Open letter to the TES opposing the Y6 ‘Grammar, punctuation and spelling test’

Having read the recently published Y6 Grammar, punctuation and spelling- test framework  I strongly believe that this test should NOT take place. It is not that I believe grammar, punctuation and spelling to be unimportant. On the contrary, I have written books on all three (one is due for publication in June 2013). Without a thorough grasp of grammar and punctuation the meaning of a text can be adversely affected. Likewise, weak spelling can create a broad range of perception issues, all of which will reduce or wholly negate the impact of a written text. I will deal with why I believe the test should not take place after considering what is wrong with the test itself.

1. The first key area of the test I fundamentally disagree with is the mark scheme:

Grammar 25-30 marks
Punctuation 10-20 marks
Vocabulary 5-10 marks

This is an error of Titanic proportions and, at very least, the mark scheme needs to be inverted so that vocabulary carries the greatest mark weighting.

It is interesting to consider the work of Jane Austen in light of the mark scheme. Recently Austen’s original manuscripts were made available on the Internet and even a cursory glance through these demonstrates that the accuracy of Austen’s use of punctuation was, at best, erratic. Professor Kathryn Sutherland’s research (St Anne’s College, Oxford University) also demonstrates that Austen was not an accurate speller – the ‘i before e’ rule utterly eluded her. But, what a loss to the English language it would have been if Austen’s publisher had rejected her manuscripts on account of her spelling and punctuation errors. What truly matters is her ability to manipulate vocabulary (which ultimately drives the plot). Vocabulary is paramount. I wonder if she would have penned ‘Pride and Prejudice’ if, at the age of eleven, she had sat a ‘Grammar, punctuation and spelling’ test and been judged to be lacking? This sole example demonstrates the gravity of the current situation and yet it is not an isolated example. I’ll return to the literary canon later in this document!

Ask any editor (in addition to my International Educational consultancy business I also run a publishing company and have edited numerous publications including a recent volume on Italian art – I write this merely to establish that my argument is based on experience and therefore has validity) and they’ll tell you that grammar and punctuation can be corrected. Vocabulary is a different matter. You can’t add what is not already there. You cannot edit that which does not exist. It beggars belief that vocabulary languishes behind grammar and punctuation with a fifth of the mark weighting.

2. The second key aspect of the test I wholly disagree with is the over-use of complex meta-language. Let me explain my concern by way of personal anecdote. As a child I was fortunate enough to be taken to a range of art galleries. I would sit before the artworks and attempt to draw them. Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam particularly fascinated me and later, when I considered the pointillist works of Seurat and Signac the link was obvious. Ultimately I started to write art history books and most recently have spent sixteen years working with Professor Brian Whitton (Durham University) on a Catalogue Raisonné of the constructivist artist John Tunnard. In short, art and art history have been a lifelong interest.

Now, in order to write (and edit) books about art one needs the language of art (art’s meta-language). Likewise, in order to write about literature one needs the meta-language of English. BUT, what precedes this is the interest of the writer. A person who enters an art gallery has, firstly, to be interested in art. A person who writes about art has to have developed a deep-rooted love of art. So it is with literature!

Our pupils are disenfranchised if they do not have a thorough grasp of grammar, punctuation and spelling BUT the best way to develop all three is certainly not through  decontextualised tests but rather, through engaging writing projects embedded in a curriculum which acknowledges how important ‘reading for interest’ is in the drive to raise writing standards.

I would also suggest that the reading materials used to inform pupils’ writing development are chosen using a ‘No brow approach’ (A Simon Armitage phrase – Mozart and Morrissey on their own terms; Shakespeare and comics of equal value.) This demonstrates the folly of the government’s recent proposal to create a PRESCRIBED reading list of 50 books for Key Stage 2 but that’s a separate debate.

3. The third aspect of the test which gives me cause for concern is the exact choice of meta-language used in the exemplary materials. I’ll take ‘subordinate clause’ as one specific example. I have always found the teaching of subordinate clauses more effective if I refer to them as ‘embedded clauses’ (the two terms are synonymous) in class.

I explain that you can ‘…take the extra details out of the bed of the sentence and the sentence still makes sense.’ If I am now forced to use ‘subordinate clause’ because that is the language pupils will encounter in the test then a teaching strategy which has been effective for a quarter of a century is utterly negated.

Who was consulted regarding the actual choice of words? It seems to have been presented as a fait accompli, without adequate consultation and, to be frank, using an embedded clause effectively is far more important than what it is called.

My worry is that the early over-use of a PRESCRIBED meta-language will be yet another barrier to the pupils’ enjoyment of both reading and writing and will make schools’ task of raising writing standards far harder.

Pupils who play with words stay with words.

