Government advisers add their voices to criticism of the primary grammar curriculum
On Tuesday, as the nation’s year six children were getting ready to take their SATs SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) test, further academic weight was added to the evidence against its very existence.
Warwick Mansell, writing for The Guardian, drew together the opinions of the advisory panel that had been instrumental in the development of the primary grammar and spelling curriculum. Criticism of the curriculum and the approach to testing is nothing new, however the inclusion of Richard Hudson amongst the detractors now means that every known panel member has reservations.
Is the grammar curriculum age appropriate?
The grammar curriculum has always been controversial. As any year two teacher will attest, six and seven year old children do not wander around exclaiming ‘How amazing our toast was!’ or ‘What a wonderful time we had at the zoo!’ Prescriptive exclamation sentences such as these are one of the key concepts of the year two grammar curriculum. Neither do children generally use ‘merriment’, ‘plentiful’ or ‘penniless’ in their speech or writing without explicit teaching; even so, these words are examples of words with suffixes in the year two grammar appendix.
Instead, they are perhaps best suited to children in the 1800s! Likewise, teachers are employing the (very useful) trick of adding ‘by zombies’ to sentences to check children are using the passive voice in year six. However, the ‘by zombies’ technique was created by authors to ensure they avoid using passive voice in their writing; quite rightly seeing it unhelpful and hindering texts from moving forward.
It has even been acknowledged that numerous successful authors, Shakespeare included, probably would not reach age-related expectations for grammar and writing at key stage two. Sadly, technicality and terminology are the keystones of the current curriculum, not effective and engaging writing.
Opinions from Authors and Parents
Academics and authors alike have lamented this shift in priorities. Michael Rosen has deplored the prescriptive nature of “right answers” when language is ever changing, pointing out that academics cannot agree on whether there is a subjunctive in English. Michael Morpurgo has recently declared that children are learning grammatical concepts of which he is unaware and warned that “When it comes to creativity, I think SATs sit like a dark spider all over creativity in the classroom.”
Parents and other commentators have also likened the grammar curriculum to “pulling a fruit cake to pieces and naming all the…constituents without mention[ing] how enjoyable and tasty the cake is” or “dissecting a cold corpse.” However, perhaps the most upsetting observation has been of secondary pupils breaking down in tears because they cannot even start to form a piece of creative writing.
Developing and reflecting on the curriculum
Within the Guardian article, Richard Hudson provided more background to the development process of the curriculum:
“We had about four meetings and were supposed to be devising a grammar curriculum to cover the whole of compulsory education…We started off with the primary curriculum, which we were a bit unconfident about as none of us had much experience of primary education.”
Bemoaning the fact that the government then decided to scrap the secondary part of the curriculum, Hudson remarked “That’s terribly worrying, because it means that all the work children do in primary is wasted, as they probably won’t take it on in secondary.” Worse still, Hudson went on to admit that the emphasis on traditional grammar was based on guesswork, with no evidence to back up the approach. This will inevitably anger the education profession and rightly so.
Hudson’s colleagues, Debra Myhill and Geoff Barton, have made their own criticism of the grammar test clear. In a written submission to the Commons Education Select Committee on assessment, Myhill recommended that the grammar tests be discontinued as “They serve no valid educational purpose.” Furthermore, the evidence made clear that the technical aspects of writing should be referred to, however they should not be a mark of success, instead the overall effectiveness of the writing should be judged.
Hudson does not go as far as some of his colleagues, he still defends the tests by pointing to the high pass rate at key stage two. Nevertheless, research by Safford, Messer, McLachlan and Walker (2015) found that discrete teaching of SPaG resulted in high test scores but little application in children’s writing. Conversely, they remarked that “Teachers who contextualised the study of grammar in the reading of literature and discussions about real life texts reported a positive impact on pupils’ writing.” Myhill’s own research also corroborates this viewpoint.
However Hudson does make the valid point, along with Myhill, that the focus on grammar means that teachers’ subject knowledge and training needs to be extended. Without this, teachers may fall back on discrete rote learning, which whilst producing good SPaG test results for a majority of children, will not support their application of the concepts in their own writing. Training and encouraging teachers to teach SPaG in context, will not only support children’s understanding of terminology but actively support them to experiment and play creatively with language.
Ultimately, children and staff will inevitably rise to the challenge. They will show that they can identify the subjunctive and the present perfect form as well as myriad other terms, however will they become better writers because of it? This depends on teachers having the knowledge and training to be able to teach grammar in a contextualised and meaningful way. As David Crystal observed,
“There’s nothing wrong with being able to identify adverbs as long as this is not thought to be the end if the story. It would be like giving people a driving test where all they had to do was name the parts of the car. With a linguistically informed approach, one can do this, yes, but then go on to drive the language, as it were, and take it to all kinds of exciting places.”
One Education can help you to implement whole-school strategies to support the contextualised and creative teaching and learning of SPaG. Please contact the One Education Literacy Team on 0844 967 1111 for more information.