Creative approaches to literacy and the SPAG tests

Written by: HTU | Published:

Will the new spelling, punctuation and grammar tests produce an assembly line of rote-learning at the expense of creativity? Alison Wilcox looks at how we can tackle the tests, but still engage our pupils

The government has made it clear that the skill it values most is the ability to pass exams. The content of the National Tests – Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPAG) – sends a clear message to primary schools about what the government measures as success and a rise in standards. 

While the new national curriculum allows teachers greater scope for creative delivery of its objectives, the external tests place little emphasis on creativity. 

SATs have already cast a shadow over the classroom, and restricted the creative opportunities in schools, and there is plenty of evidence that the assessment and accountability systems have an unhealthy influence on schools, not least because performance tables can have a major influence on whether they fail or flourish; continue as they are or become academies.

Many teachers appear to be confident that their pupils coped well with the new tests and a number have commented that the tests were easily tackled even by their less able pupils. 

Some pupils seemed to have “enjoyed the grammar test” and expressed the view that it was, “almost mathematical”. However, as was initially feared, the learning of grammar as knowledge will probably result in high scores but it is likely that little of this knowledge has or will result in an improvement in its application in creative compositions. 

The challenge facing schools, therefore, is to balance the necessity of preparing for the SPAG tests and teaching those language skills for the purpose of completing and improving a creative task, and to develop pupils as “writers”, where they use the skills in a real context that stimulates their curiosity, raises self-esteem and confidence as the emphasis is on their unique ideas and thoughts. 

While pupils need to be familiar with the layout and design of the SPAG tests, it is essential to allow sufficient time to plan and edit a piece of text where aspects of the tests can be discussed and addressed in context. Language skills can be tackled by allowing time to:

  • Discuss and plan a piece of writing, giving pupils the opportunity to verbally rehearse their ideas. 
  • Explore and collate new vocabulary and descriptive phrases, and analyse spelling patterns/rules and meaning of any unfamiliar words. 
  • Edit a piece of writing, which is essential to enable effective self-assessment and focused teaching of spelling and punctuation. 

Furthermore, editing can be more effective if pupils are given an opportunity to:

  • Find a quiet corner to read their work out loud.
  • Work with a partner who reads the text to them.
  • Volunteer to allow their work to be displayed on the board and corrected by the whole class.
  • Correct a text based on the pupils’ task, written by the teacher and which includes many of the common grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes.

Taking risks

It is essential to create a safe environment where the pupils feel comfortable with experimenting and taking risks.

When asked how they felt about their work being rigorously corrected, pupils have expressed the view that it is, “like someone scribbling over your drawings”. 

If the focus is on improvement rather than on correcting errors; on creating something of value where the pupils have a personal involvement and emotional investment, it is possible to create a secure environment where editing and improvement can be a group exercise, where grammar and punctuation learning can be part of the process. 

When pupils read their original text out loud, they struggle to make sense of the parts of their text where there are grammar and punctuation errors, and automatically correct the punctuation as they attempt to read for meaning. 

They use their reading of the text and their understanding of the effect and use of punctuation to correct the errors. When questioned why they insert a full stop in a particular place, pupils often advise that you put a full stop when you need to take a breath, which explains why the insertion of full stops is often haphazard in their own writing, but improves dramatically when they read it out loud. 

Working on the premise that a sentence is one complete fact or idea and using their original texts to highlight facts and ideas will lead on to a discussion of the use of connectives and more advanced punctuation to add information to the fact or idea. 

Spelling can be tackled within the context of creative writing by developing a “graffiti wall” or a setting/character vocabulary display. For example, if the theme is myths and legends, mythical monsters can be created on a display board and descriptive vocabulary added by the pupils as they collect new vocabulary and phrases from model texts, class discussions or their own reading. 

As the display grows, heads, tentacles etc can be added to the monster, each with a focused spelling rule and the words grouped within the rule where relevant. The same technique can be used for settings with a tree trunk for collating vocabulary and branches to display spelling rules. 

Writing with pupils

There are immeasurable rewards where teachers write alongside the pupils and share their own writing with them.

Pupils really enjoy the occasions where the teacher writes alongside them. Not only is it an opportunity to model the writing process, but it helps to engage pupils in the writing process and allows them to view themselves as writers alongside their teacher, rather than merely completing a set task that will be marked, corrected and given a level and targets.

SPAG requirements can be taught by the teacher occasionally purposefully mimicking their pupils’ common errors, or making the writing a chronological report with little depth or colour for the class to improve. 

I can still visualise my pupils’ laughter as I read them a fictitious story about my father losing his false teeth in a focus about embarrassing parents. I can still feel the emotion and see the tears rolling down their cheeks as I shared a story I had written about an elephant in London Zoo. 

As a result of these experiences, not only did contextualised spelling, grammar and punctuation learning occur, but there was a marked improvement in the focus to improve their texts as the pupils wanted their piece to receive the same reaction when shared with their peers. 

The importance of spelling and grammar should never be underestimated, but it has to be used in context. 

Currently, only a limited number of Level 3 writers at the end of key stage 2 are able to construct and vary sentences easily. The more they practice, using modelled sentence types and construction, the more fluid their writing.

They need to be introduced to new vocabulary and literary techniques and given the chance to:

  • Use them repeatedly in context to understand how to use them appropriately. 
  • Experiment with different sentence structures and length to evaluate the effect on the quality of their writing, not merely complete an exercise in a textbook where they have to choose the appropriate connective to make a compound sentence.

With creativity the starting point and the vehicle for teaching the requirements of the SPAG test, children will have the knowledge, understanding and application of the various elements before they tackle the layout of the test and develop an understanding of the various question types and what is required of them.


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