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This debate on grammar is a real screamer!

The controversy over primary assessment rumbles on

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It is now a statutory requirement to introduce children in Year 6 to fronted adverbials. I’m not sure how many adults have had that particular pleasure; not many, I’d wager. If you were to ask me, I think I’d far prefer to get to know a dangling modifier, which sounds a darn sight more interesting.

In the past couple of years, pupils in primary school have had a number of grammatical hoops to jump through, including learning how to use the passive and the subjunctive (more often wrong than right in most publications – there’s a great exercise in spotting and correcting those). To reach the “expected standard” for writing by the end of Year 6, children will have to be able to spell most of the 200 words on the government’s wordlists. Some, however, will never manage: they are the children with dyslexia, who are doomed to failure because no allowance will be made for them (see page 6 in this week's TES magazine).

It is important that children learn about grammar and good writing, but the age at which this is taught and the complexity of what is now expected is a sticking point – and many in the sector feel that it has gone too far. “A 10-year-old being able to spot the subjunctive will not improve children’s reading and writing, let alone enrich their lives,” says Pie Corbett, the literacy expert who advised the Blair government’s National Literacy Strategy on introducing grammar into schools.

We have to find an elegant way of assessing children, he says. And Dame Alison Peacock, executive head at Wroxham School and a government adviser, may be just the woman to do it. She has launched #learningfirst, a grassroots collaboration of teachers looking to improve assessment and support one another in these stressful times (page 14). More power to her and all those joining her in this school-led solution.

Punctuation hasn’t been forgotten in this assessment circus. Children at the end of primary school are expected to know how to use a semi-colon – and not just as a winky face in a text message. The comma as a thousands separator has caused a few ripples, but nothing like the waves generated by the exclamation mark in national newspapers last weekend. The suggestion that the marking guidance on grammar tests for seven-year-olds bans exclamation marks except in sentences starting with “How” or “What” prompted outrage from journalists, which is odd since newspapers severely ration their use, too.

Schools minister Nick Gibb, no doubt stunned by this outpouring of affection for the punctuation mark, known as a “screamer” in printing circles, says that the guidance has been “wilfully misunderstood” and that pupils will not be marked down for using an exclamation mark for emphasis.

There is no doubt that Mr Gibb cares about children’s literacy levels, but it’s quite extraordinary that a minister gets so involved in the detail of policy delivery to this degree.

It’s often said that what’s good about Mr Gibb is that he has the ministerial position that he really wants, and what’s bad about him is that he has the ministerial position that he really wants. It is obvious that he cares passionately about these matters and very much wants to encourage a love of reading and writing among children, as evidenced by the list of children’s classics he was so active in issuing recently.

It would be both sad and ironic if the clearly rushed reforms (another clarification, anyone?) in which he has been so instrumental end up achieving the opposite.


This is an article from the 11 March edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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