are several phases that draft tests go through over a two year period, before they are used in schools.
2. Huw Bell (2016) ‘Teacher knowledge and beliefs about grammar: a case study of an English primary school’, English in Education 50.2, 148-163.
3. Kimberley Safford (2016) ‘Teaching grammar and testing grammar in the English primary school: the impact on teachers and their teaching of the grammar element of the statutory test in Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG)’. Changing English, 23.1, 3-21.
See also: How Bell and Steph Ainsworth (2017) ‘Grammar’s best kept secrets: what every primary teacher should know’, NATE Teaching English, Primary Matters.