Exclusive: Primary grammar tests are like corporal punishment, children's author says

Michael Morpurgo argues that the school system is wrong to focus on grammar before children have had a chance to develop a love of words

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Taking the government’s key stage 2 spelling, punctuation and grammar tests is the modern-day equivalent of being beaten with a ruler, according to bestselling children’s author Michael Morpurgo.

"The way that I grew up, in the 1940s and ’50s – that’s where we’re back to now,” the 72-year-old former children’s laureate said. “It was about testing, success and failure, and the consequent punishments. 

“The punishment is different now – it was a ruler on the back of your hand then. But if you create tests, then you create successes and failures. It’s the same thing. It’s a sense of corralling children, somehow, instead of letting their creativity grow.”

Morpurgo is best known as the author of children’s books such as War Horse and Private Peaceful. He spoke to TES as part of this week’s special edition, focused on the teaching and learning of grammar.

“The whole notion of these kinds of grammatical concepts being important at that age – I just think it’s weird,” he said, referring to the technical terms used in the new grammar curriculum and tests for 11-year-olds.

“Things like parsing [analysing the grammar of a piece of text, as examined in the new tests] – I used to be terrified of that,” Morpurgo added. “I could never do that, and it put me off writing."

“It’s putting the cart before the horse. That’s where we’re going wrong, and overdoing it time and time again. Putting the cart before the horse, and horses really don’t like it behind carts, it has to be said.”

'Give children a love of words'

But Morpurgo stressed that he is not arguing that grammar should not be taught: just that timing is vital. “The whole purpose of language is to communicate,” he said. “It’s really important that they learn grammar and punctuation, in order to communicate. It’s simply a question of when and how. 

“It needs to be based on a love of reading, and a love of stories, and a love of writing. Then the whole thing comes alive.

“Far better to give children a love of words, and then come to the grammar later. Then, they’ll say, ‘Ooh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know it worked like that’.”

Ultimately, Morpurgo believes, policymakers need to ask themselves what the purpose of education is. “Yes, you can teach to the test – get our children as successful as South Koreans are – but there’s something about the whole child that’s missing there. We want children to grow up thinking, questioning.”

Schools minister Nick Gibb said that the best results were achieved by those schools that encouraged voracious and challenging reading. “We want pupils’ imaginations to be inspired,” he said. 

This is an edited version of an article in the 5 August edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click hereThis week's TES magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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