More marks will be given for grammar, spelling and punctuation in the assessment of next May's key stage 3 English tests and a separate half-hour test on the same skills is being piloted, with a view to making this paper compulsory in 1998, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is telling schools in a letter this week.
The new emphasis is a response to the growing concern, shared by Secretary of State Gillian Shephard, about levels of pupils' literacy, though any plans for 1998 are subject to the outcome of the general election.
Nevertheless, the reaction of the National Association for the Teaching of English was one of dismay. Anne Barnes, NATE's general secretary, said: "This raises tremendous alarm bells and we are very worried about it."
She said teachers would feel this was a totally pointless way of trying to improve punctuation, grammar and spelling and it may have a destructive effect if teaching methods were geared to the tests.
"We do agree we need to work out better strategies for teaching these skills, but this is not the way. The way to improve is to teach children through what they themselves write and show them the mistakes. If you set a lot of grammar, punctuation and spelling exercises, the children can't transfer the skills they learn into their own writing, so it's pointless."
But Alastair West, the SCAA professional officer for English responsible for the tests, said: "Understanding the underlying structure of language helps pupils choose the most effective way to express what they wish to say. Including explicit tests of these skills gives a clear signal to pupils that accuracy in writing is important."
SCAA will be conducting a survey of teachers' knowledge of grammar and their teaching of it, in order to determine what additional action may be needed to support a change in test arrangements. The Secretary of State has asked SCAA to liaise closely with the Teacher Training Agency and any findings from the survey may prove useful in the attempt to draft a national curriculum for initial teacher training.
A further disappointment for many English teachers is that for the time-being the key stage 3 Shakespeare paper will continue to be set and marked externally rather than by teachers. This decision is the result of trialling, commissioned by SCAA, of different ways of assessing pupils' understanding and response to the plays.
The trials were carried out with 2,000 pupils in 30 schools. But though the model closest to teacher assessment was indeed found to be the most popular among teachers, it did not seem to provide sufficiently standardised assessment and it was found that many teachers lacked confidence in devising appropriately pitched tasks.
SCAA is, however, going to offer further guidance on task setting and marking to develop teachers' expertise and the progress of development work in this area will influence consideration of future arrangements. Anne Barnes remains hopeful that teacher assessment will be possible in the long term.
SCAA will also be seeking feedback from schools on whether some of the three set Shakespeare tests should be changed for 1998.