Thursday, 24 October 2013

Language out of context

The ‘back-to-basics’ test of spelling, punctuation and grammar was first revealed almost two years ago and met with much criticism from both teachers and unions. It was sat by around 600,000 primary school students for the first time this summer. The results, published this autumn, show that one in four children are supposedly leaving primary school with poor standards of literacy. 

It would be useful to know this if we are assured of the validity of the test. It would also be useful to know why the billions spent flogging synthetic phonics to death in schools has failed to improve literacy standards.

Debra Myhill, a professor of education at the University of Exeter and a member of the national curriculum review team, was among experts who originally raised concerns about the spelling and grammar (SPAG) tests when consulted by the government.

Professor Myhill warned the government that it was wrong to test children on grammar out of context and suggested that it would give a false impression of their literacy skills.

She said: “I did a very detailed analysis of the test and I had major reservations about it. I think it’s a really flawed test. The grammar test is totally decontextualised. It just asks children to do particular things, such as identifying a noun.”

In fact, she points out, 50 years of research have consistently shown that there is no relationship between doing the kind of work demanded in the test and what pupils do in their writing. It does not ask students to use grammar in context, which means they are not able to apply rules more generally. In other words, it’s a poor test of literacy.

Part of the ‘logic’ backing the legitimacy of the test is this statement from Lord Bew’s final report on educational assessment and accountability: ‘We recognise that there are some elements of writing – spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary – where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing. A spelling test currently forms 14 per cent of the writing test. Internationally, a number of jurisdictions conduct externally-marked tests of spelling, punctuation and grammar (sometimes termed ‘English language arts’). These are essential skills and we recommend that externally-marked tests of spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary should be developed.’

As Michael Rosen points out so strongly, this is all completely untrue. Spellings vary, as does grammatical usage and punctuation (the report weirdly separates grammar from punctuation), according to context and audience.

It is quite wrong to say that punctuation can only be done one way. This is either a statement of ignorance or a lie. Publishing houses and newspapers vary over the fine points of punctuation. To take one example of many, there are no absolute rules for whether you use a comma or a semi-colon in the middle of a sentence that has what are called two parallel or main clauses - or indeed whether you can do it with a dash or a full stop!

‘He grabbed his collar, he knew it was a crazy thing to do but he did it all same.’
‘He grabbed his collar; he knew it was a crazy thing to do but he did it all the same.’
‘He grabbed his collar - he knew it was a crazy thing to do but he did it all the same.’
‘He grabbed his collar. He knew it was a crazy thing to do but he did it all the same.’


Let’s be quite clear – these are all acceptable. They are all OK ways to punctuate. There is no absolute single right or wrong way out of these four possibilities.

Grammar is not an absolute set of fixed rules – it’s a set of loose conventions for making meaning in a written format which helps text approximate to spoken language. Breaking down the mechanics of how language works is a complex task of linguistic analysis which codifies patterns into seemingly fixed rules called Grammar. But in a living language, it’s a very fluid and unstable system!

Asking children as young as ten and 11 to get involved in this type of practice, where language is stripped of its context and purpose of making meaning and deconstructed into simple rules, is the same sort of mentality that has over-emphasised synthetic phonics as a way of creating technical decoders rather than effective users and consumers of written language.

It is something we shall be returning to. Watch this space.

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