Testing Time For Teachers?

“In defining literacy for the 21st century we must consider the changing forms of language which our children and young people will experience and use. Accordingly, the definition takes account of factors such as the speed with which information is shared and the ways it is shared. The breadth of the definition is intended to ‘future proof’ it. Within Curriculum for Excellence, therefore, literacy is defined as:

the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful. “

Scottish Curriculum for Excellence: Literacy and English Principles and Practice

When ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’, the Scottish Government report on the findings of the Review of Teacher Education, was published in 2011, one of its more controversial recommendations was the introduction of literacy and numeracy assessments for aspiring teachers, a strange suggestion – at least to my mind – in a country which already has an all-graduate profession, and where the overwhelming majority of new entrants has a Higher English qualification. Just over two and a half years later, the tests, which appear to be voluntary, have just been published on an Education Scotland website and greeted with predictable  media headlines such as this one in the Scotsman newspaper –  ‘TEACHERS TO BE GIVEN TESTS IN STANDARDS DRIVE‘ – thereby cementing in the collective consciousness an assumed relationship between the introduction of a test and the raising of those elusive ‘standards’. There already exists a set of ‘Standards for Registration’ for anyone entering the teaching profession in Scotland, and very good they are too. In fact they were revised recently, and you can find them on the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s website, which is where I would have thought anyone aspiring to a teaching career in Scotland, and with a modicum of ambition, would look first.

And so to the tests themselves (raising along the way the question of whether it is ever acceptable to begin a sentence with a conjunction). Despite the very broad definition of literacy in Education Scotland’s own CfE literacy framework document (see above), the new literacy tests consist of a very small number of questions on spelling, punctuation and grammar, such as this one, where you are asked to choose the correctly punctuated version of a short piece of prose.


When you have clicked on your answer, the following text appears:-


As you can see, in this case the correct version of the sentence is number 3, for the reasons given. Except that it isn’t. None of the sentences is correct. The comma before the direct speech would suggest that the prefect was instructing the class to whisper the words ‘This noise is unacceptable’, which I don’t think she was. The comma in fact should be a full stop. You see, the problem with this kind of test is that what you are testing is pretty complex, and even when you think you have nailed it you are never quite sure what you are actually testing. Then of course a decision has to made about what percentage of correct answers makes a person ‘literate’ enough. At the end of another section of the tests – ‘confusing words quiz’ – for example, where you are invited to choose the correct version in context between two homonyms or similarly spelled words, a score of three from seven is deemed to be ‘reasonable’. How reasonable do you think 3 correct answers out of  7 is?

If this is a diagnostic tool to help aspiring teachers  judge for themselves which aspects of their language skills they need to work on – and the fact that the tests are voluntary and tucked away on a website which took me more than half an hour to find would suggest that it is – then all well and good. It may prove to be a useful resource in addition to those which are already out there. Unless I am missing something, the fact that the tests are not compulsory would also suggest that the government has rejected the recommendation to introduce some kind of additional ‘entry level’ examination, and decided on a different approach. If so, all credit to them – the hazardous nature of setting such a test has been demonstrated above. Standards will not be raised by introducing more tests, but through an understanding on the part of anyone entering the profession that their first commitment is to their own continuing programme of learning, and an acceptance of three basic principles:

  • We are learners first, teachers second.
  • Good communication is at the heart of all learning and teaching.
  • We are all learning to be more literate.

“Candidates for teaching should undertake diagnostic assessments of their competence in both literacy and numeracy. The threshold established for entry should allow for weaknesses to be addressed by the student during the course. A more demanding level should be set as a prerequisite for competence to teach.”

Teaching Scotland’s Future: Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland, 2011


To try the tests for yourself go to to the Aspiring Teachers website.

To read more about the vagaries of grammar teaching and testing visit this excellent blog by language expert David Crystal.

For a list of free websites to help with the development of English language skills click here.


Lighting a Spark for Reading

I was quite impressed with this advert for the Kindle Reader from Amazon when it appeared during prime-time TV on Saturday night. It features a number of children extolling the virtues of reading, and seems to send out a very positive message to other kids. Even this sceptical viewer was feeling quite uplifted, especially as it appeared during the commercial break in one of our most popular television talent shows, a spectacle which often reminds me of the classic Groucho Marx quote: “I find television very educating. Whenever somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

Predictably, it wasn’t long before the advert, rather than the show, was the subject of a conversation on Twitter, where one perceptive viewer/tweeter was quick to point out that it appeared to reinforce the commonly-held view that girls read and boys………well……..usually don’t. I must admit that I hadn’t noticed this on first viewing so I went back to check. What I discovered was that there are two versions of the advert, one for the UK and another for the US market, and while in the US version, there is more or less an equal number of boys and girls, in the UK version girls outnumber boys by approximately two to one. This in itself raises a number of interesting questions.

Are Amazon aware of differences in reading habits, or was the difference in the adverts purely accidental?

Is the perception (or indeed the reality) that girls read and boys don’t, only a British thing?

Are there real differences between reading habits in the USA and the UK?

Are the adverts themselves likely to reinforce  or challenge the stereotypes around reading?

Is reading on a mobile device more likely to appeal to boys rather than girls?

What are the likely long-term implications – for readers and teachers – of reading from screens instead of paper books?

I have also uploaded the US version of the advertisement here so that you can judge for yourself. If nothing else, I think showing both versions to your class would be a great starter for discussion, along with the questions I have raised. If you are really ‘up for it’, as they say on X-Factor, having your students make their own version – with Kindle readers or ‘real’ books, or indeed a variety of reading materials – has the potential to be a very worthwhile project. Just think of the creative buzz as they write their scripts (I love reading because……….), choose the best ‘actors’, pick their favourite books, seek out the best locations and bring the whole thing together. As an added bonus, there’s a real ‘job’ for everyone  in the class and a vested interest in making it work. Lights! Camera! Literacy in Action!

Further Reading: Learners as Producers blogpost by Steve Wheeler.