4. A fourth area of concern is how dull the test is. The question stems utilised in the exemplary materials are instructive (if depressing!),

Put a tick to show…
Draw lines to match…
Circle the…
Copy the…
Insert three…

Any Primary teacher ‘worth their salt’ could easily generate engaging activities to replace these bland questions. I’ve argued against ‘Cloze procedure’ for more than two decades and have developed many activities which replace it.

Now, undoubtedly, it could be argued that ‘being interesting’ is not a prime function of a test. Surely, however, the point of effective education is to capture the interest of pupils so that ultimately they become self-sustaining lifelong learners. I would strongly suggest that anything which endangers this key goal of education should be COLLECTIVELY OPPOSED.

5.  The fifth worrying element is the spelling test. It’s a regressive idea. Decontextualised drilling has always been a bad idea and the weak attempt to apply context (‘Sentences from which targeted words have been left out’) would be laughable if the situation was less serious.

There is also evidence of an erroneous assumption which underpins the spelling test. The reference to ‘low frequency spellings’ concerns me as one pupil’s ‘low frequency spelling’ is not the same as another pupil’s ‘low frequency spelling’.

A second personal anecdote neatly demonstrates this point. I was teaching a group of eleven year olds and was discussing how some buildings appear larger on the inside than the outside to which one pupil responded,

‘Do you mean dimensionally transcendental?’

He then explained that he’d learned the phrase when reading his ‘Doctor Who’ annual: the Tardis is dimensionally transcendental. The test is too limiting AND it is merely a test of correct spelling. Although, clearly, I want pupils to be accurate spellers I feel that, of far greater importance, is the need to encourage a climate of risk-taking. I’d far rather read a text with a large number of spelling errors (made when the pupil is tackling unfamiliar, polysyllabic words) than a text with no errors by a ‘safe speller’.

The spelling test is a terrible idea and should not take place.

When I first read the Framework document I had Billie Holiday’s final album (‘Lady in Satin’ – I’d highly recommend it) playing in the background. Recorded when Holiday was in the final stages of heroin addiction her voice occasionally falters and yet the album is, in anyone’s book, truly beautiful. I considered this for some time – it’s the same with Johnny Cash’s last recording. His voice is destroyed but, rather than hide the vocal low in the mix Rick Rubin (the producer) chose to expose it with sparse arrangements. He used Cash’s failing voice to add poignancy to the lyrics of the carefully selected songs.

And therein lies the key problem with this kind of test. If Holiday or Cash (…or Ian Brown, John Lydon, Elliott Smith, Ian Curtis, Ian McCulloch…it’s a very long list) were tested using standardised criteria, such as the accurate pitching of notes, then they’d fail their singing test and what a diminished world we would exist in. Beautiful things are not always easily quantified- there is much that cannot and should not be reduced to statistics.

Returning to the literary canon, let’s consider the poet John Clare – he couldn’t spell for toffee but, by God, he could write a poem. William Faulkner was notorious at Random House for his misspellings and inaccurate use of punctuation. When Hemingway worked as a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War his editors repeatedly complained about his spelling errors. And F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t much better…but what works of literature they have left us.

So, to conclude, we’ve established that Jane Austen, William Faulkner, John Clare, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald would have fared badly in this test and I’m afraid this leaves me gravely concerned that many, many pupils who deserve to be applauded for their progress in and enthusiasm for writing will be erroneously labelled (at eleven!) as ‘low achievers’. Austen would not have passed with flying colours and that’s the real failure of this test, a failure made quantifiable in a mark weighting which places vocabulary last.

We need a serious pedagogic debate which is not reduced to jingoistic personal attacks (on either side!) and this must occur soon. For all the reasons outlined in this letter (and more that I’d be happy to add) I do not agree with this test and consequently do not recognise its validity. I would suggest that, if teachers really are ‘trusted’, then they should, democratically, be allowed to vote either for or against it. The collective response of this body of professionals should then form the basis of a real dialogue regarding what should occur and how to progress in a pedagogically sound manner.

27 thoughts on “Open letter to the TES opposing the Y6 ‘Grammar, punctuation and spelling test’

  1. Wholeheartedly agree with this: ‘the best way to develop all three is certainly not through decontextualised tests but rather, through engaging writing projects embedded in a curriculum which acknowledges how important ‘reading for interest’ is in the drive to raise writing standards.’

    Nurture a love for, create a safe environment, and go for it! How can a test create that?

    With you all the way Alan.

  2. What a great article. Puts into words what a majority of teachers believe. What a pity we aren’t listened to.

  3. Alan Peat for the next King of England. Never mind sending this to the TES, a copy should be sent to every teaching union to be debated by their members!

  4. Alan – as ever you are wholly correct. When will ‘they’ realise that there are far more qualified and experienced people within education who should be leading decisions like these?

  5. Great article and well justified views! Just hope ‘they’ start to pay attention to what you and thousands of teachers whole heartedly believe!

