Deconstructing the SPaG

Appropriation of the Abbreviation

It is good to see that the NUT is to ballot on a primary test boycott: good as it is the right thing to do because these tests are so bad.

I have said before on this blog, the argument that these types of tests, but in particular the Key Stage 2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling papers, are bound to cause young pupils stress is convincing. This is linked to the obvious argument that they will cause this stress because they are far too hard – pitched at a level well beyond the grasp of most students at the target age.

I have also argued that in addition to these convincing points, we need to mount a pedagogical rationale for why these tests are inappropriate, and I intend to do more of that here and now. The comprehension/knowledge level demanded of the discrete secretarial questions that make up a complete paper is ridiculously ill-judged for the intended age range. However, as a ‘test’ of students’ writing competence, and by implication a key element of their required teaching of how to write, they are utterly meaningless.

I have provided arguments for and examples of how I teach writing throughout this blog and would urge anyone interested in seeing how this informs my rejection of the ‘test’ approach to seek these out. I want to focus on specific examples of test questions from the English GPaS Sample Booklet published in July 2015 [as teachers we have appropriated the abbreviation to the more familiar SPaG!]. These are a selection:

Screenshot 2016-03-28 10.07.12

Frankly….I don’t give a damn. And I couldn’t [do you see what I did?] resist.

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Feeling my way into a more focused criticism, I want to mention I was struck by the irony of the required word, considering the nature of these ‘writing’ tests. In addition, the use of the adverb is a poor model of good writing.

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This is one of the first ‘train-spotting’ questions. This tests ‘knowledge’ that has no actual relevance to learning, especially learning about how to write.

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Why? The underlined section tells us information we need to know for the sentence to make sense. The question about identifying the grammatical construct is far less important to know then that fact. Why not ask why the hospital requires further information when a hospital doesn’t [if one feels the need to ask]? That, by the way, is a rhetorical question [1 mark]. The point is these tests need to be this definitive so that the mark scheme can appear to have a singular right answer. All others are ‘wrong’. Even if they make sense…..

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I have commented on this here. Far better to play with how such sentences can work.

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Train-spotting. By the time students reach GCSE, and having been taught how to write on a diet of this kind of punctuation nose-picking, students sneeze semi-colons all over a page thinking this will earn them marks for ‘sophisticated’ writing. Like a sneeze, the placing of the semi-colons will be quite random.

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Have you noticed each of these questions is worth 1 mark? No differentiation, though they can be significantly varied in their demands. I of course reject the premise of their existence, but if you are going to offer them up as a sample/model, there must be some recognition of the broad range in demands. Clause recognition here.

Screenshot 2016-03-28 10.09.59


Screenshot 2016-03-28 10.10.42

Of all the roots in all the towns in all the world…….

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Why a dash? The simple connective ‘and’ makes a better sentence. Illustrating poor writing to ask a question seems a bad thing to do.

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Why why why why why why why why why? A better question would be to ask about the intentional syllabic rhythm of my question. But not at KS2.

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Train-spotting, and the train is heading for a long boring journey. Going nowhere.

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Obviously, why? And for 11 year olds? To achieve what?

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I could work this out by extrapolation, understanding subordinate and co-ordinate as words, but as grammatical constructs I wouldn’t know these to spot and label.

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How much more purposeful and engaging would this kind of question be if students, probably in groups and making posters [stick that up your Tom Bennett], were tasked to explore and discuss and use and then comment on the variations of writing wanted, needed, desired, had, craved..…?

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No. Or, again, as a class task with a purpose, ask how other words [or verbs…] would alter meanings in this sentence, and to what effect? For example, instead of screened, how about sheltered, dwarfed, fragranced [I know, but why not?!], shadowed, stifled, hid…..

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Actually, Rachel wanted a piano, not a keyboard, so she was pissed off.

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You genuinely despair completely by this point.

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What and How an exclamation mark shouldn’t go there but here is fine!

Remember, all of the above represent a snapshot of the entirety of the daft questions asked in the test paper. I have been playful in my rejection at times, but satire and irony are elements of sophistication in writing; not the use of semi-colons.

It should be a comma.


5 thoughts on “Deconstructing the SPaG

  1. And of the most dreadful things of all is that from 2017, all children who did not reach the ‘required standard’ must resit in y7 and go through all of this utterly pointless stress again, reinforcing not only their sense of ‘failure’ but also probably putting them off engaging with real writing for good. Disgraceful. I hope we can do something about this as a profession and start to take the meaningful action needed-although I know this s not something we are terribly good at recently…


  2. I was surprised, having done no formal grammar st school in the 60s and 70s that I can remember, to find that the above questions are both easy and obvious. Whilst I agree the tests are unnecessary, and definitely uncreative, it is the nonsense that *surrounds* tests and exams that freaks kids out. We never got told we were failures at school, or taught to be afraid of tests or exams, they were just part of our learning and assessment. Just as, at the university I teach at, presentations, coursework, essays, reviews, interviews, case studies, etc are (no exams though!). So I’m kind of torn here, as personally I’d rather deal with exams and tests than ongoing work assessments etc. I much prefer turning up for 3 hours every so often… But the important thing is being taught how to learn, understand and find out for yourself – much of the above test isn’t simply by rote, you can work it out [eg. what ‘struct’ is as part of the word, something i didnt know but deduced]. I know I shan’t be popular with you Mike, for this post, but I’ll say it anyway…


    • I think you are wrong! You are a Senior Lecturer in English commenting on how straightforward these tests are for 11 year olds! Interestingly, you say you had no formal grammar education, so how do you feel you can equate that non-experience with such highly formal and discrete grammar tests being compulsory in primary schools?! And that’s the issue [apart from their complete meaninglessness]: it’s about testing students like this at 11, who will quite understandably be taught to these tests, who will be termed failures, as will their teachers and schools, when they don’t ‘succeed’. You didn’t have this experience. Nor did your teachers. Nor did your schools. I had it as a Head of English at secondary level and it destroyed so much of my love of the job. And more. That’s an experience I think can be equated with these SATs. I haven’t said I am opposed to exams and tests – indeed, my often satirical examples of alternatives show there is plenty of scope for teachers to devise. Finally, do you honestly believe the majority of these very specific grammar questions have any value? You do seem to be arguing for a rather general approval of examining rather than respond to my dismantling of specific questions. A government that holds these up as ‘educational’ is surely off its friggin’ trolley? BUT, thank you for taking the time to read and comment and have an opinion.


      • As I said, i can’t see much point in them, no; but neither can i see any point in anyone getting freaked out about them. We need to resist teaching to exams, resist unecessary tests, and resist letting children/pupils/students think they are failures [or successes] because of one assessment at a certain time. It is possible to teach for results but make it clear this is a government requirement, just as my students having to write academic essays in a certain form & style doesn’t mean it’s the only way to write essays, just that if you want a degree that’s the rules… Like I said, I’m against the tests but they don’t have to be given any importance in real terms.


  3. Pingback: Gibb’s Frontal Lobotomy Testing and Examining | mikeandenglish

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