Monday 28 March 2016

Michael Rosen spatchcocks SPAG

Government testing demands create a testing industry

Michael Rosen, broadcaster and children's author, has offered the text below to anyone campaigning on the current revised SATs and curriculum for primary schools.  I know SPAG is causing great stress for pupils and teachers, as well as those parents trying to help their children:

Nick Gibb has been on talking about how they've brought grammar back into schools. Please feel free to use any or all of the below as part of any campaign to oppose the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar tests. 

1. Grammar was hardly taught in state primary schools in the 1950s. it was saved till secondary schools and then it was mostly in grammar schools,and top stream in secondary modern schools i.e. for about one third of all pupils, max.The most that was taught in primary schools, when I was at school, was noun, verb, adjective, adverb - not even subject, verb, object. I publicly call on him to show otherwise, by referring to the 11plus exams of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. (I have now provided an example of these in another post here on Facebook. It confirms that many of the terms used in the SPaG were not used in the 1950s and that the questions were, as I remembered them, 'filling in the missing word' and identifying words that exemplified the most common terms.)

2. The grammar that was taught in grammar schools in the 1950s and early 60s was discontinued because after 25 years of O-level exams no evidence was found that teaching that kind of grammar was helping school students to write better. The evidence for this was in the O-level exam results themselves where no correlations were found between the 'grammar question' and the 'composition' question.

3. The grammar that Nick Gibb et al have introduced into schools is not there because anyone can or has shown that it improves children's writing. All it can ever show is that pupils incorporate elements of the grammar into their writing in formulaic, mechanical ways e.g. by random and artificial insertion of 'fronted adverbials', 'embedded relative clauses' and 'expanded noun phrases'.

4. The grammar they have introduced was only introduced because the Bew Report of 2011 said that it produced right/wrong answers in test situations. This is not true. It doesn't, as evidenced by the number of questions that produce several possible answers.

5. This kind of grammar is not directly related to how children and adults are using words and language as a whole. A good deal of it is made up of artificial sentences which children have to use to spot parts of speech. There is an alternative to this. It involves observing real language in use, how writers and speakers are using it to communicate and express themselves. It then can involve a combination of imitation, adaptation, invention and a limited amount of naming of parts.

6. Several of the categories in this government directed grammar are heavily disputed by grammarians. It's dishonest to pretend to children and teachers that they are not. It is also dishonest to pretend to children, parents and teachers that there are people who produce a fault-free way of speaking and writing. We all make errors and slips. We vary from each other in how we speak and write. That is because language is one kind of human behaviour so there is no reason to expect that it will be any more uniform than our clothes or our ways of dancing.

7. Our children are being put under stress to get difficult, abstract concepts learned off for these tests. It is very doubtful that many of them will understand the concepts being taught. This is evidenced by the fact that people who write the test papers and the homework booklets themselves don't appear to understand all the concepts involved. Part of the problem here is that the concepts themselves are nowhere near as watertight as it is claimed. `Language is far from suitable as a site for coming up with yes/no, right/wrong categories. Most linguists know this.


Philip Grant said...

As one of those who sat a 11+ at the end of the 1950's, and went on to study grammar (as part of a much wider "English Language" subject) at a provincial Grammar School, I think that I am entitled to an opinion on this.

We weren't taught grammar at Primary school, although we did have spelling tests and basic punctuation was taught as part of short pieces that we wrote. What we were encouraged to do was to read, as much as we were able, and to write short stories.

It was THAT which gave me a love of language, not any formal teaching of the rules of grammar. I have kept that love of reading and writing since my Primary school years, six decades ago. In all the millions of words I have written since the 1950's, I am sure that I have made some mistakes in spelling, grammar and punctuation. Sometimes I have knowingly "broken the rules", in order to emphasise a point (like starting a sentence with 'But ...', or writing a short sentence without a verb - my grammar school English teacher might turn in his grave, although I suspect that he would forgive the occasional lapse, in encouraging self-expression).

Teaching children, with a view to positive "test" results, may well be stifling the language skills of future generations. Far better for them to be allowed to grow to love language, by learning because they enjoy reading and writing.


Nan. said...

I think an off-putting element for children of learning foreign languages, is having to grapple with learning grmmar concepts whilst struggling with absorbing strange vocabulary. Much easier if these were taught (at some reasonable level) in English lessons.

Of course, in schools with high levels of EAL (English as an additional language) pupils, I have constantly advocated the use of those teaching techniques deployed successfully in international schools rather than slavishly following a curriculum designed for classrooms in say, Wiltshire.