Is the new SPaG test for 11 year olds the best way to improve grammar, punctuation and spelling?

Julia Douëtil

Grammar, punctuation and spelling matter! Whether we like it or not, they influence the way we are perceived in speech and writing. Actor Alexander Armstrong complained recently of unreasonable prejudice against people with posh accents and he is right, we shouldn’t judge people by the way they sound. But we do. And if Mr Armstrong thinks he suffers prejudice, it is nothing compared to the negative assumptions made about a person whose speech is peppered with poor grammar or whose writing is littered with spelling mistakes. Children who do not learn to present themselves well in speech and writing will be severely disadvantaged when applying for university or for jobs.

As I write I am acutely conscious that representatives of Pedants Are We will scan this piece for any hint of an error in grammar, punctuation or spelling that will enable them to dismiss my entire argument as the work of an ignoramus. So I can understand the imperative to ensure that our children become skilled in the use of grammar, punctuation and spelling. But is the new SPaG test the best way to achieve that?

My ears pricked up this week listening to the wonderful Michael Morpurgo talking about his early delight in the stories read to him by his mother. He then described falling among teachers who “turned stories into trials”. “Everything became a test, whether it was punctuation, spelling, handwriting or learning a poem, and you either succeeded or you failed.” The joy and magic of stories vanished, to be replaced by fear. “Words and stories became a threat and I turned my back on them.”

The model SPaG test presented a checklist of all our favourite pitfalls in written English. It is designed to catch children out, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which it disadvantages children learning English as a second language and those with a robust regional dialect. Practice SPaG tests, even a SPaG boot camp, have spread like a virus. Schools have spent weeks preparing their children for this high stakes assessment. Where is the joy, the magic, in that?

Research exploring the most effective teachers of English* found that those who taught the rules of grammar and punctuation in a meaningful context achieved the best results for children. Understanding how this language structure or that punctuation helped the writer to advance their ideas was more effective than teaching rules in isolation. Isn’t that the point, that knowing the rules is only half the job? It’s knowing how to use them (and when to break them) that really matters.

Both grammar and spelling change, perhaps more rapidly than we may imagine. What is beyond the pale today may be mainstream tomorrow and vice versa. The split infinitive, once considered the hallmark of a poor education, is now widely accepted; no doubt influenced by the determination of Star Trek to boldly go where none had gone before. The influence of the internet has made American spelling close to ubiquitous. I wonder if assessment in extended text, writing for a purpose, would be a more effective means of enabling children to demonstrate their ability to use grammar, punctuation and spelling in ways which are accurate, dynamic and in tune with modern usage?

* Wray D.; Medwell J.; Fox R.; Poulson L., (2000), The Teaching Practices of Effective Teachers of Literacy, Educational Review, Vol 52, No 1, 1, pp. 75-84(10)

Julia Douëtil is Head of the European Centre for Reading Recovery at the Institute of Education.

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
6 comments on “Is the new SPaG test for 11 year olds the best way to improve grammar, punctuation and spelling?
  1. Diana kelly says:

    I couldn’t agree more! ( bet that is grammatically incorrect).

  2. Sandra says:

    I absolutely agree with this, especially the penultimate paragraph. Teaching grammar in context and having fun with it in the classroom is the way to improve children’s spoken and written English. Teachers’ subject knowledge is key; funding would be better spent on supporting teachers with this, rather than on testing,

  3. 3arn0wl says:

    You couldn’t be more right.

    SPaG seems to have become a class or race tool for keeping those of a different background in their place! Monitored by the Pedant Police! And (see what I did there?) Michael Morpurgo makes a very good point about over-analysing or appropriating pieces for torturing testing too.

    We should be free to enjoy things as they are. We should also be able to appreciate an idea, regardless of the accent or grammar it’s been delivered in.

  4. We need to foster a love of reading and writing within our children before it’s too late and the endless practice SPAG tests Year 6s have been doing across the land robs them of this pleasure completely. Children need to write as a reader and read as a writer in order to understand how to form sentences and actually start to experiment with punctuation etc. They need to write so they can do this properly rather than filling in a test paper which mainly consists of tick boxes where they could make a good guess and find they get the right answer! I think it is right they can use all those ‘tools’ correctly in order for them to go out into the world and be creative with any form of communication.

  5. Sandra says:

    Yes, it’s the difference between having enough awareness of grammar to tick a box on a test paper and developing an understanding of how to use grammar to communicate effectively with others. The first will, with added luck on the child’s part and the wind blowing in the right direction, improve data for schools and increase Government rhetoric; the second will provide a life-long skill. We will not foster a love of reading and writing by presenting children with grammar text books (http://grammarpuss13.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/beware-grammar-books-for-children.html) or practice papers for grammar tests!

  6. Linda Thomas says:

    Understanding how language works is useful and some knowledge of grammar helps in learning other languages but these tests are pedantic in the extreme and do nothing to help 11 year olds (or anyone else for that matter) develop skills in self expression or creativity in writing. What is more useful for children are good models of spoken and written English and lots of opportunities to write for a purpose. Teaching children to jump through hoops in the name of ‘education’ has a purely political motive and has very little value in their long term development.

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