5, May, 2016

SPaG – a brief history of the teaching of spelling, punctuation & grammar + the SATs tests

Next week children aged 10 and 11 will sit two papers to test their knowledge of English spelling, punctuation and grammar.  The tests have been surrounded by criticism. Here Professor Richard Hudson, Fellow of the British Academy and Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at UCL gives a brief history of the teaching of grammar in primary schools and analyses the comments surrounding the SPaG tests. 

Note: the KS2 SPaG SATs test is next Tuesday 10th May 2016.

The Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar SATS

Since 2013, primary school children in England have taken a national test of their abilities in spelling, punctuation and grammar (widely referred to as the SPaG test). The tests assume the National Curriculum for English (NCE), which complicates things a little because the NCE was revised and a new version came into force in 2014, so the tests also changed:

  • Up to 2015, there was a single test for the end of Key Stage (KS) 2, i.e. year 6, divided into two levels according to whether pupils were expected to perform at NCE level 3-5 or at level 6.
  • From 2016, there are two tests, one for the end of each Key Stage, and no separation of levels.  But because of an administrative hitch in 2016, the KS1 SPaG test was cancelled, so the first SPaG test at that stage will take place in 2017.

The tests are prepared and administered by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA), using independent test-creation specialists working to very precise specifications. By May 2016 the TDA had produced the following published material (available for convenience via http://dickhudson.com/the-spag-tests/):

  • Tests at two levels for each of 2013 to 2015.
  • A sample test for each age-group in the new 2016 test.
  • A framework for test developers.

As the name suggests, the tests cover spelling and punctuation as well as grammar; in fact, each of the sample tests consists of two papers, one of which is entirely devoted to spelling. In the other paper, punctuation accounts for 4/18 questions at KS1 and 12/49  at KS2. However, it is only the grammar questions that have attracted attention in the media.

For some commentators and teachers, the issue is whether the grammar tests are appropriate. Commentators have made four criticisms:

  1. that the tests are too hard
  2. that they are badly constructed testing instruments
  3. that they are out of step with grammatical research
  4. that they encourage bad teaching.

The following notes are intended to explain and assess these claims

1. The grammar tests are too hard

The 2014 NCE includes an appendix which details the terminology that pupils are expected to have learned by the end of each year through KS1 and KS2; this is the only terminology that the SPaG tests are allowed to assess. The appendix lists just 40 grammatical terms in total, and since these terms are spread, roughly equally, across six years, the learning involves just over six new terms per year. The terms are listed alphabetically below:

active, adjective, adverb, adverbial, ambiguity, antonym, clause, cohesion, command, compound (word), conjunction, determiner, direct speech, exclamation, modal verb, noun, noun phrase, object, passive, past, plural, possessive pronoun, prefix, preposition, present, pronoun, question, relative clause, relative pronoun, sentence, singular, statement, subject, subordinate clause, suffix, synonym, tense , verb, word, word family

To contextualise this challenge, according to one estimate a primary-age child typically learns about 6 new words per day, rising to about 12 words per day between the ages of 8 and 12 (Bloom, P.; Markson, L. (1998). “Capacities underlying word learning”. Trends in Cognitive Science 2 (2): 67–73.)

We also know that grammar has been taught successfully to primary pupils, both in this country and elsewhere. In this country, grammar was an important part of the primary syllabus for many centuries, though it was the grammar of Latin, with nods to the grammar of English; for instance, we know which grammar book Shakespeare learned grammar from, starting at the age of seven (http://dickhudson.com/papers/#lily). In many other European countries it is taken for granted that the grammar of the first language lays the foundation for the study of other languages (including Russia and the Netherlands – http://teach-grammar.com/geography).

