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Is the new SPaG test for 11 year olds the best way to improve grammar, punctuation and spelling?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 May 2013

Julia Douëtil
Grammar, punctuation and spelling matter! Whether we like it or not, they influence the way we are perceived in speech and writing. Actor Alexander Armstrong complained recently of unreasonable prejudice against people with posh accents and he is right, we shouldn’t judge people by the way they sound. But we do. And if Mr Armstrong thinks he suffers prejudice, it is nothing compared to the negative assumptions made about a person whose speech is peppered with poor grammar or whose writing is littered with spelling mistakes. Children who do not learn to present themselves well in speech and writing will be severely disadvantaged when applying for university or for jobs.
As I write I am acutely conscious that representatives of Pedants Are We will scan this piece for any hint of an error in grammar, punctuation or spelling that will enable them to dismiss my entire argument as the work of an ignoramus. So I can understand the imperative to ensure that our children become skilled in the use of grammar, punctuation and spelling. But is the new SPaG test the best way to achieve that?
My ears pricked up this week listening to the wonderful Michael Morpurgo talking about his early delight in the stories read to him by his mother. He then described falling among teachers who “turned stories into trials”. “Everything became a test, whether it was punctuation, spelling, handwriting or learning a poem, and you either succeeded or you failed.” The joy and magic of stories vanished, to be replaced by fear. “Words and stories became a threat and I turned my back on them.”
The model SPaG test presented a checklist of all our favourite pitfalls in written English. It is designed to catch children out, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which it disadvantages children learning English as a second language and those with a robust regional dialect. Practice SPaG tests, even a SPaG boot camp, have spread like a virus. Schools have spent weeks preparing their children for this high stakes assessment. Where is the joy, the magic, in that?
Research exploring the most effective teachers of English* found that those who taught the rules of grammar and punctuation in a meaningful context achieved the best results for children. Understanding how this language structure or that punctuation helped the writer to advance their ideas was more effective than teaching rules in isolation. Isn’t that the point, that knowing the rules is only half the job? It’s knowing how to use them (and when to break them) that really matters.
Both grammar and spelling change, perhaps more rapidly than we may imagine. What is beyond the pale today may be mainstream tomorrow and vice versa. The split infinitive, once considered the hallmark of a poor education, is now widely accepted; no doubt influenced by the determination of Star Trek to boldly go where none had gone before. The influence of the internet has made American spelling close to ubiquitous. I wonder if assessment in extended text, writing for a purpose, would be a more effective means of enabling children to demonstrate their ability to use grammar, punctuation and spelling in ways which are accurate, dynamic and in tune with modern usage?
* Wray D.; Medwell J.; Fox R.; Poulson L., (2000), The Teaching Practices of Effective Teachers of Literacy, Educational Review, Vol 52, No 1, 1, pp. 75-84(10)
Julia Douëtil is Head of the European Centre for Reading Recovery at the Institute of Education.