Geoff Barton: Testing times over grammar

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I think we can all agree that accurate grammar, punctuation and spelling are A Very Good Thing.

In fact, we can’t really write without them. Even the smallest mark on the page can make a big difference. Take the contrast between a ‘man eating chicken’ and a ‘man-eating chicken’. That tiny hyphen makes all the difference to what we mean.

Listening to some critics, you’d think that teachers these days never instruct students in using sentence structure or adjectives or ways of remembering how to spell ‘necessary’ or the many other topics that teachers cover every day.

Hardly a day goes by without someone lamenting falling standards of writing or complaining of slovenly speech. Here’s one: ‘Give us more English! Do not let our young men and women grow up in ignorance of their mother tongue’.

That was Professor Morgan Hart in 1891.

Even the most linguistically confident of us will have our blind spots. Should we put an apostrophe in 1970’s? What’s the difference between ‘imply’ and ‘infer’? Should there be a full stop after an abbreviation like ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’.

Language changes. In Shakespeare’s time the apostrophe wasn’t yet used, nor was spelling standardised. That explains why the great writer spelt his own name up to 20 different ways.

Language also matters. We are judged by how we use it. And that (notice how I’ve outrageously broken that old rule about not starting a sentence with ‘and’) is one reason we must relentlessly teach young people to become accurate and stylish users of English.

The question, of course, is how best to do that.

This week, thousands of Year 6 pupils, in primary and middle schools across our county, have been sitting a new 45-minute test of grammar and 15-minute spelling exam. Suffolk MP and education minister Liz Truss says boldly that these will ‘raise standards’.

Many readers will applaud the idea of a national test which gets children filling in gaps in sentences like this with ‘I’ or ‘me’:

n I wanted my mum to watch ____ in the school play.

n After we went cycling, Emma and ____ were very tired.

The trouble is, though, that these tests exist in a sealed world rather than the real one. For example, in one sample test pupils were asked to put these words together to make a proper sentence: ‘pen the my in sheep is’.

One child wrote: ‘My pen is in the sheep’. It’s difficult to argue that the sentence is ungrammatical.

As someone who has written English textbooks for almost 30 years, I know that being able to fill gaps in a text or to write down spellings in a shiny answer book aren’t the same as being able to write accurately in the real world.

We know from very sound research that reading and writing are both linked to high quality speaking. If you want your child to be successful in life, the most important time you can spend by the age of six is in talking, having conversations. Eating together as a family, regularly and as part of a routine, may be the most important investment you make in your child’s future.

Similarly, establishing a reading habit early on, reading together and talking about what you’ve just read – these build a children’s concentration and nourish their imagination.

So will this week’s grammar, punctuation and spelling tests help children to become better readers and writers? Of course not. They will merely help them to pass tests. That’s why it’s a bit of a gamble by the government and a potential distraction for Year 6 teachers who may end up – yet again – feeling that they are merely teaching children to pass a test.

Personally, I’d prefer our young people to be able to read and write accurately and precisely in the world of real, if sometimes messy, language choices, and just to fill gaps in a madcap test.