Analysis shows trauma of spelling

29th November 1996 at 00:00
This week the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority ran through some of the strengths and weaknesses revealed in a preliminary analysis of the tests. A full analysis will be available in the new year.



Girls continue to do considerably better than boys in English. Boys were disadvantaged by primary schools' reluctance to use more non-fiction books.

"Schools have done fairly well in their non-fiction work, but we felt they could do better," says David Hawker, assistant chief executive at the SCAA. "There's mainly patchy coverage of non-fiction material at this key stage. Traditionally pupils have been taught to read through stories. What we found last year was that boys tended to do well using non-fiction. We are finding the same this year."

Seven-year-olds need encouragement to go beyond a literal level of understanding.


When children write stories, they use stock, "once upon a time" frameworks. SCAA wants to see a range of starting points. Non-fiction writing tends to be weak.

Standards of handwriting have been significantly improved: handwriting is now specifically taught as part of the national curriculum.


SCAA found that children used predominately phonic strategies. "Our concern is that they need to learn spelling patterns in addition to phonetic strategies, " says Mr Hawker. "Sometimes phonic strategies are sending them in the wrong direction. Spelling needs to be taught through a structured approach, taking in spelling patterns and the learning of words as well as phonics."

Long vowels and double consonants were both areas of difficulty. The hardest word of all was "picture".


There have been improvements in maths thanks to greater concentration on the subject. But while there was good work done with basic numbers, pupils were weak at handling larger figures.

There was also an over-reliance on apparatus - buttons and building blocks, for example. "Children are being held back because they're using the apparatus simply to count rather than to understand the principles like addition and multiplication," says Mr Hawker. "We need to teach children to use equipment properly."

The broader expressions of maths, such as spacial patterns, were under-developed. Children were also reluctant to write down their workings.



Most children at key stage 2 are relatively sound readers. More attention should be paid to reading for interpretation. Children should be able to discuss the implications of what they are reading. They proved able to do the information retrieval questions. But they were less secure when asked to interpret different levels of meaning.


Children were good at organising chronological writing. But any other kind presented difficulties. Children are essentially learning to read and write with stories. SCAA believes they need a broader repertoire.

Children's use of dialogue in fiction was shaky, in particular the handling of indirect speech. There were also problems with punctuation; the over-use of exclamation marks; and weak paragraphing.

Pupils were good with adjectives, but poor at using metaphor. "We feel children are capable of more colourful, creative use of language if they're taught it," says Mr Hawker.


Spelling was not a function of ability. Mistakes were not related to children's levels of achievement; which is to say that all children made the same sort of error. Only the quantity of mistakes varied with ability. "Beautiful" is misspelt at levels 3, 4 and 5. "The message is that spelling can be taught and corrected," says SCAA. "The teaching does make a difference. "


Number work is reasonably well done. But children do not use calculators properly. As a result, they use them instead of developing their mental arithmetic. "There needs to be some teaching of how to use a calculator effectively and when to use one," says Mr Hawker. "Largely speaking, children need to develop the basics. If they're using a calculator as a substitute, then it's wrong."

There is an improvement in addition and subtraction. Multiplication and division still cause problems, particularly the inverse relationship between these two. There is also a lack of confidence with decimals (28 divided by 10 was computed at 2 remainder 8) and confusion about the relationship between fractions, percentages and decimals.

In algebra, children could cope with the simpler questions, but their ideas of substitution were less well developed. Data handling showed a distinct improvement.


Science showed steady progress. Children need to use scientific vocabulary. Also they need encouragement in recording, interpreting and understanding the results of their work.

Life processes and living things were well done. There were also improvements in physics this year although children's grasp of concepts such as mass and force remains weak.



There were some very well written answers in the Shakespeare paper. Pupils were well prepared, knew their set texts and produced organised answers demonstrating a wide vocabulary. Pupils are being taught to marshal arguments using quotation and reference.

There are some grammatical weaknesses, subjectverb agreement, for example, and double negatives. Spelling repeated the problems of earlier key stages.

SCAA is hoping for some more focused work on spelling, grammar and punctuation.


Children found difficulty with multiplication and division in the non-calculator paper - illustrating, says SCAA, the need for such a paper. The use of algebra remains weak. Fourteen-year-olds continue to have a poor understanding of fractions. "A lot of the simple number work is very sound, " says Mr Hawker. "It's when you get into fractions and calculations involving a number of steps that things start to break down."

The conversion of imperial to metric is weak. Symmetry is well done.


The strengths are in life processes and living things. Sexual reproduction in plants was not well understood. Some physics topics such as electro-magnetism and the Earth in space are also weak.

"There has been no major change in either maths or science," says Mr Hawker. "I personally regard that as slightly disappointing. There is however evidence that the tests are helping teachers to think more clearly about what they are teaching."

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