Testing grammar to destruction

A recent post argued that the new National Curriculum works on the flawed assumption that children need to be taught hundreds of complex rules in order to speak, read and write well.

The problems in the new KS1 and KS2 tests are not simply the result of poor test construction, but are inherent in this imposed curriculum and in the mindset of the politicians who think they know better than teachers.

We continue this argument here with extracts from a set of pamphlets published by the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) and the National Association of Advisers in English (NAAE).


Cartoon by Polly Donnison

Competence in language precedes analysis of language

The National Curriculum’s approach to the initial teaching of reading and to the teaching of spelling and grammar at Key Stages 1 and 2 is based on a flawed understanding of learning in these years: one that imagines that analytical instruction is a prerequisite for competence. Competence in language precedes analysis of language, not the other way round.

The teaching of grammar is a valuable and interesting activity, so long as it is pitched at an appropriate level of difficulty for the learners in a class, so long as it occurs in the context of the study of worthwhile texts, and so long as it engages learners actively in investigating language in use. Grammar teaching out of the context of pupils’ broader language learning is useless.

Key Stages 1 and 2

In the areas of reading, writing and grammar at Key Stages 1 and 2, the government has made the mistake of imagining that prior, analytical instruction in the primary years will produce 11-year-olds who can read fluently and accurately, write correctly, and use correct grammar in their speech and writing. The evidence for this assertion is to be seen in the long lists of grapho-phonic correspondences, spelling rules and grammatical concepts and terminology in the new National Curriculum documents.

To be clear: we are not saying that it is impossible to analyse the activities of reading, writing and the use of grammar in order more clearly to understand how they work. Professionals working in these areas should be able to do these things… Once learners have acquired a degree of competence in any aspect of language, they can certainly be helped to reflect on that competence, to look at it objectively. This reflection will often involve analysis, abstraction. But the competence, in whatever degree, must be there first.

The folly of the government’s statutes in the areas of reading, writing and grammar is compounded by the fact that the heavier load of pre-competence analytical learning is required of the youngest learners.


Grammar at Key Stages 1 and 2

Appendix 2 of the new National Curriculum orders for English, on vocabulary, grammar and punctuation, which is statutory and which applies principally to Key Stages 1 and 2, begins thus:

The grammar of our first language is learnt naturally and implicitly through interactions with other speakers and from reading… (Department for Education, 2014b: 75)

Perfectly true.

Explicit knowledge of grammar is, however, very important, as it gives us more conscious control and choice in our language… Once pupils are familiar with a grammatical concept [for example ‘modal verb’], they should be encouraged to apply and explore this concept in the grammar of their own speech and writing and to note where it is used by others. (ibid.: 75)

This is much more dubious.

In particular, it is not the case that, once learners have been taught about modal verbs as a category, they will make more sophisticated and correct use of modals in their writing. Such an expectation yet again demonstrates a back-to-front view of how competence develops.

Metalinguistic overload

In the new orders for Key Stages 1 and 2, there is an extraordinary overload of metalinguistic concepts and grammatical categories to be taught explicitly.

  • At Year 1, children must learn about plural noun suffixes and that the prefix un– changes the meaning of verbs and adjectives.
  • In Year 2, they must learn subordination and noun phrases.
  • In Year 3, as well as learning about conjunctions, adverbs and prepositions, they must understand the use of the present perfect tense and take their understanding of subordination as far as the concept of the subordinate clause.
  • Year 4 pupils must know about fronted adverbials and determiners.
  • Relative clauses and cohesion are statutory for Year 5 pupils, while at Year 6 they must be introduced to the passive voice and to ellipsis. The subjunctive makes an entry in the upper years of Key Stage 2…

The above is a small selection from the statutory requirements for grammar. This formidable set of new responsibilities for teachers is accompanied by a (non-statutory) glossary of terms (Department for Education, 2013c) which, taken as a whole, could usefully serve as part of the syllabus of an A-level course in language and linguistics…

This will not work. Most teachers will do their best to meet statutory requirements, as they always have done, but a price will be paid. Too much time will be given up to separate grammar teaching at an unrealistically advanced level, at the expense of time given to the teaching of writing.

See also a previous post by one of the authors John Richmond.

Thanks to Polly Donnison – your cartoon says it all! 

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