    • Alan, can’t agree more! The three aspects mentioned, within a language, spoken and written, are distinguishable but inseparable and as such discussed, taught and assessed!

  6. Wonderfully written, and extremely well reasoned. A pity our current sec of State feels no requirement to consult those with educational experience and expertise. ‘On my head be it’ I believe was the phrase he used when insisting it would go ahead regardless.

  7. Couldn’t agree more Alan! Testing is a funny old thing really, surely we want to get the best out of learners; testing them under highly stressful conditions doesn’t do this. I hated reading until I was 29, just because I could remember the weekly comprehension test in Junior school: I actually did quite well in the test, but they bored me senseless! – Gove has no evidence base for his changes and it’s very sad. However, I dont really care what Gove thinks, I’ll keep doing what I know is best and if they don’t like it – tough!

  8. Your points may be right, but these are insignificant in comparison to the correct decision that there is a test at all.
    That should be the main focus of the article.

  9. Thank you for putting in the time to write this response, Alan. Hope it gets “seen” as it’s clear, persuasive and well-argued. In a way, we agree with Jon’s response above too – the very presence of a Y6 SPAG test is flawed, regardless of these flaws in its content.

    “there is much that cannot and should not be reduced to statistics”
    Excellent sentence. Teachers spend their working lives motivating and encouraging pupils that their work is of worth and that they aren’t failures. Sadly, further testing just ensures that that hard work goes to waste. Surely there are better ways to assess spelling, punctuation and grammar without creating a generation of “I’m no good at writing” pupils? (rhetorical question, Mr Gove – just ask a teacher, they do it all the time).

  10. You have just put into writing what I was beginning to articulate myself, and I couldn’t agree more! My frustration is how do we make our voice heard, as so many colleagues feel the same?

  11. Agree wholeheartedly however it’s an issue when ofsted are so data driven and inspections can be triggered by reduction in achievement as measured by data. I haven’t been in teaching very long but as an older entrant to the profession and a mother to two fine teenage boys I am dismayed. My dismay is at a system that pigeon holes and reduces pupils to numbers and letters and in some cases they are decimalised!! Beginning to wonder if I’ve made a mistake when all I ever wanted was to enthuse pupils to want to learn and make a difference.

  12. Thanks for your hard work on this subject, Alan. We (Norfolk Education & Action for Development) have heard from many of our member schools that they are concerned about the proposed tests. (I am particularly concerned that students with Specific Learning Difficulties will struggle badly, and lose their enthusiasm for words and stories.)

    Meanwhile, we have been devising some teaching materials over the last few months which contain at least one specific grammar or literacy focus but which have, as their context, a local, national or global situation with which the children can engage. We’ll stick at it, as we agree that deep learning will not take place if tests of this sort are allowed to drive curriculum planning…

  13. Totally agree with everything stated-where was the consultation with schools? Will this engage our children or switch them off from literacy even more? Another stick to beat schools with, more data to pick out and use against us.

  14. The SPAG is a test and schools will have to teach to it as there is nothing else they will be able to do. Teaching will become a bore in Year 6, children will wonder what on earth happened to writing as it becomes nothing more than a tedious drill in learning grammar, spelling rules and the occasional foray into descriptive vocabulary.

    The Department of Education has absolutely no idea what it is doing and it will be left to schools to pick up the pieces when this disastrous test is finally seen for the sham it is.

  15. Thank you for writing this Alan! I totally agree. It would be interesting to see how many Government ministers would know what a modal verb or a fronted adverbial is – and whether their ignorance has put them at any disadvantage!

  16. Thank you so much for articulating what many of us in the profession feel. Like so many others, my career to date has been built around enthusing children to become writers first and not box tickers. To see children’s confidence destroyed by being failed at 11 risks undoing all of that work.

  17. Hi, this is a wonderful piece and I would like to thank you for making it available. I was very taken with the section on spelling and the testing of spelling, let me explain why.

    As a child in the 60’s and 70′ my education was blighted by my inability to spell, I was ridiculed by teachers and eventually (at 16) diagnosed as having dyslexia. (At the time the wonderful PhD student who diagnosed me called it word blindness). Unfortunately it was to late, I had already limited the way I wrote to only use words I was confident I could spell. My writing style and willingness to write are sill affected by this experience. I now have a 16 year old daughter who also suffers from mild dyslexia, but she has no such problems, why? Because the emphasis in primary and to a lesser extent secondary school has been on vocabulary, writing styles and creativity. She, unlike her Dad is a confidant and skilled writer. I have to wonder if this would be the case if she had been subjected to pressure of a spelling tests and the ‘formal’ misplaced use of the grammar meta-language.

    Please lets not repeat the mistakes of the past, as someone said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”

    Is there a campaign to get this decision overturned?

    Rob (who has made extensive use of a spell checker)

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