The grammar test

Written by: HTU | Published:

Suzanne O’Connell takes a look at the new grammar, punctuation and spelling test and some of the criticism it has received

Lord Bew published his final report on key stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability in June 2011. He recommended that writing composition should no longer be within the SATs and that instead there should be a summative teacher assessment.

At the same time he raised the prospect of a test of essential writing skills. The government accepted Lord Bew’s recommendations in full.

From May 2013 schools will have the duty to administer the new English grammar, punctuation and spelling test at the end of key stage 2. It will be an externally marked test that assesses the technical aspects of English including vocabulary, sentence grammar, spelling and punctuation. It has not yet been decided whether handwriting will also be included.

The test will consist of brief questions and answers in different formats and sample materials will be available to schools from December 2012.

The spelling test will assess around 20 words and will contribute towards the overall test score. According to the new draft programmes of study for English we can expect the new test to include testing for words such as mischievous, pronunciation, vocabulary, rhyme and rhythm.

There will be a separate Level 6 test available. This test will have some additional content from the key stage 3 programme of study for English and we are warned that “children will encounter a small number of elements of the key stage 3 programme of study which they have not yet covered”.

Some illustrative examples are given in the sample materials. For example, the test might include circling adverbs contained within a sentence, matching a punctuation mark to a sentence, underlining subordinate clauses, and putting in direct speech.

For Level 6 the test distinguishes between the active and passive voice and there will be an extended response to a writing task similar to the current short writing task. The test is mapped to the current national curriculum content and levels and will need amendment when the new curriculum is implemented. Publishers are already releasing materials to help teachers and parents prepare their children with practice and revision questions.

Peter Cansell is headteacher at Harwell Primary School and chair of the Oxfordshire Primary Headteacher Association. One of his main concerns is the effect that the test will have upon teaching in year 6, a year group that already finds its curriculum constricted by SATs. He said: “The introduction of this test will lead to teachers teaching children to pass, not teaching them to write using inventive, vibrant language.”

Mr Cansell believes that the test represents a step back in time, and might be taken from Ridout’s English Today. He points out that rather than frozen in the past, language is dynamic and evolving. He explained: “The use of electronic media has introduced new cadences, new structures, new vocabulary and different uses for punctuation.”

Meanwhile, the chairman of the National Association for the Teaching of English, Dr Simon Gibbons, has expressed concern about the likelihood of “drilling” taking place. He is not hopeful that the style of the test will lead children to enjoy their writing. He said: “Motivation and engagement are the things that help children learn, and underlining parts of a sentence – I don’t think that really does it for most people.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has recently written to education minister Michael Gove expressing concerns about the way in which the test appears to be developing. Referring to it as the “technical aspects of writing”, he points out that “roughly three quarters of our members oppose the proposed new test”.

The United Kingdom Literacy Association also strongly opposes the introduction of the test, arguing that it does not assess whether children use these “secretarial aspects of writing” in their own writing and that it will lead to an increasingly narrow focus in teaching.

• Suzanne O’Connell is a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

The sample materials and parents’ leaflet can be found on the Department for Education website.

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