SPAG Balls

The introduction this week of so-called ‘SPaG’ tests (spelling, punctuation and grammar) for 11-year-olds in England takes me right back to my own Primary 7 class of 42 pupils and Jimmy Bowie, a ‘great teacher’ whoseteacher-hits-pupil reputation extended well before him. It was a spartan regime of mental arithmetic in the morning and English language – parsing and analysis – in the afternoon. Friday afternoon was the exception, when a couple of hours of silent reading (bliss for some, including me) or drawing, provided an outlet for what limited creativity we were allowed to possess or demonstrate. Spelling was generally reserved for homework, twenty words a night completely out of context, and one of the belt (or strap) next day for every mistake. Tam McGill, a fearsome character who sat in front of the teacher’s desk, where he was regularly subjected to public humiliation, had been kept back a year for failing to meet the required ‘level of intelligence’, which in those days was deemed to be fixed for life and could be measured by a simple short-answer question paper. Now he was chasing the world record for the number of beltings in a single day. The ‘incentive’ to learn was based largely on fear, which many, including our working-class parents, wrongly called ‘respect’. I could go on, and run the risk of turning this into a Monty Python sketch, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Kids enthusiastically greeting the new SPaG tests

I write this from the point of view of one of the ‘winners’ of that particular lottery. I actually enjoyed the analysis of sentences and the parsing of individual words. I loved the problem-solving logic of it, the neat structures. It seemed that once you had cracked the code, you couldn’t lose. For others, however, it would remain a mystery, one of the undiscovered wonders of the world. Later, I would go on to spend a significant part of my life as an English teacher, engaged in that same metaphorical mud-wrestle with language and literature and learning. Has my experience taught me that grammar isn’t really important after all? Absolutely not. An understanding of grammar – if not necessarily the terms of grammar – is the key to language development; without it, a person’s ability to articulate and communicate will be seriously restricted. I really believe that my old P7 teacher’s intentions were good – he knew the importance of grammar – but the mistake was in believing that you can force anyone to learn anything, and it is especially naive to think that you can make them all learn the same thing at the same time. Like many others, I fear that, rather than ‘raising standards’, the re-introduction of such simplistic standardised tests distracts teachers from their real purpose and encourages teaching to the test. But since grammar is about rules – one of which is that you shouldn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction, as I just did – I would like to offer a few simple rules of my own about the learning and teaching of grammar:

  • the rules of grammar should be learned within the context of language used for specific purposes and not as a separate ‘subject’
  • understanding grammar is as much about hearing as it is about seeing
  • grammar should be learned through engagement with increasingly difficult, high-quality texts, both written and spoken, and appropriate for individual learners
  • terminology should be introduced as and when appropriate, and preferably when the learner is curious to know
  • using language in creative ways does not have to wait for a complete understanding of the rules (in fact a complete understanding of the rules is not possible since they change with time and circumstance)
  • if you are a teacher, lead by example and demonstrate the benefits of a good command of language

Further Reading

For a much more informed and articulate criticism of the SPaG tests, read language expert David Crystal’s excellent blogpost here. You might also enjoy this piece from Year 6 teacher, Miss Smith.

For tips on some of the trickier points of English grammar check out this Oxford Dictionaries page.

For a comprehensive list of tools and websites to help you develop understanding of spelling, punctuation and grammar see my list of English Language Sites at the top of the page.

If you’re feeling confident about your own expertise in this area, try the BBC ‘Ten Questions on Grammar’ challenge here.

To find out more about how Scotland currently monitors literacy standards through the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, visit the SQA website here.

If you are responsible for staff development, and are concerned about teacher confidence with spelling, punctuation and grammar, why not contact me to discuss my ‘Mind Your Language’ workshops and seminars (see Teacher Training and Development link at top of page).