Testing grammar

Female pupil writing

There has been much comment, discussion and even fury in the media about the new grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) tests for primary school pupils. Parents, teachers, academics and other commentators claim that the tests are inappropriate for primary pupils and that these high-stakes assessments have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning.

Part of the problem lies in terminology. Children have to spot examples of grammatical constructions such as “fronted adverbials”. This term has become notorious as it has not previously been used in grammatical descriptions and seems sometimes to apply to phrases that are essentially “adjectival”. The deeper problem is that the label becomes more important than the underlying reality. It is obviously good to teach children the structures of language, particularly if such knowledge helps to express themselves more accurately. But testing a knowledge of labels is very different from testing an understanding of language structures.

Such understanding requires a connection between children’s everyday understanding of language and the grammar they have to grasp. Linguists such as Halliday have developed a functional approach to language that gives meaning to everyday interactions. However, GPS relies on ‘ideal’ forms of language that contradict everyday experience. The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is outlawed when it is in fact common and correct usage. GPS requires that ‘exclamations’ must begin with ‘How’ or ‘What’ and include a finite verb – which is not the case in real language use. Terms like ‘command’ or ‘exclamation’, which have a social function, refer in GPS only to specific grammatical structures.

This context-free view of grammar implies that children’s language is either right or wrong. Lord Bew’s review (2011) of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability seized (p.60) upon spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary” as elements of writing where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing”. GPS performance thus becomes a key indicator of a school’s success or failure – even though the view of language enshrined in the tests is so limited.

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Cream teas and the curriculum

I have often thought that analysing the language of schooling would be a dismal activity. Thinking of the language of reports, for example, what words would appear most frequently? Despite technological changes in modes of reporting, I suspect that over the years similar terms will occur: “work”, “effort”, “result”, and so on. At the present time, most political and media discussion of education deals in similar terms, with emphasis on students‘ success rates in examinations, skills acquisition, discipline and effort – and their teachers’ responsibility for ensuring constantly improved standards in all these. It is as if school is nothing but an endless process of work and effort to prepare oneself for an adult life of … work and effort. In fact, within the discourse of school, work and effort become goods in themselves, so a positive report may say nothing more than that a student “works hard” and “makes an effort”. My son was once told in a school report that he “made no more than the necessary effort”, implying that this was a negative characteristic. When I mentioned this to him, he replied, with impeccable reason, that there never was any need to make more than the necessary effort. (Why should I, writing this, tap any harder than necessary on the computer keys? A lighter touch might be more efficient.)

A sad aspect of British schooling is how few opportunities for pleasure it offers many students, and possibly also their teachers. When comprehensive education became widespread in the 70s and 80s, it was assumed by many that the homogenising social ethos of the grammar or independent school had no place in a school of diverse students of varying aptitudes and social backgrounds. It is not clear, however, that the new schools always imported enough social glue of their own kind to create a functioning community. The nineteenth-century designers of the US high school made no such mistake. It was an all-ability, neighbourhood school, but it was also socially attractive, so that even an indifferent student would gain pleasure from the many sports and social activities that have become a traditional part of American life. Indeed, the ‘prom’, graduation ceremonies and parties, school year books and similar institutions are increasingly found in UK schools.

The British school, however, still lacks sufficient institutionalised sources of social pleasure. Many “academic” problems would be solved or ameliorated if students simply wanted to be in the place, rather than wanted to disrupt it. Some teachers understand this and improve the school experience for all concerned by foregrounding student activities. These may involve expensive foreign trips, which are less inclusive than they should be, or they may involve something as simple yet demanding as putting on a record-breaking (in terms of size) cream tea event for the local communityThis video, from Tiverton High School in Devon, has a wonderfully symbolic stop motion sequence where an examination hall is transformed into a tea room for hundreds of people and then returned to its academic shape. The video was made by the students themselves, led by a former student of the school who has made a name for himself as a producer of news bulletins that follow standard generic forms in an entertainingly local manner. If we can forget (for a moment) the language of ‘work’ and ‘effort’ with its implication that these things are good in themselves, we could consider what the students involved learned from putting on this highly organised social event.