However, the challenge may be more serious for some primary teachers, most of whom never learned any grammar at school (or at university) because grammar died in the 1960s after a long period of decline in our schools and universities starting in the early twentieth century (Hudson and Walmsley 2005 “The English Patient. English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century” at http://dickhudson.com/papers/#ed). That obviously means that primary teachers can’t just teach what they themselves were taught, as they can in some other subject areas, and there are reports of anxiety about grammar among both primary and secondary teachers (http://clie.org.uk/projects#preparation). On the other hand, there are also reports of primary teachers who are sufficiently confident to enjoy teaching grammar (see http://teach-grammar.com/research#primary). Moreover, grammar has been part of the National Curriculum for English since 1990, so teachers have had time to learn basic terminology.

Another consideration is that grammatical terminology is bound to be harder to learn if it is taught only in the years in which it is tested, and if it is taught just in order to be tested, rather than as a tool for everyday discussion of grammatical patterns. Anecdotal reports suggest that this may be the case in some schools, but there is no relevant research.

2. The tests are poorly constructed

The tests are constructed by a team of civil servants with considerable outside input, not only from the contracted test-construction agencies but also from panels of experts (including research grammarians as well as teachers and statisticians). The tests are trialled in schools and an initial pool of hundreds of candidate questions is reduced to the few dozen required for the actual tests.

The aim of the tests is simply to test children’s grasp of grammatical concepts and knowledge, so questions are rejected if they could trip children for irrelevant reasons (as ‘trick questions’). Most children do well enough in the SPaG tests: in the 2014 KS2 tests, for instance, three-quarters (76%) reached at least level 4 and more than half (52%) exceeded that (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/primary-test-results-standards-rising-in-all-subjects).

3. The tests are out of step with grammatical research

In the nineteenth century, well-informed researchers (e.g. at UCL) wrote grammars for use at school (http://dickhudson.com/history-of-english-teaching/#textbooks), and some future teachers studied grammar at university. Between about 1900 and 1950, there was no research on grammar in the UK’s universities (unlike several other countries), but since 1950 grammar has become a very active area of research, though mostly in departments of linguistics, and UK universities are world leaders in some areas. Inevitably, this research has challenged traditional assumptions; for example, grammarians reject the traditional (Latin-based) view that words like this or every (this book, every book) are adjectives, and now regard them as members of a new class of ‘determiners’ – one of the terms in the NCE grammar appendix.

When the new NCE was being developed, the working group charged with the grammar appendix included some research grammarians, so the grammar appendix takes account of research developments. However, there are some areas where researchers are divided or the issues are complicated, and in those areas the working group adopted a rather conservative position, reflected in the glossary of terms which was attached to the appendix. For instance, there is some research evidence that the word after is the same word, and therefore a member of the same word class, in after the party and in after I left. Traditionally, the first was a preposition and the second a subordinating conjunction; but the research dust still hasn’t settled, so the working group decided to stick to the traditional distinction, and made this clear in the glossary. So although the NCE is out of step with some researchers, it is clear what schools are expected to teach so the fact that some theoretical grammarians disagree is beside the point.

4.The tests encourage bad teaching

Critics claim that some primary schools are ‘teaching to the test’ in preparing children for the SPaG tests. This may well be the case, though again there is only anecdotal evidence. It would not be surprising if some teachers followed this route, and that senior management encourage them to do so in the hope of raising the school’s profile of results.

This situation is clearly not created by the SPaG tests, but by the fact that grammar was not an established part of primary teaching until the tests made it obligatory, so teachers have no experience of teaching it. There is a great deal of research evidence that grammar can be taught both productively and engagingly. This happens in countries where grammar never left the curriculum (as it did here in the 1960s), though every country seems to recognise some kind of ‘grammar crisis’ in the last half-century as its established teaching practices have had to adjust to more recent research-based grammar and pedagogy (my 2016 Valencia talk at dickhudson.com/talks). Moreover, even in this country there is powerful research evidence that grammar teaching can improve writing, spelling and reading (http://teach-grammar.com/research).

One reading of the present situation is that we are in a temporary transition period in which primary teachers are adjusting to the need to teach grammar. As the years pass, it is possible that teachers will become more informed and confident; and maybe publishers will help them by producing better teaching materials.

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