The SPaG tests and

grammar in the National Curriculum

This page explains how and why I support the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG) tests and the grammar content of the 2014 National Curriculum (NC) . Some people are very critical of both, so the issues are important.

How I support SPaG and the NC

When the NC for English was being developed (in 2012) the Minister concerned, to his credit, appointed a very distinguished educationist to chair a working group with the remit of developing a relatively detailed specification of the grammatical content as a separate appendix to the NC. (A similar appendix on spelling was also commissioned.) The educationist was given a free hand in choosing the members of the working group, and included me along with four others, all contributing different expertise; the working group was also left to decide the content of the appendix (with one exception: the subjunctive, which the Minister wanted to be included).

My expertise is in research on grammar, so my main responsibility was to ensure that the content was internally consistent but also as consistent as possible with the best of current research on grammar. I also drafted the glossary for the appendix. What appears in the NC appendix and glossary is very close to the draft that the working group produced, so we take responsibility for it.

Somehow (I forget how) I started to comment on material for the early SPaG tests, and eventually (in 2013) I was recruited by the team of civil servants responsible for these tests as a regular curriculum advisor. I now see all drafts for new tests, and my responsibility is to keep an eye on the grammatical content.  Unfortunately I wasn’t shown the specimen paper for 2016. To their credit, the SPaG team are very keen to get the grammar right.

Why I support them

  • Because I am convinced that children should understand something about how their language works (KAL – knowledge about language), and should be able to talk about simple grammatical patterns both in English and in foreign languages; so they should learn something about phonology, spelling patterns, vocabulary and grammar.
  • Because I know that even primary children can learn about grammar; e.g. Shakespeare was learning ablout Latin grammar at the age of seven, and every seven-year old in Russia learns the main word classes for Russian.
  • Because I know that most teachers have never been taught KAL, so this is not a body of knowledge that they teach confidently and with enjoyment (in contrast with the Netherlands, where teachers typically enjoy teaching it and even teach it in spite of being officially discouraged). This being so, it is important to put pressure on teachers to take grammar seriously. The National Curriculum has required some grammar teaching since 1990, but it is only since the SPaG tests were introduced that it has had such a high profile.
  • Because I know that the current educational climate puts teachers under a lot of pressure to teach to the test, which means that if it’s not tested, it won’t be taught. That’s very bad educational policy, but as long as it’s a fact it works against grammar teaching unless this is formally assessed.
  • Because I think that the NC appendix makes reasonable demands on pupils, compared with the demands of other subjects; moreover, I know that the SPaG team is extremely professional and prepares the tests astonishingly thoroughly, so I’m confident that every test question is accessible to most pupils. And, as a matter of fact, most pupils pass most questions.
  • Because I believe that universities in the twentieth century created the grammar-free schools that we’re struggling with in the twenty-first century, so I also believe that universities should do what they can to support teachers (as Bas Aarts does through his Englicious site) and to make the curriculum as intellectually coherent as possible.

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